Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Field Guide to the Little People - Nancy Arrowsmith


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!


36 comments:

Book Dilettante said...

What a great find. Makes me want to get into a used book store!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee- It is amazing what you can find poking through the old dusty shelves!

Naida said...

This sounds entertaining. And what a cool last name the author has.
I can image some of the stories are on the scary side, as these tales about fairies and leprechauns can be creepy sometimes.
I've actually recently watched a film called 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark' which revolved around dark fairy lore.
Great post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - A few of the tales are on the dark side but I do not find Arrowsmith's style too frightening.

I have not seen it in years but the original "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" was a great movie!

JaneGS said...

Sounds like such a fun book. I love stuff like this--I still have those big picture books of Gnomes, Giants, Knights, and Faeries that were popular ~20 years ago. My kids loved looking at them too.

I like the idea of just being able to read snippets of this when the mood strikes.

stujallen said...

like yourself I think if I saw this I d buy it just as it seems a fun idea for a book ,all the best stu

Suko said...

This sounds totally charming. Wonderful review!

Guy Savage said...

Have you seen the film photographing fairies? That's one of my favourite films.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Indeed I never read this one cover to cover but over tome randomly read the entire book. The little folks are so interesting!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I think for a time it was popular and I have seen it on the shelves of several used book stores. You may want to keep an eye out for it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks for the good word! Charming is the perfect word for this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I have not seen Photographing Fairies but I just looked it up and it looks intriguing. I think that I will be seeing it soon!

Sharon Henning said...

I love folk lore, especially European myths and legends. If she has done accurate research, I would love to read this book.

vb said...

the book seems like an interesting read with a different treatment..I have never heard of it ,,thanks for sharing it.. elves, fairies ooh wow i shod really read it sometime for sure..I really love when the authors deal with fantasy with this kind of treatement..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - As my knowledge on the topic is weak I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the authors research. I would be curious to know her methodology.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - At least to my knowledge this is indeed an original concept.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Sounds fun! (Well, mostly!) Folktales tell a lot about a culture and what is important to them.

Parrish Lantern said...

This sounds like it is in a similar vein to The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Indeed there is much meaning in these old tales.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - i had never heard of The Book of Imaginary Beings before. I looked it up. It looks super and I really want to get it now!

Ryan said...

This is the sort of book I would have devoured when I was a kid. Oh, who am I kidding? This is the sort of book I would devour tomorrow.

Parrish Lantern said...

Another that may appeal is Italo Calvino's Italian folk tales. Have posted on both I have mentioned.

Naida said...

Hi Brian. I tried emailing you but it was returned, you won an e-book over at my blog.
When you get a chance, please email me at naida1276ATyahoo.com and I'll forward your email to the author :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - Indeed this is definitely something for adults to enjoy too!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - Calvino's folk tales look good. I will check out your posts!

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

What a great book! This sounds like something I would enjoy. I must make a note for my next trip to the bookstore. And I'll add the Italian folktales that Parrish Lantern mentioned. I think I may have seen this last one...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - i hope that you find this, I think that it can be a little hard to come by these days. It does seem to be readily available used.

Caroline said...

I have read a few articles by her and thougt they were wonderful. I think she is a herbalist or something like that. In any case she knows a lot about plants.
This sounds like a book I would really like as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I had also heard that Arrowsmith is an herbalist and has written Essential Herbal Wisdom: A Complete Exploration of 50 Remarkable Herbs. Interesting that you have run across articles written by her.

Rachel Bradford said...

This looks like just the type of thing that I'd enjoy, especially since I've recently been interested in reading variations of folklore. I am going to put this in my queue. :)

Tom Cunliffe said...

A fascinating read - this book would be one to keep and treasure I'm sure - even though the subject matter is complete fantasy! Great review Brian - you made me want to read the book

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Indeed this is a treasure trove of folklore. If you do read it I would love to hear what you think about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tome - Thanks! As I mentioned i have been referring back to this book since the 1980s! I must admit to having lost my first copy. I believe that I also found my 2nd copy used.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

I'm one of those people who much prefer the worlds of fantasy to the boring routine of everyday existence, which is often punctuated by horrible events such as the Boston Marathon bombings. Of course, as you've pointed out in this great review, we sometimes meet up with horrible violence in the fantasy genre, as well. Still, magic and fantastic creatures are more to my liking than having to deal with such things as taxes and office politcs, for instance!

I'm glad you mentioned that this book does contain very violent tales, as well as erotic ones. I am thus not in the least motivated to buy it and read it. Although I'm a HUGE Tolkien fan, I don't remember his battle scenes being horribly graphic. I'm currently reading a book in which buzzards are described picking at corpses on a battlefield... UGH. Needless to say, I think I'm going to be doing a LOT of skimming with this book! ("Prophecy Foretold", by Ron Hartman)

I detest erotica, as well. This genre includes such disgusting things as BDSM, plus VERY kinky sex.

So thanks for the heads up! There must be other "guides to the little folk" that don't contain these elements. I'll do some Googling and browsing on Amazon to find one.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I totally agree about this fantasy stuff being a great alternative to real life at times.

I hope that I have not overemphasized the nature of the violence and erotic nature of a few stories in this book. It really is mild, nothing explicit, no BDSM or anything. I would say less then an R rated film. Some parents are very sensitive and I thought it might be a good idea to throw out a caution.

Maria Behar said...

Oh, I see. Well, you were right to point out these things, just in case! Since you have stated the above, I think I might give the book a try. Thanks!! :)