Why the name? -- of course, there’s a natural association between the word ‘Commonwealth’, and the English Civil War, the time period in which the novel is set, which ended in precisely that. But I actually chose my title because of a pre-existing book, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. This was written by a Scottish minister called Robert Kirk, in 1691. He was a Gaelic scholar and folklorist, and his Secret Commonwealth is a wide-ranging and broad-minded treatment of Scottish supernatural lore, both Gaelic and Lowland Scots. He corresponded with the scientist Robert Boyle on the subject of second sight – Boyle was interested in this – and he was clearly anything but bigoted.
A legend grew up after Kirk’s death that he had been spirited away by the fairies for revealing their mysteries. In Walter Scott’s version, ‘after the ceremony of a seeming funeral, the form of the Rev. Robert Kirk appeared to a relation, and commanded him to go to Grahame of Duchray. “Say to Duchray, who is my cousin as well as your own, that I am not dead, but a captive in Fairyland; and only one chance remains for my liberation. When the posthumous child, of which my wife has been delivered since my disappearance, shall be brought to baptism, I will appear in the room, when, if Duchray shall throw over my head the knife or dirk which he holds in his hand, I may be restored to society; but if this is neglected, I am lost for ever.” True to his tryst, Mr. Kirk did appear at the christening and “was visibly seen”; but Duchray was so astonished that he did not throw his dirk over the head of the appearance.’ Thus the unfortunate minister disappeared from the human world forever.
I found him very useful, though I didn’t follow him in every respect, and his prose is often charming. He says, ‘These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People […] are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.’ I took the idea that they could change, but not that they are insubstantial – other sources, such as the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, in which the queen of fairy takes a mortal lover, suggest that they seemed pretty solid. One hint which I explored was that their morality might have a completely different basis from that of seventeenth-century Christians: ‘They live much longer than wee; yet die at last, or [at] least vanish from that State. '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 … they are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love, or Devotion towards God’.
You can help make this book happen. Please share it, and encourage your followers to share it, too.
Join 71 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.