- Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish
Katherine Langrish’s collection of reflections on fairy lore, fairy tales, and folklore falls somewhere in the whimsical space between anthology and essay. She positions her reflections among selections of primary texts, so that the line between the two seems to disappear in places. This book maintains the tone of Langrish’s blog of the same title, and all the reflections work toward Langrish’s concluding statement: “Fairy tales, contrary to what many people suppose, are not naïve” (281). Although numerous scholars have expressed this idea in different ways, it always bears repeating in a culture that rarely gives fairy tales their due.
Langrish’s unconventional selection of primary texts makes her reflection particularly refreshing. For example, in the chapter on fairy brides, she includes the Carmarthenshire story “The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach,” in both the original Welsh and Modern English (23–24). The tale not only creates a multi-lingual texture for the discussion but also brings a new element to the construction of the fairy bride tradition with the revival of dead animals (24–25). Although most of Langrish’s tales come from Western Europe, she includes a few tales from Japan and the Middle East in her discussion. Even when [End Page 437] Langrish explores the Grimms’ fairy tales, she touches on rarely anthologized fairy tales, such as “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter.”
The unorthodox collection of texts is complimented by fresh subject matter. Langrish pairs her discussion of fairy brides with the forgotten fairy kings and consorts. Instead of exploring the gendered treatment of these characters, Langrish demonstrates their surprising connection to the undead: “Implicit in early medieval fairy tales was the belief that fairies are in a literal sense the dead. Wild Edirc accuses his wife of coming ‘from among the dead.’ Melusina becomes a death omen, a banshee. Lanval’s fairy appears at the point of his death to bear him away to Avalon” (30). Although no single theme unites the reflections in this collection, they all seem to resonate with the (rather dreadful) idea of crossing seven miles of steel thistles.
The final section on folklore begins with the question, “Do you believe in fairies?” (213). Langrish defines folktales as a literary tradition that asks for “half-belief” (213). Although I believe that fairy lore is a fluid genre that easily fits into different categories, it would be interesting to read Langrish’s thoughts on why she includes it in discussions of both fairy tales and folklore. In fact, her earlier discussion of fairy kings and consorts is included in the fairy tales section but seems to fit her definition of folklore. At the beginning of her reflections on folklore, Langrish makes an interesting biographical reading of William Butler Yeats’s fairy lore to demonstrate the relationship between fairy lore and belief. For example, she analyzes Yeats’s experience calling up the fairy queen from a seaside cave and concludes with a series of evocative questions: “What are we to make of this? Are you, like me, tempted? Do you acknowledge a secret longing to believe?” (215). These sorts of questions keep Langrish’s reflections in a more creative space than scholarly texts.
Langrish’s reflections would be an excellent companion for any fan of her fiction. She frequently comments on the way she has used fairy-tale and folkloric tropes in her fiction. For example, her chapter on water spirits concludes with a discussion of the way the Norwegian draug was featured in two of her novels, Troll Mill (2005) and West of the Moon (2011). She does more than state the connection; her description of the draug makes the reader understand why she found it captivating: “Scandinavia, with all its fjords, lakes and mountain streams, is home to a wide variety of dangerous water spirits, including the deadly Norwegian Draug who roams the seas in half a boat crewed by corpses. . . . To see the draug’s boat or to hear his chilling...