Katharine Briggs,
An Encyclopedia of Fairies:
Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies,
and Other Supernatural Creatures

(Penguin, 1976; Pantheon, 1978)

Finding a copy of Katharine Briggs' An Encyclopedia of Fairies (first published in Britain as A Dictionary of Fairies) on a dusty shelf in a used bookshop in downtown Toronto was a stroke of rare luck. This out-of-print, hard-to-find volume is high on the wishlist of many folklore fanatics.

I have lost count of the number of times I've sat down with the book since the day I found it. Rarely do I have a goal in mind; instead, I simply open the book to a random page and start reading. Always, I find something interesting waiting for me on whatever page I select; often, I learn something new.

Briggs' scholarship is amazing, her research is exhaustive. Even the most fanatical of folklore enthusiasts would be hard pressed to find a character from British folklore missing from this work. (Briggs wrote in her preface that she originally planned to compile an encyclopedia of global folklore, "but to treat the fairies of the whole of Europe alone, even cursorily, would have been to produce a book ten times the size of this and founded on years of further research."

Certainly, Briggs treated British folklore with a thoroughness rarely seen in a milieu regarded by some as a children's fancy. But while some scholars may raise an eyebrow at the notion of an instructive text on with fairies, Briggs had no qualms on the subject. "The business of the folklorist is to trace the growth and diffusion of tradition, possibly to advance theories of its origin or to examine those already put forward," she wrote, again in her preface. "When he speaks of 'true' fairy beliefs, he ordinarily means those actually believed by people as opposed to the fancies of literary storytellers."

The entries are arranged in a standard encyclopedic format, with some stretching into long paragraphs and even pages. The decision to change the name was an apt one; many of these entries are too developed and delightfully garrulous to suit the briefer style of a dictionary listing. In some cases, Briggs includes illustrative excerpts from the various tales in question.

While the approach was scholarly, the writing is anything but dry or tedious. Briggs' love for her subject shines through the writing every bit as much as her respect for the academic process.

The sheer breadth of the book's contents is mindboggling. I open it at random and find listings for Henkies, Herla's Rade, Herne the Hunter, Heroic Fairies, Robert Herrick, Hillmen and Hinky-Punk. (The latter is a Somerset-Devon variant on the will o' the wisp.) A quick flip and I find Oakmen, Oberon, Odin, or Woden, Ogme, the champion, Ogres and Oisin.

It's not hard to see how easy it is to pick up this book for a quick glance and find yourself still sitting there hours later, the day spent while you were absorbed by entry upon entry, page after fascinating page.

For her own part, Briggs confessed to being an agnostic on the subject of fairy lore. "Some of the fairy anecdotes have a curiously convincing air of truth," she wrote, "but at the same time we must make allowance for the constructive power of the imagination in recalling old memories, and for the likelihood that people see what they expect to see."

It is almost inconceivable that a culture so detailed and rich in history might not be real ... but that is, of course, for readers to determine for themselves. Whether or not you're a strong believer, a convicted skeptic or an agnostic like Briggs, you won't easily find a better or more complete resource book that this.

Unfortunately, you won't easily find An Encyclopedia of Fairies, either. If we're lucky, a publisher will resurrect it soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to haunt the folklore section of every used bookstore you can find.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Look for it at Amazon.com.