The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies by Robert Kirk

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
by Robert Kirk
New York Review of Books Classics, 2019

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies by Robert Kirk

Writing in The Discarded Image, his overview of medieval and renaissance literature, C.S. Lewis notes that the longaevi, or long-livers, were often singled out by medieval and renaissance sources as “perhaps the only creatures to whom the [Medieval] Model does not assign, as it were, an official status.” For medieval writers, in whom the classificatory and systematizing drives were ascendant, the longaevi—or fairies, as we’d ordinarily call them (Lewis’s moniker is an attempt to give the slip to our modern preconceptions of the fey folk)—were boundary-eluding beings, points of random energy in a mechanized universe. “They soften the classic severity of the huge design,” Lewis writes, “intrud[ing] a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.”

Although Lewis’s explanation of the fairies’ ontological status doesn’t map perfectly onto the theoretical work of Robert Kirk (1644–1692), the seventeenth-century Scottish folklorist and minister who composed The Secret Commonwealth, it does serve as a helpful entrée into the value and purpose of Kirk’s work. In this new reissue, Kirk emerges from Marina Warner’s sterling introduction as a hero of down-to-earth enlightenment, possessed of “a benign and tolerant delight in the breadth of human understanding, imaginings, and possibility.” What’s remarkable, as Warner points out time and time again, is that Kirk held to this broadmindedness in the midst of a dangerously superstitious age, one in which witch hunts were all the rage and the English sovereign James I felt comfortable composing and publishing his Daemonologie. In Warner’s view, Kirk’s “capacity to question wonderingly...made him, during a lifetime when religious dissension continued to scar society, a proponent of curiosity as a form of tolerance.”

At first blush, what’s striking about The Secret Commonwealth is the strange poetry of its language. Warner thoughtfully aligns Kirk with other mystic souls of the period, like Thomas Browne, whose ancient, belichened sensibilities put him at odds with empiricist figures like David Hume. Kirk’s writing, though less polished, is obviously of a piece with Browne’s. There’s a deep age to the language, and a hoary brume seems to waft up from the sentences, as though they were suspended above cavernous depths. When Kirk describes the “light, changeable bodies (like those called astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in twilight” of the fairies, and later on refers to their “bodies of congealed air,” he adopts a scientific diction. Coupled with the dusky slant of his sensibilities, this word choice is indicative of the age’s passionate pursuit of the metaphysical through objective means. This was a time, as Warner explains, when a figure like Robert Hooke could argue that new optical technologies might “restore the perfect faculties which Adam and Eve had enjoyed before the Fall.”

The attributes of the fairies that Kirk singles out are often chosen for their seemingly scientific basis, while at the same time Kirk’s language christens them further as explicable phenomena. The fairies’ ardor for distillation, for example, is frequently singled out. “Some have bodies or vehicles so spongeous, thin, and defaecat,” Kirk writes, “that they are fed only by sucking into some fine spirituous liquor that pierces like pure air and oil.” From cows they’ve killed the fairies take “the airy and ethereal parts, the most spirituous matter for prolonging of life,” and derive from the breast milk of mothers a finer pap:

They feed mostwhat on quintessences and ethereal essences: the pith and spirits only of women’s milk feed their children, being artificially conveyed (as air and oil sink into our bodies) to make them vigorous and fresh. And this shorter way of conveying a pure aliment (without the usual digestions), by transfusing it and transpiring through the pores into the veins and arteries and vessels that supply the body, is nothing more absurd than an infant's being fed by the navel before it is born...

Later, a homely image crops up when Kirk describes the fairies’ food being “conveyed to their homes by secret a great distance by art, magic, or by drawing a spigot fastened in a post, which will bring milk as far off as a bull will be heard to roar.” This actio in distans, or action at a distance, seems a parody of the philosophical obsession with the same concept. Here the fairies casually employ a famous impossibility for the mundane task of carting their milk. 

In many ways Kirk’s fairies are familiar creatures. Fugacious, airy, and changeful, slung between two states of being, they reside in caverns and caves, keep their workshops buried deep below the marl where they forge their subtle weapons, hold their bountiful sabbaths at dusk. Their actions are pervaded by a curious sorrow, as though their refined material presence necessarily engenders an equally refined sadness, a filamental weariness. The atomies of spinning dust that captivated the Victorian imagination are nowhere in sight. Instead, Kirk’s spirits are notably terrene, tethered not only to place, but to period as well. “Their apparel and speech is like that of the people and country under which they live,” he explains, “so are they seen to wear plaids and variegated garments in the Highlands of Scotland and suanochs heretofore in Ireland.” 

There’s a deep, humanist value to be found in Kirk’s investigations, as Warner points out. “Inquiring into folklore, penetrating to the depths of beliefs, fears, and even madness,” she writes, “redrafted the contours of experience and consciousness in such a way as to require some kind of intelligent, sympathetic, reflective response.” The very same talent Kirk had for synthesis—comfortably embosoming his fairy lore within a Christianized worldview—shines a light on the double-nature of the man, a split that finds its fulfillment in the odd circumstances surrounding his death. Most likely, Kirk, who liked to take evening strolls in his nightgown, was struck dead by an apoplexy in the middle of a field. But another interpretation took hold after his passing, one in which Kirk, having stepped on a fairy mound, was instantly ushered out of this world by the fey folk, who whisked him away in a quiet, moonlit whirl of cloth. 

In his essay on the longaevi, Lewis describes the medieval and renaissance periods’ manifold attempts to classify the fairies. Medieval man—“an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems,” yet at the same time a fairly hapless lumper and splitter—worked away at this taxonomy, his ceaseless effort a clear sign of the fairies’ vitality and significance. This importance of fairies to intellectual culture as a whole would of course attenuate over time, and in one sense Kirk’s text is a bit of a last hurrah. Eventually, the longaevi would be debased by the Victorian vision, in which they became insectal, gauzy-winged riders of acorn chariots and wielders of wheat-stalk spears. In Kirk, however, the fey folk are still vital, sovereign, and just as elusive as they were always meant to be. Kirk’s pneumatology isn’t really meant to provide an exhaustive taxonomy of the fey folk, but rather to assert their existence and integrate them into a larger model of the world. He wanted, in other words, to give the flighty little things their due. 

—Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.