I think that it was sometime in the late 1980s, in a used bookstore somewhere in New England, that I found the marvelous A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith (George Moorse is listed as co - author of older editions). The book, set up like a reference work, seeks to classify elves, fairies, sprites, leprechauns, etc. into species, genera and families. Each species is described in detail, useful facts for identification are presented, habits are detailed and, finally, folktales relating to the particular creature are included. These tales range from the marvelously whimsical to the truly horrifying. A total of 79 separate species are cataloged. The book includes wonderful illustrations of the assorted creatures by Heinz Edelmann.
Though at times she gives a nod to the reader that we are indeed dealing in fantasy, Arrowsmith mostly presents this work as a serious field guide such as those that classify such flora and fauna as mushrooms or birds. She does indicate that much of her research involved folklore, but essentially presents what appears to be a scientific field guide that includes a lot of charming stories.
Arrowsmith’s descriptions and stories are enchanting and lively,
Take the description of the Servan and his habits,
“In Switzerland and northern Italy misplaced objects are not lost by accident but have been stolen by the Servan. He runs away with the most useful items: keys, scissors, needles, pens and even spectacles. When his infuriated victim begins to swear and yell, “Who’s taken it? “ the Servan laughs, fully enjoying the man’s predicament. He then looks for something else to hide. “
The stories and folktales told about these little folk range from the charming to the erotic to the sadistic. Humans are often rewarded with gifts, wealth and health by the creatures for kind acts. At other times, however, people are attacked and sometimes killed for evil actions or sometimes just for boorish behavior. There is an underlying moral to many of the tales. The little folk are prone to reward people for good deeds as well as to punish those who act dishonestly or treacherously. However, some creatures just behave monstrously, like the Vodyaniye, an eastern European species who drowns people in rivers and sometimes eats the victim’s bodies.
This work is extraordinarily entertaining and fun, despite some of the malicious behavior of a few species. In addition, I think that it is healthy and refreshing to let go of the real world once in a while and delve into this kind of fantasy. Arrowsmith argues that these beliefs and legends connect us to a world that has mostly gone by, a world that possessed some lost virtues,
“In our time it may seem irrelevant to speak of old pagan beliefs, of elves and beings of folklore. But is there not some truth in the old stories? In our endless search for a more modern life, we have rejected the harsher existence of the village for that of the city, have forgotten the names of elves and have disfigured the Earth with our tools and machinery.“
Despite the violent nature of a small percentage of the tales, I find this book to be tantalizingly magical. Over the years, from time to time, I find myself randomly choosing an entry and reading through it. As someone who is frequently in the forest I even, on occasion, think about the Arrowsmith’s little folk. However, to my disappointment, I have not yet definitively observed any of these creatures. Though I sometimes use the entries as bedtime stories for myself, due to the violent and erotic nature of a few of the stories I would advise that parents read the book first to decide if is appropriate for their children.
I recommend A Field Guide to the Little People to anyone who is able to let their imagination stray from the hard and rational or even from overly serious philosophical and spiritual meditations. After reading this work, bigger folks such as myself, when in a dark basement or dim forest, may even might find themselves glancing at what might be the little folk, who appear out of the corner of our eyes!