The Secret Commonwealth: Of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies

Overview

Late in the seventeenth century, Robert Kirk, an Episcopalian minister in the Scottish Highlands, set out to collect his parishioners’ many striking stories about elves, fairies, fauns, doppelgangers, wraiths, and other beings of, in Kirk’s words, “a middle nature betwixt man and angel.” For Kirk these stories constituted strong evidence for the reality of a supernatural world, existing parallel to ours, which, he passionately believed demanded exploration as much as the New World across the seas. Kirk defended ...

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Overview

Late in the seventeenth century, Robert Kirk, an Episcopalian minister in the Scottish Highlands, set out to collect his parishioners’ many striking stories about elves, fairies, fauns, doppelgangers, wraiths, and other beings of, in Kirk’s words, “a middle nature betwixt man and angel.” For Kirk these stories constituted strong evidence for the reality of a supernatural world, existing parallel to ours, which, he passionately believed demanded exploration as much as the New World across the seas. Kirk defended these views in The Secret Commonwealth, an essay that was left in manuscript when he died in 1692. It is a rare and fascinating work, an extraordinary amalgam of science, religion, and folklore, suffused with the spirit of active curiosity and bemused wonder that fills Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and the works of Sir Thomas Browne. The Secret Commonwealth is not only a remarkable document in the history of ideas but a study of enchantment that enchants in its own right.

First published in 1815 by Sir Walter Scott, then re-edited in 1893 by Andrew Lang, with a dedication to Robert Louis Stevenson, The Secret Commonwealth has long been difficult to obtain—available, if at all, only in scholarly editions. This new edition modernizes the spelling and punctuation of Kirk’s little book and features a wide-ranging and illuminating introduction by the critic and historian Marina Warner, who brings out the originality of Kirk’s contribution and reflects on the ongoing life of fairies in the modern mind.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A slim quarto-size book (like a paperback novel in boards) and less than a hundred pages of text, this New York Review of Books edition is the first in more than a century and contains a well-written introduction and end notes by Marina Warner. Also included is Kirk's own glossary of "difficult words," in which we learn the 17th-century meanings of adscititious, defaecat, lychnobious and noctambulo." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Kirk is a magnificent dish to set before any student of either folk-lore or folk-psychology"—The Times Literary Supplement

“The importance of Robert Kirk’s manuscript for a deeper understanding of late seventeenth-century Scottish beliefs about fairies and second sight is hard to exaggerate. There is simply no other source with such fulsome detail about the Guid Neighbours…”–Folklore

“Kirk’s ‘Secret Commonwealth’ is one of those books which are well known but hard to come by…His little treatise is a most careful and thorough piece of work, made the more so by the spirit in which it was written…The result is one of the completest descriptions extant of that special phase of popular belief.”–The Times Literary Supplement

"[F]illed with delightful maunderings on seers and second-sighters and ‘glimpses of the moon’…”–The Critic

“[A] cult classic.”–The Glasgow Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590171776
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 11/21/2006
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,288,629
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.30 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

ROBERT KIRK was born in Scotland and studied at Edinburgh University and at St. Andrews. Ordained as a minister, he was the first author to produce a complete translation of the Scottish metrical Psalms into Gaelic, translated many other religious works into the Scots Highland dialect, and was the editor of a new Irish edition of the bible. He served at the parish of Aberfoyle until his early death in 1692. Legend says he collapsed on “fairy hill” south of the village, where today his spirit is entombed in a tree, known as “The Minister’s Pine.”

MARINA WARNER is the author of a number of works of fiction and non-fiction. In 1994 she became only the second woman to deliver the BBC's Reith Lectures, published as Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time, and was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) in 2000. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1985, she lives in London.

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