Supernatural Ch. 13byTonyDowse©
Chapter 13: THE LIBRARIAN
It was my agent's idea that I write the article, and although at the time I thought he'd simply lost his mind, or confused me with another of his clients, in retrospect I have to be eternally grateful to him.
You'll probably understand why my initial reaction was what it was when I tell you that the proposed article was to be on the subject of fairies - yes, that's right, fairies! When I first heard his suggestion my immediate reaction was to just laugh it off as being yet another example of his always slightly sick sense of humour, but then I became rather more concerned when I saw by the expression on his face that he was serious. His logic turned out to be that as a writer who had been successful in popularising the interest in many of the traditional myths and legends the subject should be right up my alley. And given the almost mass hysteria there was at that time for anything even remotely related to fairies, he didn't think he'd have any trouble in selling whatever I had to say on the subject.
Now at that stage I had no idea what he was talking about when he used the phrase 'mass hysteria' but he had a pile of magazines on the desk in front of him and after flipping through a few of those I understood his rationale a little better. I'd had no idea that fairies had developed something verging on a cult-following; that there were shops selling nothing but fairy-items, companies who manufactured fairy-clothes and accessories, others that would organise fairy-parties, magazines devoted to all things fairy. That in fact fairies had become a virtual industry.
Once I began to grasp the implications I understood just what my agent had in mind, and although I was still a little dubious that I was actually the right man for the job I thought that if nothing else, debunking some of the clap-trap that was being circulated might provide me with a bit of fun. So I agreed to spend some time over the following few weeks doing some proper research, then see where that led me, if we got something out of it, good, if not, well I still had enough other work to keep us both going.
He had thoughtfully obtained a few books that he thought might start me off, so having gathered those and a few of the less lurid magazines on his desk I set off to see what else I could find on the subject.
Of course my first stop was the internet, and I was staggered to find that just googling the words 'fairy lore' resulted in over three hundred thousand hits. However, checking out some of the less obviously commercial sites still resulted in me finding people, companies or organisations that were more interested in selling me something than in providing well researched information. So it was back to my tried and true source, the library. Although I have bookshelves full of volumes on my own special subjects there have been many times when I have needed to research some of the more obscure aspects. The library in my nearest major city has usually proved to be of value, and over the years I imagine I have become a familiar figure in both their reference area and its reading room.
Having finished off a couple of the shorter articles I was working on I decided that the following week I would give myself a few days off in the city; I could take in a couple of the shows I had been promising myself and also spend a day or two in the library to see what, if anything, they had on the subject.
I found the thought of even discussing my area of interest with one of the younger staff somewhat embarrassing so I admit I was grateful to see that Barbara Carter was manning the desk. As she knew my use of the reference section was always for serious research she would be less likely to treat my peculiar request as disparagingly as someone else might.
Miss Carter and I had discovered we had similar interest in the origins of myths and legends and because of that the relationship between us had at some time in the past progressed to us being on first name terms. She was, I guessed, somewhere in her early forties and although she had a face that might be described as being handsome, rather than pretty, she had warm, friendly brown eyes that I had often seen twinkle brightly when we talked. As usual she was dressed simply but neatly in dark, loose fitting jacket and pants that I imagined had been chosen as being practical for the type of work she did rather than their fashionability, and, having exchanged the usual, small pleasantries she enquired as to which area of my subject I was planning to further research.
It was all too obvious from the surprised expression on her face that the answer I gave was a very long way from what she had anticipated. 'Fairies?'
'Yes I know it sounds a bit odd, but my agent says they have become very popular and he'd like me to try to do something serious on the subject.'
'Oh I see. Yes, he's right - in fact my local shopping centre has a fairy shop, it gets quite busy on a Saturday morning. But its customers seem to be mostly women with little girls in tow and I'm not sure they'd really be very interested in reading something that's factual.'
'Well I said I'd at least give it the once over, see if anything prompts the muse. Do you have anything on the subject?'
She gave me a rather odd look, almost conspiratorial, as she answered. 'As a matter of fact we do Alan, there are quite a few books with fairly extensive sections on various types of 'little people', as many call them.'
'I suppose in one way it's a bit surprising I haven't actually thought of looking at the subject before.' I said. 'After all I expect that to many people magic is not a great deal less factual than the myths and legends I usually write about.'
'And I think that if you took the total population of the planet it would undoubtedly be a far more widespread series of beliefs. But come along, I'll show you the appropriate section and pick out a few books that will start you off.' She responded as she moved out from behind the main counter.
The next two or three hours were spent in increasingly absorbed reading and note-taking, and, as I'd said to Barbara, in one way I was amazed I had never stumbled on to the subject before. The more I read about the various types of 'little people' the more I realised how strongly their place in many peoples lives resembled those of the gods and other supernatural beings of other ancient races. Celtic folklore seemed to be a particularly rich source, but I found myself wondering just how much of that had merely been their reconfiguration of the beliefs of the people they had replaced. If so, where had been the actual starting point of all these in many ways oddly similar tales?
I was so engrossed in what I was turning up that I completely lost track of time and was only brought back to reality by Barbara's return. 'Are you planning on taking a lunch break Alan?' she asked.
'Oh, I had no idea I'd already been at it for so long.' I answered as I glanced down at my watch.
'It's just that I'm going for a sandwich, I wondered if you'd like to join me.' she said somewhat hesitantly, before adding. 'I've read quite a good deal on the subject, we could sort of swap notes, if you like.'
'I would like that very much Barbara, thank you for suggesting it. So long as it's my treat, after all it'll be a business lunch, won't it.'
She smiled, and I saw her eyes twinkle. 'If you insist, it'll make a change for it to be me giving you information.' she added, referring to the times I'd answered her occasional question about something in my usual field.
Our lunch was of necessity fairly brief but even so it was obvious from the way she spoke that she did indeed have a great depth of knowledge on the subject and as I considered what she was saying, plus what I had already read that morning, I found myself at least reconsidering the way I would tackle the proposed article. My original plan was to pooh-pooh the whole business, use my well-established reputation to take it apart, show that the subject was nothing more than a mish mash of childish clap-trap.
However, in addition to the information I'd gleaned there was an underlying passion in Barbara's voice that I could neither ignore nor, given what I'd previously seen of her rationally systematic approach to academic matters, fully discount.
'From some of the things you're saying, and more importantly, the way you are saying them, if I didn't know you better I might well get the impression that you have had a personal experience of them Barbara.' I said when she had spoken particularly enthusiastically about the validity of those stories relating to 'fairy rings'.
I had expected her to laughingly dismiss her animation as having being fuelled by having the opportunity to discuss something she was keenly interested in with someone familiar with professional research. What I didn't expect was to see her blush, which is exactly what she did, then dropped her eyes down to the semi-empty plate in front of her and, for quite some time, said nothing.
'Well.' she finally answered in a low, barely audible voice, 'in some way, perhaps I have.'
'I beg your pardon?' I said in amazement.
'I said, perhaps I have, after all - 'there are more things in heaven and earth...'
'Are you serious?'
She said nothing for another long, silent period, then replied. 'There's a book that isn't in the library, it's one of my own, if you're really interested, and wouldn't just use it to make fun of the whole subject, I'll bring it in for you to have a look at tomorrow morning.'
I was impressed by both her offer and the obvious sincerity of the conditions behind it, and said so. 'In that case I'll give you a couple of others to examine this afternoon, what they contain will better prepare you for what you might find in mine.' she answered somewhat mysteriously as she began to get up from the table.
Neither of us spoke as we made our way back to the reference section, I was wondering what on earth I'd find in Barbara's book, and she was perhaps wondering whether her spur-of-the-moment offer had really been advisable. But whether or not that was the case, before she left me to my own devices she brought out the two books she had suggested I read through.
The first was a small paperback entitled simply, 'Fairy Rings and Circles', the second a far older and very much heavier tome. As it posed much less of a threat I began with the former and discovered it contained two sections; 'Fairy Rings - the Reality' and 'Fairy Rings - the Superstitions'. It was definitely enlightening and having learned far more about fungi than I had previously known, I briefly skimmed through the multitude of explanations that the phenomenon had given rise to in various parts of the world.
The second book contained nothing scientific; it was purely devoted to the multitude of myths and legends about fairies and included a large section devoted to fairy rings.
I spent a couple of hours on that book; sometimes fascinated by the stretches of imagination that the human mind is capable of when confronted by what is an apparently incomprehensible and otherwise inexplicable object or event, and admittedly sometimes found myself caught up by the stories themselves.
Of course I already knew that the terms 'fairies' and 'little people' covered a very large array of different types of creatures; that some of them were good, some wickedly mischievous, and that a few were said to be positively malevolent. What I hadn't realised was that they could come in so many sizes, that in fact some could be as large, or even bigger than we human beings. However, most of the stories of encounters with these beings were along the lines I had already anticipated; involving the person being subsequently endowed with either good or bad luck, or the bestowing of various numbers of wishes. Then there were those implying the virtual abduction of someone - for some reason it appeared that those most usually involved a youth or young man - and even in those cases when they were eventually returned it was not until many, many years later, the story of Rip Van Winkle probably being the most well known.
I could see no sign of Barbara as I left the library so had no opportunity to question her as to just why she had given me that particular book to examine and had to be satisfied with merely mulling over both that and its contents during the evening. Although I had detected many specifically cultural differences in the style and content of the stories I had also seen many parallels with the myths and legends I was more used to exploring and dissecting.
The appearances of the supernatural beings - whether they were gods or fairies - were in very similar situations; sometimes as the result of a specific quest to a certain spot, sometimes completely unexpectedly. Their demands were just as arbitrarily diverse; sometimes requiring some relatively simple action, sometimes setting what would be considered quite impossible tasks. There were also some very possible explanations for a few of the stories; for instance, it would be far easier in bygone ages for a young woman to explain an otherwise tragically ruinous pregnancy on the appearance and action of an all-powerful god or fairy.
So, having developed what I considered to be a perfectly reasonable and rational hypothesis; that the stories were merely yet another example of humankind's need to explain the vagaries of life and their surrounding environment in stories, I went to bed and slept as soundly as usual.
When I arrived back at the library the following morning Barbara gave the distinct impression that she had been standing there awaiting my appearance. 'I got caught up in one of our interminable meetings yesterday afternoon, did you find the books useful?' she asked.
'Yes I did, thank you, though I thought it was a rather odd combination, and of course I didn't have enough time to read the larger one properly.' I replied.
'But at least it would have given you a broader understanding of the range of beliefs that have been built-up on the subject matter. Do you still have time to examine the one I mentioned?'
'I'll certainly be interested to see why you think it's important that I do, but I must say that when I thought about it last night I came to the conclusion that it's hard to ignore the many parallels between what I suppose I can only call fairy-stories and the more generally accepted classic myths and legends.'
'I'm glad you saw that Alan, but there is one major difference.'
'And that is?'
'The encounters between gods and mortals apparently came to an end with the close of what we might call the classical era, whereas contacts with little people have continued to be reported right through to far more recent times.'
What she said certainly made sense and I paused for a few moments to consider the various rationales that immediately sprang to mind. A physical visitation by an all powerful god or goddess would be much harder to substantiate than would be a supposed contact with a tiny elf or fairly. Then, apart from the frequent lecherous behaviour of some of them, the activities of the classical deities had generally been to make dramatic differences to human lives; the outcomes of battles, the long-term redirection of various group's activities and such like. By comparison the stories concerning Barbara's little people had involved much more personal, one-on-one activities. And unlike the situation in more recent times, myths and legends had developed within communities in an age when the mathematics of coincidence was undreamed of and there were no generally accepted scientific explanations for seemingly dreadful natural events. But in spite of that quick analysis I realised I would need much more time to come up with some more logically rational reason as to why the incidence of fairy encounters had continued so much longer, and said so.
'Perhaps we should consider the possibility that it's just because they did actually continue to happen.' she answered almost matter of factly as she stooped to lift a large box from beneath the reception desk, then added. 'I'll take you through to our private reading room Alan, you won't want to be disturbed while you're examining this.'
She took me through to a small room I hadn't seen before, where there was a large reading-desk and chair and a small, empty book-case, but little else. 'I know it's rather Spartan but you'll find the chair is comfortable and I can promise you won't be disturbed in here.' she said with a rather odd look as she placed the box on the desk.
The book she took out was massive, its pages large enough to take full plate sized illustrations, and it was obviously extremely old. The cover was undoubtedly genuine leather and even at first glance I could tell that the binding had been hand-crafted. 'You'll need these Alan.' Barbara said, opening a drawer in the desk to take out two pairs of the white cotton gloves we all used when handling valuable manuscripts.
'How long have you had this?' I asked.
'It's been in my family for many generations, handed down from mother to daughter, or in my case, from my grandmother to me. My mother died when I was very young and my grandmother waited until a couple of years ago before deciding whether to pass it on to me or my sister. I'm so glad she made the choice she did, I think my sister would have just sold it. But as to its age, I really can't tell you. I have my own educated guess but I'm not prepared to take it to an expert to validate it, I think you'll understand why, after you've had time to examine it yourself.'
Although mystified by what she'd said I remained silent as she lovingly lifted the book from its box and carefully placed it in the centre of the desk. 'I'll leave you to it now. But I'll come back and check on you in a couple of hours.' she added as she turned and left me alone.
A closer look at the unopened book confirmed my first impressions, it was certainly old, very, very old, and definitely hand bound in richly tooled, dark leather. There was a slightly frayed, braided page-marker inserted somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the book, which at that stage I ignored. When I opened the cover I found that, perhaps to provide greater strength and durability the leather had been continued right around its inside, then that the ornately scrolling text had not been produced by any mechanical printing process and that even the extra thick paper the pages were made from had almost certainly also been hand made.
Unlike more modern books this one had neither introduction nor an index of contents, so I did what I had to, plunging straight in. Luckily I was already familiar with the language, which I guessed to be from around Chaucer's time, but some of the vocabulary was tricky and quite a few words were so obscure as to be even hard to deduce from their context. But as I always tell my students, when faced with that situation the best way to deal with the problem is to simply press on, allow the meaning to filter through, so that's exactly what I did. The first part of the book apparently dealt with nothing more than a whole range of maladies and their remedies, which, as I had no interest in such things I was able to progress through quite quickly. But then came a large section detailing and illustrating various kinds of 'fairy folk', as they were described, which I read far more attentively.
The illustrations were done quite beautifully and I knew that because of their quality, and quite apart from anything else about the book, if Barbara ever wanted to place it on the market she could expect to receive a very, very large sum of money from its sale.
I became so absorbed in both the images and their accompanying text that I quite lost track of time but it must have been a good deal more than an hour before I progressed to the next section, which was a group of what were reputed to be actual personal accounts of meetings with various kinds of fairy folk. A few of those also had illustrations, but they were generally of a much lesser quality and it was the tales themselves that intrigued me. Most of them were variations on the well-known themes; the granting of wishes for some spontaneous kindness, the ill-luck that followed from a human's misdeed - or sometimes, and for no apparent reason, the reporting of the actual spiriting away of some person.