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.

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.