[In taking all of the quotes in this review from an e-book facsimile of The Secret Commonwealth, I have switched the original ƒs to modern esses.]
Aberfoyle is a pleasantly cranky little town that is nestled between the fine hills and abundant forests to the east of Loch Lomond. It makes a good base for exploring the Trossachs, which are mostly to the north, but this evening I am proceeding south. It is a little before twilight and I am going to intrude upon the eerie peace at Doon Hill.
Beyond the town’s pale, I pass the shell of a church that stands roofless and desolate within a busy cemetery. The headstones are set out very plainly, as though they and the stripped-down church have been all lined up together under the sky, ready to be inspected. The grave of the Reverend Robert Kirk is located in this churchyard but I am not yet totally clued-up as to who he is. There is an information board outside the churchyard that details the various superstitions and folklore that can be connected with this site. I read of Kirk’s story and think it an admirable specimen of small-town spookiness.
If it was not agreed beforehand that Doon Hill was a “fairy forest,” you would still sense that it was in some minor way enchanted. There are lots of sprightly old trees and space enough between them for the ground to be springy and glowing-green with moss. I glimpse something vividly bright scuttling over the moss that I have never seen before: a red squirrel. Soon I reach a tree that has the semblance of a door carved into it. This is supposed to be a portal to fairyland.
Kirk had been an Episcopal minister at Aberfoyle during the seventeenth century. Here, he had written, with a surprising degree of intellectual seriousness, about the doings of the fairies. After he was found dead on Doon Hill in 1692, at the age of 47, a local rumour was got up that he had been actually kidnapped or swapped and that he was being held captive in fairyland. Next, or so the rumour continues, his spirit had appeared at the baptism of his posthumous child. The onlookers were so shocked that they had failed to perform the one action that could have summoned Kirk back:
“… if Duchray [Kirk’s cousin] shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this opportunity is neglected, I am lost forever.”
Needless to say, Duchray didn’t remember to throw his knife. Kirk is now away with the fairies “forever,” behind a fake door that it is impossible to open.
Above the door there are dozens of pennies slotted into slits cut in the bark. The tree is also adorned with ribbons, little twists of paper with imploring messages scrawled on to them, and, bizarrely, an arrangement of fresh supermarket grapes. And this tree is only a tributary, presumably for those who lack the legs to carry them up to the crown of the hill. Up here is the real tree into which Kirk is said to have been absorbed. This is a magnificent Scots pine and its base is plastered with even more detritus, including bottled letters to the fairies, weather-faded Russian dolls, and at least a billion ribbons.
There are apparently regular clearances, to prevent the tree that Kirk had disappeared into from itself disappearing into all of the mess. Perhaps the ribbons and their wishes are catalogued under the tree’s roots in some fairy national archive. At the Fairy Tree, there is the familiar merry wistfulness that prevails around any wishing-well. Yet for all of this, the tree does feel strangely like a genuine shrine. There is nothing that is half-hearted or openly ironical to any of the offerings.
The next morning I am undertaking a more substantial walk in the forests north of Aberfoyle. There is a waterfall that is swollen from the overnight rain, so that its plunge is startlingly quick and churning. I put another tick in a mental chart that I am currently carrying around with me, which lists all of the similarities between Aberfoyle and my favourite television town Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks has, of course, a waterfall too. As I am walking towards the forest park visitor centre (following signposts to “the Lodge” – another tick), a further and suddenly enormous correspondence swoops down on me. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had entered a new supernatural dimension from a portal in the woods, just as Robert Kirk had done. So was Twin Peaks, in its heart of hearts, just a traditional fairy tale?
With this, we are also obliged to inquire whether Kirk was participating in a traditional fairy tale himself. After the Reformation, and its sharpening up of Christian strictness, the fairies became increasingly stranded in a quandary about their precise existential status. Are they non-human but otherwise ostensibly humanoid beings that live in a parallel dimension to ours, whose veil can be occasionally pierced by us and them alike? Or are they humans in a future state – humans who have died prematurely, so that they have been consigned to some informal equivalent of purgatory? The former belief is linked to the idea that the fairies are an ancient race of demigods, who have been phased out as the world has grown up. The latter is a Celtic variation, but also a needy and somewhat belated attempt to square the fairies with Christianity.
In his 1691 monograph The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, Kirk collects together the different knowledge that humans have so far gleaned about the fairies. They are “said to be of a middle Nature betuix Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old.” Their physical bodies are “somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud.” They are not, therefore, the children of Adam and in any special debt to Jesus Christ, but neither are they those hideous scaly creatures that dwell, allegorically, in pits. They are in fact disconcertingly splendid.
Their power is immense but seldom is it openly displayed. They never turn up with an army and overrun human habitations. Instead, their world revolves discreetly around ours, rather as household servants are only ever reacting to the actions of their masters. These fairies are always tiptoeing about behind the scenes and under the stairs. An eerie incongruity is generated from the tension between this servant-like stealth and the fairies’ otherwise alarming capriciousness. If they were really servants, they would be both exaggeratedly helpful and insolent ones.
Kirk is clearly uncomfortable that such beings should have been left so free to operate within the divine scheme. He finds that they have “aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion to God, the blessed Maker of all.” Their failure to procure a deckchair on the sunny beachfront of Christian theology has left the fairies suitably demoralised and even tragical. “Some say their continual Sadness is because of their pendulous State, (like those Men, Luc. 13.2.6.) as uncertain what at the last Revolution will become of them, when they are lock’t up into ane unchangeable Condition.”
The words from Luke refer to some Galileans who had been massacred but who were not, by implication, “worse sinners.” Why cannot the fairies follow the moral that Jesus is here advertising: “unless you repent you will all likewise perish”? After all, Kirk claims that the fairies are sensitive enough to fear Hell and to disperse whenever the name of God is invoked. At one point, he entertains the notion that the fairies possess “the same Measures of Vertue and Vice as wee, and [are] still expecting advancement to a higher and more splendid State of Lyfe.”
If the fairies became Christian, though, then we humans would no longer have any edge over their marvellousness. They would be superior to us in every respect. I think that Kirk probably prefers his fairies to be a bit forlorn and to remain fixed in a rough equality with us. He elsewhere regards their apathy towards Christ as not so much a choice as an “unchangeable” status. He gravitates towards the solution that the fairies are “departed Souls, attending awhile in this inferior State, and clothed with Bodies procured throwgh their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe.” He toys with the prospect that they are even “astral Bodies… neather Souls or counterfeiting Spirits.” In other words, a minister needn’t fret over their spiritual rescue because by now it is too late.
Kirk’s fairies register quite a degree of overlap with dead souls and/or traditional ghosts. He describes them as “subterranean” and their “ordinary Dwellings” are seemingly “Cavities and Cells” in the earth. The Roman dead and the Christian damned had dwelt respectively in Hades and Hell, which, if they had existed anywhere, had existed underground. Kirk’s fairies can be perceived only by psychics or “Men of the SECOND SIGHT,” just as the later Victorian spirits could be only contacted by mediums. Indeed, poltergeists and doppelgängers, familiar elements of the Victorian spirit world, are still, in Kirk’s book, residing in fairyland.
To redefine the fairies as ghosts is theologically expedient but it never quite holds. Kirk concedes that “surelie these are a numerous People by them selves, having their own Polities.” It is largely unheard of that ghosts might possess their own civic society or “commonwealth” in this way. Kirk’s fairies are unlikely to be dead because, in contrast to death, their existences have had a time limit put upon them. He writes that they “live much longer than wee; yet die at last, or [at] least vanish from that State.” The fairies have “nothing of the Bible” but they do or might enjoy access to an esoteric alternative that is much like Rosicrucianism. Kirk attributes beliefs to them that will excite people who are always wishing to find obscure or lost strains of Eastern religions in the West:
‘Tis ane of their Tenets, that nothing perisheth, but (as the Sun and Year) every Thing goes in a Circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its Revolutions…
The point of this religion is that it is wishy-washy and inoffensive. The fairies do not worship graven images or rally under Satan’s banner. Kirk is groping all over the place, searching for a handy compartment within Christianity that might contain his fairies. He would have us think that they merely supplement Christianity, like a kind of bonus gospel, even though their own miracles were never mentioned in The Bible. If the fairies are real phenomena, then their omission appears to be a worrying oversight on The Bible’s part.
Kirk’s finding, quoted above, that fairies are made of the same stuff “as were Daemons thought to be of old” implies a potential continuity between the two. As if fairies might be located within The Bible if you were interpreting it imaginatively enough. But he is wary of looking foolish and he ruefully promises us that “I will not be so curious nor so peremptorie as he who will prove the Possibility of the Philosopher’s Stone from Scripture.”
This wretchedness is the pith and core of The Secret Commonwealth. On the relevant display board at the Aberfoyle iCentre, Kirk is depicted as a daydreaming local eccentric, who was often out truanting in the woods and communing with Tinkerbell. I think that this misses the harrowing note that The Secret Commonwealth is always quietly humming to itself. The whole book is an admission that the world is a lot bigger than the Christian faith. And Kirk’s crisis is that he too, as a representative of this faith, has been marginalised and made to feel slightly ridiculous.
Every Sunday his congregation troops into church to have Christianity imposed on them from the top down. It turns out, however, that, darkly and amongst themselves, they have their own fund of beliefs that have little to do with Christian worship and teachings. And this two-timing is so disturbing because it is grounded in experience – in mishaps and wonders that occur around the home – whereas Jesus Christ is no longer so personally hands-on. It is as though Kirk has realised that a woman with whom he has shared a chaste marriage was actually all along enjoying a liberally sexual relationship with another husband.
Hence his resort to anthropology and to ferreting out the fairies from where they have been hidden in common knowledge. You always get the impression that The Secret Commonwealth is addressed to a tiny elite of educated people who are, by virtue of their social position, not in on the secret of the fairies. Except that Kirk had never published The Secret Commonwealth or brought it to public attention. His book had only finally appeared in 1815, following its discovery during one of Walter Scott’s incursions into antiquity.
My sense is that The Secret Commonwealth had shown reality to be too disconcerting and Christianity to be not nearly as magnificent as it proclaimed itself to be. Even so, Kirk had never attempted to cultivate a scepticism that would have allowed him to breezily dismiss the fairies. William Shakespeare might have been recounting genuine folk beliefs about the supernatural in the details of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Robert Burns would do later in his poem “Tam o’Shanter,” but it is being made quite plain to the reader that neither story is a work of realism. Kirk’s fairies, however, are facts, and he is not necessarily unconventional in treating them as such. For example, Samuel Johnson had been on a fact-finding mission about the veracity of “second sight” during his tour of the Hebrides eighty years later. Kirk broadly shares the same futuristic outlook, one of existential or theological research-and-development. He points out reasonably that, “every Age hath left some secret for its Discoverie.”
If one had needed to dim the brilliance of Christianity in order to adequately discern the fairies, then it helped that there were already areas in which comparable beings had flourished without the Light:
… so is it no more of Necessitie to us fully to know their Beings and Manner of Life, then to understand distinctly… if the Moon be truly inhabited, because Telescopes discover Seas and Mountains in it, as well as flaming Furnishes in the Sun; or why the Discovery of America was look’t on as a Fairie Tale…
When seventeenth-century scientists gazed up into the night sky, they saw planets and stars that the Lord surely couldn’t have made in vain. These worlds must be henceforth inhabited and the inhabitants could not have had the Gospels divulged to them as they had been to humans on Earth. The responsible scientist was required to contemplate spheres that, like Kirk’s “subterranean” one, were invisible to men but still logically populated. Sir William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, had declared the sun to be “a most magnificent habitable globe,” whilst Johann Bode, of Bode’s Law, had demanded of the sun’s citizens, “Who would doubt their existence?”
Many renowned and influential minds from “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” had similarly enjoyed no access to the Christian message. Neither had the societies that Western adventurers had encountered on faraway continents. The easiest recourse here, for an Enlightened minister who did not want to ever admit to the outright irrelevance of Christianity, was to relax the normal strictness, and to make room here and there, to discreetly accommodate alternative perspectives.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream had allied English fairies with the paganism of Theseus’ Athens. Although it only cites “fauns” in its title, The Secret Commonwealth is onto the same tack, in squashing different paganisms into one common non-Christian bracket. God must have improvised some crude means of saving Plato’s soul, and those of entire Native American tribes, and those of the sun’s population, and so there must be some provision laid out for the fairies too.
In the myth of his kidnap, Kirk slips out of the normal machinery of Christian salvation. He is neither in Heaven nor in Hell, but he is not, so far as we can tell, suffering. He is whiling away the time in a sort of luxurious exile from Christianity, but his soul keeps a valid passport to hand.
On the streets of Aberfoyle, I cannot find a copy of Kirk’s book. At the iCentre, they say that it is locally out-of-print and that whenever copies appear, they are instantly snapped up. Try the post office. At the post office, it is also unavailable. When I rather unfairly put them on the spot, everyone who I speak to admits that they haven’t read the book. It all chimes a little magically with the idea of Kirk being erased. Maybe the fairies periodically come to Aberfoyle to buy up every last copy of The Secret Commonwealth, the book that spills all of their secrets.