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At the Bottom of the Garden by Diane Purkiss

By Tyburn Blossom | Books | July 23, 2009 |

By Tyburn Blossom | Books | July 23, 2009 |

I love writing. I love the moments when all of the flotsam and jetsam in the back of my mind suddenly coalesces around the characters inhabiting the murky layers between my conscious and subconscious and a new story comes pouring out. Those ideas often send me tearing off on long research jags, because even if I write fantasy, there are still rules to follow. Everything might come out warped, but I’ve always found that the strongest fantasy is still grounded in reality.

The past couple of years, though, I haven’t written much. I’ve barely even made stabs at editing older works, and my inspiration has been sadly lacking. And I think I’ve finally hit on why.

My brain works best when fed a steady diet of fairy tales, folklore, mythology, old wives’ tales, and urban legends. And I’ve been neglecting to feed it. As a remedy, I’m going to alternate books covering just those subjects with my other reading. I’ve got a long list to go through, and I can’t tell you how happy I was when I dove in at last.

I started with At the Bottom of the Garden, which professes itself to be “A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things.” Diane Purkiss pushes the boundaries of what can be defined as a “fairy” nearly beyond the breaking point, starting with Lamia, nymphs, and djinn.

If you’re already knowledgeable about fairies and other mythology, this could be an interesting read, but I would never recommend it to anyone new to the field. Diane Purkiss tried to reference modern books and movies, but couldn’t always get the details right, including saying that the only Sith in the original Star Wars trilogy was Darth Vader, and made easily refutable errors, like claiming Disney based their Tinkerbell on Marilyn Monroe (although the truth couldn’t easily be found on Snopes at the time, I’d still expect better).

As her history approaches modern incarnations of fairies, her tone grows increasingly derisive, and her superior tone (including occasional asides to make sure you know how smart, rational, and very cool she is) grows more and more difficult to ignore. On numerous occasions, she makes reference to modern fairies reflecting the older fairy tropes by accident, since it’s obvious most people using fairies have never spared a moment for a scrap of research. But this is what pushed me over the edge:

The Irish fairies had a posterity too—a dignified one of folktale and careful, sceptical [sic] folkloric research, and a more dubious one of runaway post-Romantic pseudo-Celtic New Age posturing and calendar pictures. In fantasy writer Marion Bradley’s fearsomely long Mists of Avalon, King Arthur’s old enemy Morgan Le Fay, Morgaine the fairy, is reimagined as a radical feminist of the Seventies, battered, bruised, but always Very Strong, always in touch with her menstruating self. She meets from time to time with the Even Stronger Queen of the Fairies, who is even less embarrassed about her sexuality and fecundity. But somehow the whole thing never rises far above the ruck of sword and sorcery, a genre so utterly debased that little can be said for or even about it.

I don’t have any problem with her disliking Mists of Avalon, though I do find trashing an author in your book to be immature and unprofessional, and I cannot respect anyone who will dismiss an entire genre. And I have to go back to Tasha Robinson’s answer from the AV Club’s Q&A about Pop Culture Sacred Cows:

But what I absolutely can’t stand, and what puts me into a fighting mood faster than anything else, is people blanket-dismissing an entire genre or subculture or area of effort, especially with the always, always, always-uninformed “I’m not interested in that stuff because it’s all the same.” So here’s my pop-culture sacred-cow statement: Every genre is deep, nuanced, complicated, and diverse to its knowledgeable fans. That doesn’t mean every genre is for all tastes. You don’t have to like industrial or classical or conscious rap or Chicago blues or Beat poetry or fantasy novels or reality TV or whatever else. You aren’t even obligated to try them, much less to make the effort to immerse yourself in them enough to tell the classics and the keepers from the trash. Life is short, the world is big and full, and there’s nothing wrong with walking away from things that don’t speak to you. But people who get snotty or self-righteous about it, as though their personal tastes reflect some sort of immutable reality, steam the hell out of me. Ignorance isn’t attractive, but saying “I’ve never really gotten into [Westerns, opera, FPS games, whatever], and I’m not really interested” isn’t nearly as ignorant as lumping together every example of a genre as unnuanced and unworthy. People who do sound exactly like caricatures of ’50s parents, squawking about how Elvis and The Beatles are all just stupid noise.

I’ve tried to say it better, but she took the words right out of my mouth. My annoyance would be equal if she had been bashing romance, rap, or even some subgenre I’d never encountered.

My poor impression of Ms. Purkiss deepened as I drew towards the end of the book, which I continually had to force myself to keep reading instead of hurling across the room. Her distaste for the modern version of fairies was obvious, and my willingness to accept her version of events faded quickly.

For example:

…many of us can only feel nausea when our daughters and goddaughters invest int he fairy image. At my son’s Hallowe’en party, one five year old came dressed as a pretty fairy; her foamy pink skirts stood out like a wound among the ranks of matt-black ogres, vampires and Dark Lords of the Sith. The mothers hissed, ‘Who’s the little girl in pink?’ No one actually said ‘Urgh!’, but everyone, like Tim, looked sick, and her own mother was apologetic. Any self-respecting North Oxford mummy would rather her daughter was a vampire than a fairy.

I can’t help but wonder if the mother in question was only badgered into apologies when confronted with Ms. Purkiss’s attitude. She also devoted an entire passage to the owner of a fairy shop in Australia who wouldn’t allow her to take pictures inside her shop, and refused to bow down after the author whipped out her academic credentials. So, obviously, the professional thing for her to do was trash the woman in question in her book.

She finally wrapped it up by drawing parallels between aliens and fairies, and a lot of talk of the “X-Files,” even reproducing a little fanfic. She took one last shot at the speculative fiction genre with, “I do not think I can argue that these stories come from fairy sources; I would be greatly surprised if science-fiction writer…had made much of a study of European folklore.”

By the end, I didn’t feel her work deserved anymore respect than she was willing to give so many others, and I’m glad to be done with her book. I definitely won’t be picking up anymore of her work.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Tyburn Blossom’s reviews, check out his blog, The Congering Basket.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.