Katharine Briggs: My Introduction to the Otherworld

Fairies, boggles, bogies, supernatural, Catherine BriggsNext week, LHP will be instituting a new format where we’ll be featuring three authors per month (the others will be checking in regularly even in their “off” months–do not worry, ye fans of Melissa!) and I was lucky enough to be chosen to take the Friday post through April.  One advantage of knowing in advance that you’ll be “on deck” is that we can now plan things a little more thoroughly.  For the next month, I plan on discussing some of the various fauna of the legendary Otherworld.  Today, I would like to mention the lady who first introduced me to them:  Katharine Briggs.

Briggs is a legend within a profession that makes its living studying legend.  She was born in 1898–making her an almost precise childhood contemporary of C. S. Lewis.  Like Lewis, she loved writing and produced a number of plays while studying the depths of English folklore.  World War II interrupted her education, but she later finished a Ph.D. focusing on folklore in seventeenth century literature.  She lectured and wrote extensively until her death in 1980.

I happened upon Dr. Briggs entirely by accident.  I was attending Toccoa Falls College in the late 1990s and I stopped, on a whim, by the shelf housing the out-of-circulation books that the library was selling off.  Luckily for me, an English professor had recently retired and I found a discarded copy of Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures for sale for just $0.10.  It was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made–it’s return has far outstripped the original investment!

While I doubt that you’ll ever be so lucky as to find it for a dime, if you’re interested in fantasy, magic, the supernatural, or the imaginative, it is well worth the fifty or so dollars you’ll pay for a used copy.  (Sadly, they haven’t produced a version for Kindle yet.)  Many of us, when we go looking for ideas and inspiration of a fantastic nature, tend to think first of clearly fictional authors–Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Rowling, Eddings, Martin, etc. etc. etc.  I was no different.  In Briggs I was introduced to a completely new world–one that sprang not from a single famous author but instead from thousands of average people and developed over the course of centuries.

Even better, I found an edge of realism and believabilty in what I personally consider to be the most interesting folklore.  Briggs opened my eyes to the fact that “folklore” and “fairy tale” aren’t always the same.  It was in her that I first explicitly encountered the contrast between “nursery bogies” that were used to frighten children into good behavior or teach lessons (but no adult would believe in) and the deeper, often more sinister creatures that were actually feared by real people of respectable intelligence.  I would suggest that as authors we have much to learn from this type of folklore when it comes to crafting characters and plots.

Briggs’ Encyclopedia is a veritable gold mine of inspirational content, conveyed with as much wit as scholarship–and that is saying something.  Consider a few of the shorter entries (all reproduced directly):

  • Jack-in-Irons. This is a gigantic figure in clanking chains which may at any minute leap out on a benighted wayfarer going by a lonely road.  It operates in Yorkshire, where they are ingenious in inventing bogies and other night horrors.
  • Big Ears. The name given in the Highlands to a demon cat said to appear at the end of the ferocious magical ceremony of Tagahairim.  In an account of the last performance of this rite which appeared in the London Literary Gazette of 1824, Big Ears, when he finally appeared, perched upon a stone which was still pointed out in the writer’s day.  The marks of his claws were still visible.
  • Night-Mare. One form in which the name of Mara, a demon, survives.  The other is ‘mare’s nest’.  Other names for Night-Mare are Succubus and the Hagge.
  • Caoineag (konyack), or ‘Weeper’.  One of the names given to the Highland Banshee….  She belonged to the class of fuaths.  Unlike the Bean-nighe, she is not seen and cannot be approached to grant wishes.  She is heard wailing in the darkness at a waterfall before any catastrophe overtakes a clan.  Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica says that before the Massacre of Glencoe the Caoineag of the Macdonalds was heard to wail night after night.

Brilliant, and only a small sampling of what Briggs can offer.  It is the sort of book that, when I have been reading it for a while, makes me look at the forest around me a little differently and a little more deeply on walks.  I think I can see that same “second sight” at work in my writing when I feed myself a steady diet of Briggs’ sort of folklore.  If you decide to pick up a copy, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

And I hope you’ll join me next week for a month of Fridays looking at some of the more exotic of Briggs’ beasties, starting with a particularly grotesque scottish monster:  the Nuckelavee.


Other posts in the Briggs’ Beasties series:


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on March 29, 2012, in Brian Melton, Faerie, Fairytales, Fantasy, Inspiration, Katharine Briggs and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hmmm…. Nuckelavees…. Pretty sure I saw one on High Street the other day.

    I will have to steal that book from you sometime. Sounds delightful!

    • Actually, I’ve had full intentions of buying you your own copy one day. I actually need to replace mine. I loaned it out (big mistake) and it was returned more or less destroyed. 😦

  2. You’re lucky you got to that sale before I did! Congratulations.

  1. Pingback: Brigg’s Beasties: Nuckelavee | Lantern Hollow Press

  2. Pingback: Briggs’ Beasties: The Wild Hunt | Lantern Hollow Press

  3. Pingback: Briggs’ Beasties: The Fachan | Lantern Hollow Press

  4. Pingback: Briggs’ Beasties: It | Lantern Hollow Press

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