Book review: Magical Folk: British & Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present


Fairies have become a much maligned species in recent centuries. Mention the word to most people and the mental image that springs to mind will most frequently be a diminutive sparkling being reminiscent of Disney’s rendition of J.M. Barrie’s Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. The idea that Fairies are twee, little wish granters perhaps does them a great disservice. That is not to say that fairies do not look like that. They can, if a human mind is faced with something otherworldly, something they have never encountered before, regardless of whether it has a natural or supernatural quality, it will frequently seek a pattern in its memory and recognition facility. If they expect a fairy to look that way, then perhaps they will see it that way. In my own experience, art and contemplation I have a preference for the term Faerie, which although may donate a place or state of consciousness perhaps, rather than an individual race of spirit or being (the naming of which has always been a moot and sometimes dangerous issue, as explained within this book), divorces my mind at least from the sugar plum sentimentality of the subject. The mawkish is however probably as important as the mysterious, for in studying or commenting upon folklore, the cultural set and the individual mindset is very important in the mapping of human experience and interpretation of experience. Simon Young’s exploration of these issues, of which Magical folk is a part, is a very important and intriguing aspect of 21st Century studies of folklore both in a historical and contemporary setting . But now to the book.

Magical Folk edited by Simon Young & Ceri Houlbrook, which features numerous impressive essays by various writers, follows the path trodden by notable folklorist Katherine Briggs, in looking at what fairies reported at different times and different places have in common as well as traits and quirks that tie them to a particular location or moment. It is clear that many of the reported fairies do not have much in common at all with Tinkerbell. My own personal fascination and feeling of fairies leans towards the most odd; the capricious even the sinister.

Chapters are themed according to locality, for the most part different regions of the British Isles, but also there are intriguing accounts from North America. I was aware of the lore of some fay British and Irish entities reputedly flitting west with immigrants to the new worlds of Canada and America and also of the tales of the first nations about their own similar beings, but there is material in here new to me which is a pleasure to read.

Also featured several times in discussion is one of my personal favourite Faerie tales; that of the faerie midwife. If you don’t know it already, then I will leave it for you to read in the book. Needless to say, it is a tale that reveals the capriciousness of the faerie kind and also relates to the concept of Glamour – basically the premise that things may not initially be what they seem.

Joining Simon and Ceri on this enjoyable excursion beyond the mist gates are the current Queen of British folklorists, Jacqueline Simpson and a worthy entourage comprised of Pollyanna Jones, Mark Norman. Jo Hickey-Hall, Richard Sugg, Jeremy Harte, Jenny Butler, Laura Coulson, Richard Suggett, Francesca Bihet, Stephen Miller, Ronald M. James, Peter Muise and Chris Woodyard.

Magical Folk is a pleasure in its own right, but also needs to be seen in the wider context of Simon Young’s work. As well as being the Faerie Correspondent of Fortean Times; he is the resurrection man behind the reprise of the Fairy Investigation Society. In bringing the work of Quentin C.A. Craufurd, bernard Sleigh and especially Marjorie Johnson of the original Fairy Investigation Society to present day attention, he has set the foundations for present and future investigation of the phenomenon – whatever its rhyme or reason. This is an important step, for as the results of Simon’s Fairy Census show, fairy encounters are not a mere thing of nursery tales nor, as the closet minded faction of sceptical thinkers may have it, simply a thing of new age rainbows and glitter self-help books, but a fascinating and important aspect of anthropology, cultural study and investigation into both liminal states and potentials of quantum reality consideration.

But again, Magical Folk is simply a pleasure to read in its own right. 

Magical Folk: British & Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present

edited by Simon Young & Ceri Houlbrook

Gibson Square, £16.99

Available from and other online and actual bookshops.