Simon Webb, The Origins of Wizards, Witches and Fairies (Pen & Sword, 2022)
Despite living in a sophisticated, scientific world, or perhaps because of it, we are still enchanted by stories of wizards, witches, and fairies. They are deeply embedded in our culture, in movies, books, art, and some aspects of our everyday lives. But have you ever wondered where these stories come from? If so, Simon Webb has some answers in his latest book.
Webb notes that the fantasy world from which wizards, witches, and fairies emerge are recognisable but with imagined elements. That is because most of them are ingrained in folk memories and folk tales, many of which we can trace into prehistoric art and oral stories passed down through the generations. Webb argues that much of this goes back to the Yamnaya people’s expansion through Europe about 3000 BCE. In that era, religion and magic were fused into the natural world that included our ancestors. There we find shaman, the first wizards, and the horned gods pursuing souls in the ‘wild hunt’. Fairies date back to the Yamnaya too, though they were not the gossamer-winged, slightly mischievous wee people we all love but, argues Webb, nasty, stunted humans with a penchant for thievery and destruction, ‘a deadly menace’. The advent of organised religion, particularly Christianity, divided the world into good and evil, which traces a direct path to the infamous 17th Century witch trials and ritual sacrifice, the last of which, Webb recounts, took place in 1945 England with the strange death of Charles Walton. Nevertheless, the modern world, beginning with the Victorians, has popularised these fantasy people, and we continue to do so today in stories such Harry Potter and The Game of Thrones. Webb concludes with an alternative annual construction based on magic and pagan festivals.
The Origins of Wizards, Witches and Fairies is an entertaining and informative read aimed squarely at a public, non-academic readership. That helps the flow but is frustratingly free of footnoted references for those that might want to dig further. Webb also writes in a chatty style, but his habit of asking rhetorical questions in his text could be an annoying distraction to some readers. Those quibbles aside, most readers curious about the foundations of the fantasy world will enjoy Webb’s book.