What Does A Brain Surgeon Know About Fairies, Anyway?

As a neurosurgeon, it would have been nice if a colleague could have inserted a wire-thin electrode into one of the creative centers of my brain. When he turned on the juice, elegant prose would have flowed out of my fingertips and onto the computer screen.

Unfortunately, deep brain stimulation hasn’t advanced quite that far. Therefore, my career as a brain surgeon didn’t help me to write The Never King any more than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work in a customs house helped him to write The Scarlet Letter.

What did help me to write The Never King is my long-standing interest in the legend of King Arthur and in Celtic folklore in general, including the Celtic “fairy faith” (which is a religion that’s older than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Indeed, I’ve gradually assembled a considerable library of the classic works on those topics and they are the source of most of the ancient beliefs, fanciful tales, and Celtic arcana that are resurrected into the modern world in my novel.

So far, most of the reviews say that I’m a solid writer, so where did a neurosurgeon acquire that skill? Well, I began to acquire it almost 50 years ago when one of my high school English teachers took an interest in paring down my style in order to make it clearer and more direct. In the ensuring years, I was successful in writing a couple of dozen medical and scientific papers and even a text book. However, I’ve always had an active imagination and love to make up fantastic stories just to entertain myself. Therefore, it was almost inevitable that I’d eventually try my hand at a novel.

In writing this novel, I violated many of the rules that are followed by professional writers. For example, I didn’t outline the book or even write a plot summary that could be gradually expanded. Instead, I started with the first sentence and then tried to let my imagination do the rest. It was like sitting in a darkened theater watching a movie unfold. I simply wrote down what I saw. Sometimes the movie took the form of a dream that I scribbled down when I awoke before I could forget it. At other times the images suddenly came to me in unguarded moments like when I was showering or petting one of my four black cats. Frankly, dreaming up the plot was the easy part. The hard part was editing my narrative so that my words didn’t get in the way of the story.

And for that I got professional help. I found an uncommonly bright young lady who had once worked for some literary agents and who was willing to read several drafts of my novel and offer her criticisms. She seldom made suggestions regarding individual words or sentences but instead focused on the pace of the novel and the development of the characters. In hindsight I’d say that she acted less like an editor and more like a reader or, to put it another way, she gave me the feedback of a one-woman focus group. Because of her efforts, The Never King became tighter and I learned some key lessons that I won’t soon forget. (For example, I learned that you have to be willing to delete the best lines that you ever wrote if they do nothing to develop the characters or move the story along.)

Are Elves and Fairies the Same?

Are Elves and Fairies the same?

The short answer is that they have often interchangeable since the end of the Middle Ages and particularly since Victorian times. Indeed, there’s good evidence that J.R.R. Tolkien seriously considered calling the inhabitants of Rivendell fairies rather than elves but was deterred by some colleagues. (According to a Wikipedia entry, that was because of a growing association between the word “fairy” and homosexuality, although that seems a silly reason to me, given the fact that fairies had long been beloved creatures in the folklore of the world.)

The long answer is more complicated. Originally, fairies and elves were culturally distinct creatures with different personalities. Elves originated in Northern Europe in German (Teutonic) and Scandinavian (Norse) cultures. Over the centuries they evolved into grumpy, mischievous, and even sinister creatures. Indeed, that’s what they were when they were introduced into Celtic culture by invading tribes from Europe (such as the Vikings and the Saxons).

But the Celtic concepts of elves and fairies also had other influences. According to the Rev. Charles Rogers – a former historiographer to the Historical Society of Great Britain – the early Celts came into contract with Persian mythology, presumably through commerce. That mythology included a creature called a “peri” (which, again according to Rogers, is pronounced “fairy” in Arabic). Although the peri were said to be fallen angels (and thus were originally somewhat evil), they evolved into creatures that were kindly and helpful. In that respect – and in the fact that they were ethereal and had wings – they obviously differed from elves. Yet they were similar to elves in that they occupied a position in Creation that was above that of man.

So at least according to Rogers, the Celtic concept of fairies evolved from both Northern European and Persian-Oriental influences. Of course, scholars since Rogers’ time (he lived in the Victorian era) have had some very different theories about the origin of Celtic fairies. The issue is further complicated by the fact that there’s no universal concept of either an elf or a fairy. For example, Thistle – the heroine of The Never King – is clearly a fairy, yet she doesn’t fly around on gossamer wings. Although wings are almost a requirement for a fairy in modern Western culture, it wasn’t always that way. Indeed, wings became closely associated with fairies only in Victorian and Edwardian times. (Think Tinkerbell in James Barrie’s Peter Pan.)

By the way, if you wish to get a vivid look at “life and manners” in Scotland (and in Great Britain as a whole) during the last few centuries, I can strongly recommend Rev. Roger’s Scotland: Social and Domestic. It is chock full of anecdotes and personalities that would otherwise be lost to history and it really brings the past alive in a way that no history book can. If you’re at all curious, look it up on Google Books and just scan the Table of Contents to see if you’re interested. Personally, I used the chapters on folklore and superstition for The Gudeman’s Croft – the sequel to The Never King and the second book in The Keeper of the Wood trilogy.

Signs Before Death

In my previous post, I referred to the fact that all of the false sightings and fabricated encounters with fairies that have been recorded over the centuries don’t negate the possibility that some sightings and encounters have been real. The author of a curious volume –Signs Before Death (1825) – put it more eloquently, although he was talking about the existence of ghosts:

“But now it has become fashionable to discredit the theory of apparitions. This may in some degree be attributed to the mummery and mysticism with which the records of such circumstances have been encumbered. They have supplied the imagery of poetry, and have been so mixed up with well-wrought fiction, so as to have sometimes parted with their matter-of-fact character.”

The author, a Mr. Horace Welby, then proceeds to document one hundred cases of “authenticated apparitions” that were involved in foretelling an unexpected death. These cases have quaint titles like “Warning to James IV, at Linlithgow, as related by Buchanan” and “The Drummer or Demon of Tedworth, Wilts, at the House of Mr. John Mompesson.” Many of these cases involve well known members of the British clergy, military, and nobility during the 16th and 17th centuries.The most interesting of these cases have an odd twist that can send a brief chill down your spine. They can also challenge your inclination to chalk them up to coincidence. The tale of the “seer and the bully” in The Never King is typical of the kind of “omen of death” story that you can find in the pages of British folklore.

It’s worth noting that Signs Before Death was written in an era in which the existence of the supernatural had been largely discredited. For example, the last witch was hanged in Great Britain somewhere around 1722 and in 1735 a Witchcraft Act recognized that witchcraft was an “impossible crime” since no one could actually commune with the devil and cast spells and charms. That act changed the crime from practicing witchcraft to pretending to practice it. As a result, it eliminated the extreme penalties of torture and death. However, you could still be fined and sent to prison. Indeed, as late as the 1940’s people were still being convicted and jailed under that law. Then in 1951 – after more than two centuries – the Witchcraft Act was finally repealed. It was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act which made witchcraft a crime only if you used it to make money by deceiving the gullible (e.g. by fortune-telling). That cleared the way for the emergence of Wicca which is a form of “white” witchcraft and a legitimate religion.

Of course, Thistle and Peter (the main characters in The Never King) would agree that most of the stories of witches and fairies and of ghosts and Second Sight are nothing but nonsense – but not all of them. Or as Hamlet said:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Do Fairies Exist?

A couple of readers who know me have asked whether I honestly think that fairies exist. I originally had a character in The Never King – Al Merlin to be specific – try to answer that question. However, that was one of the many sections that I ultimately deleted because it slowed down the pace of the book. But what Jack said was basically the following:

Over the centuries, most fairy “sightings” have undoubtedly been bogus. Some were due to a few too many pints at the local pub or the need for a dramatic excuse. (“I’m sorry to be getting home so late my dear, but a troll stopped me back at the bridge.”) Other cases probably represented an over-heated imagination, wishful thinking, an infirm mind, or a desire to attract attention. And there has also been a profit motive (if you define profit broadly). The latter was particularly important in the development of magic as we think of it today – i.e. creating the illusion that you’re bending the Laws of Nature.

But the fact that most encounters with fairies have been bogus doesn’t mean that they can’t exist. Furthermore, believing in fairies is less of a leap beyond the laws of modern science than, say, believing in a God who answers prayers, in the miracles of the saints, or in a life after death. And, as Father Agnelli points out in The Never King, perhaps it’s as simple as our losing the capacity to see everything that’s in front of our face. At one time, human beings saw more and there’s no reason to believe that our species was more ignorant or deluded back then. (On the contrary . . .) So the short answer is, I don’t know if there are fairies but I also don’t know that there aren’t. But I firmly believe that there’s more to Creation than meets our jaded, modern eyes.

As the author of the The Never King, I’ve received a number of really intelligent questions about its underlying themes and beliefs. Furthermore, several readers have suggested that I start a blog in order to address them. So here it is. In the coming weeks, I’ll try to answer your questions and also give you a chance to react to what I and others write. Furthermore, I’ll solicit your suggestions for dealing with some the issues that I’m encountering in writing the second book of the trilogy, The Gudeman’s Croft. That might well include providing you with excerpts from the early drafts.

However, I’d like to kick off the blog by commenting on the news on the Fox website that the University of Missouri recently added eight “Wiccan and pagan” holidays to their list of religious “holy days.” The purpose of the list is to designate days on which exams and other major student activities shouldn’t be scheduled. According to the article, some people have criticized the move because Wicca and other neo-pagan faiths are “fringe” religions. Although I’m not a Wiccan or other kind of neo-pagan, I take exception to calling them “fringe” religions. The truth is that nobody knows how many neo-pagans there are. One reason for that is that they generally don’t form big organizations. On the contrary, they usually practice in small groups. (There are even solitary practices.) Another reason is that neo-pagans are often all but invisible. For example, when was the last time you passed a neo-pagan church or temple in your town? When was the last time that a neo-pagan knocked on your door or approached you on the street in order to try to convert you? And if Wicca is a “fringe” religion, why does the U.S. government now allow pentagrams to be carved on the tombstones of military veterans who are buried in national cemeteries?

Yes, there are some religions in this country that have far too few members to justify putting their holidays on a list like the University of Missouri’s. However, Wicca and other major neo-pagan faiths aren’t among them. At least that’s my opinion.