Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) wrote his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University on Celtic views of and practices associated with “fairies.” He later expanded his work and published it as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Counties, in 1911. He was undoubtedly influenced by the romanticism that also influenced mentor and poet William Butler Yeats and so many other Irish and other Northern European intellectuals at the time. This romanticism is very evident in The Fairy-Faith, manifested in a great number of biases both in the ethnography and its interpretation. Evans-Wentz was also influenced by mysticism, as presented by the American philosopher and psychologist William James, another of his mentors. And yet, Evans-Wentz displays a remarkable desire to take seriously the Celtic views of and practices surrounding fairies, which were and are dismissed by so many. This desire led him to record an immense amount of information presented directly from informants of Celtic descent in Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany. So, while we might set aside many of his interpretations, and while we must also treat the quotations of his informants (particularly those translated from Gaelic languages) with caution, there is much to be gleaned from The Fairy-Faith. Moreover, it is simply a fascinating read, for those of us who love the green, misty, mountainous places that Evans-Wentz’s informants associated with fairies.
Evans-Wentz later went on to work on Tibetan Buddhism, popularizing its study among European and American academics. His work there, too, must be treated cautiously, as his attitudes toward Tibet and Buddhism were perhaps even more romantic than his attitude toward Celtic views and practices. This is partly due to the fact that “Madame” Helena Blavatsky’s imaginative, Asian and Spiritualist influenced “Theosophy” was a significant part of his life.
While Evans-Wentz apparently spent a great deal of time on the banks of the Delaware River as a boy — even claiming to have had an “ecstatic” experience there — I do not know if there is direct evidence of him having been a fisherman, as his mentors Yeats and James certainly were. However, the Celtic informants whose voices are recorded in his first book, spoke often of fish in their broader discussions of fairies and other non-human persons that animated their landscapes. And it is these voices which interest me the most.
Following, is a “testimony” about the fairies that Evans-Wentz attributes to an anonymous “Peasant Seer” in County Sligo, Ireland:
Another time I was alone trout-fishing in nearly the same region when I heard a voice say, “It is — barefooted and fishing.” Then there came a whistle like music and a noise like the beating of a drum, and soon one of the gentry came and talked with me for half and hour. He said, “Your mother will die in eleven months, and do not let her die unanointed.” And she did die within eleven months. As he was going away he warned me, “You must be in the house before sunset. Do not delay! Do not delay! They can do nothing to you until I get back in the castle.” As I found out afterwards, he was going to take me, but hesitated because he did not want to leave my mother alone.
As it does for the informants met by Evans-Wentz over a hundred years ago, going trout fishing or simply going to the places where trout are found, feels like a sort of boundary crossing to me. There is a sense, too, of being taken or, more precisely, not wanted to return back across the boundary. Mind you, I am not one to draw a hard distinction between nature and culture or even so-called “super-nature.” I am not speaking, then, of entering and wanting to remain in another reality. Rather, fishing for me simply involves entering an area dominated by others–the fish, bears, birds, and perhaps even fairies, though I have yet to meet one of the latter (there are, however, many traditions among Indigenous Americans that involve little people and other human-like beings, both malevolent and kind).
Regardless, my thoughts are often focused upon the very animated world around me, when I am visiting trout streams and their environs. I know that I am not alone in this. As evidence, I present a picture of a fairy house made by my wife, at our cabin, while I was catching the sort of fish that you will see in the picture above. Perhaps my wife’s purely artistic creation of the fairy house will serve to propitiate any other-than-human beings, who might be responsible for my often feeling “taken” with fly fishing.