MNC Book Report: two works by Katharine Briggs

I’m falling a bit behind on reporting my research, so I’ll cover these two books in one post. They really belong together, anyway.

The one I read first was The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. It’s a good focus on British Isles fairy-lore (as distinct from fairy-tales), and Briggs is pretty good about flagging the region a given detail belongs to, for which I am very grateful; I’m specifically after English fairy-lore here, as opposed to the much more well-known Scottish and Irish and even Welsh materials, so it’s good to know where I should be drawing my mental boundaries.

This book is organized mostly by issues, with chapters like “The Host of the Dead,” “Fairy Plants,” “Changelings and Midwives,” and so on. The big benefit for me is that this gave me the perfect way to think about recurrent tropes in fairy-lore, and how I want to reinterpret them for the purposes of my own work. I have certain ideas now, for example, about why exactly fairies were so fond of certain human foods, and what it is about gifts of clothing that seems to piss off brownies.

The second book is British Folk-Tales and Legends, and it makes a good companion to the first. Redacted from a longer version called The Dictionary of British Folk-Tales and Legends, it’s basically a collection of primary sources (sometimes simplified or summarized, sometimes given in their entirety, dialect and all), organized once again into categories. A bunch of the sections I skipped entirely, like “Fables and Exempla” or “Jocular Tales,” but there are categories for black dogs, bogies, devils, dragons, fairies, ghosts, and giants, all of which are quite handy. And a great many of the stories in here are referenced in the other book, so it’s nice to have it on hand for cross-referencing. Bonus points to Briggs for having the right attitude about her categories: they’re there to help the reader find what they’re looking for, but she acknowledges where appropriate the difficulty of distinguishing one type of story from another, and the ways in which they continually muddle up one’s boundaries.

I’ve got one more Briggs book coming my way, The Anatomy of Puck, which should specifically focus on the fairy-lore of Shakespeare’s time. With that, I should be more or less set with my fairy research, except for one out-of-print book that costs something like eighty dollars for a used copy, which I will probably check out from the IU library at some point.

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