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.
"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