How To See Fairies [Book Review]


How To See Faeries

Front Cover

What a gem! What a delight! How To See Fairies was a great find. John Matthews, I have missed you.
I have long been a fan of John Matthews’ scholarly work, counting (written with his wife Caitlin) The Western Way  as one of the favorites on my bookshelf, and oft consulting their The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom as a resource. The Arthurian Tradition is irresistible. John Matthews writes on all the weird, folk, esoteric topics I adore. I was a children’s librarian in 2006 when his Pirates came out, and was pleased (and startled—I remember researching if it was the same John Mathews) to see his work getting wider attention (and hopefully, for his sake, greater financial remuneration.)

How To See Fairies, illustrated by the illustrious Brian Froud, is almost everything a book about faerie should be. It’s classified as a “toy book” with pop-ups, tabs, hidden panels and other paper gimmicks, but these features add to the childlike wonder of this book. The thick cardboard cover features a round cutaway with a holographic image shimmering between a portal and a faerie creature.

I wasn’t sure at first if the introduction was a letter from the author or a narrative voice beginning to tell the story, and as Mathews writes about seeing faeries as a child and young man, I wondered if it could possibly be true. So few books convey an anticipatory numinosity, and when I got to the line “Because we believe anyone can see faeries” I was truly engrossed. I was pleased that Matthews could cut through my mature adult jadedness.

The book’s weakness—and to be sure, it is a significant weakness—is its amateur verse narrative. Stick to prose, Mr. Matthews. Midbook, the reader gets to ‘listen in’ on a dialogue between faeries, and that section reads more strongly. Froud’s illustrations feature his recognizable faerie style, additionally adorned with Celtic triskeles, a Cretan labyrinth, the Green Man, and other delightful details. You can see the influence of Matthews’ other books in these artistic designs.

A lift-the-flap old one mesmerizes, but the true finale is the sumptuous double-page pop-up four-leaf clover.


That’s a design I would wear on a t-shirt or hang as a tapestry in my spare bedroom. After properly cautioning readers of the tendencies of faeries to mischief, the book’s final prize is a ‘take away’ folding portable portal for readers to use when looking to see faeries on their own.


Bravo, gentleman. Using mixed media, they have managed to recreate the wonder of Faerie. As the final page reminds: “The real journey is just beginning.”

Note: I reviewed a library copy, which has held up remarkably well (dare I say magically) amid multiple uses by numerous patrons. Double bonus.

Matthews, John (author) and Brian Froud (illustrator). How To See Faeries. N.Y.: Abrams, 2011.

For more on John and Caitlin Matthews, visit their Hallowquest website.
Don’t forget to visit the World of Froud.

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Friends and Names

Fairy, faery, faerie: there are so many ways to spell it. Personally, I consider faery (plural: faeries) as a denizen of faerie, the place—and fairy as the sparkly benign sanitized tinkerbells I abhor. The Tuatha de Danann, or people of the Goddess Danu, were human-sized, wingless, beautiful stately beings folklorist Katharine Briggs called the Heroic Faeries.Think Liv Tyler and Tolkien’s elves. (Yes, ‘elf’ is another Old English word for fairy, but apart from certain classical references like F.J. Child’s “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight”—and unlike the apocryphal legend of Dungeons and Dragons game developer Gary Gygax who allegedly tried to trademark this centuries-old folkloric term—I figure Tolkien has earned permanent association of the word elf for his citizens of Middle Earth and associated realms.)

               Just as in classical Greek literature, the Eumenides—the Furies—were politely known as “The Kindly Ones,” a number of referential names for the faeries developed: The Gentry; The Good People; The Good Neighbors; The Little (or Wee) Folk; Themselves; The People of Peace etc. What name do Themselves prefer? Robert Chambers records this rhyme in his Popular Rhymes of Scotland:


“If you call me imp or elf

I advise you to look well to yourself;

If instead you call me fairy,

I’ll give trouble enough to make you wary.

If good neighbor you call me,

Then a good neighbor I will be.

But if you call me blessed one,

I’ll be your friend ‘til day is done.”

(Translation by author. Chambers’ original Scots’ is reprinted on page 35 of The Guid Neighbors: Fairy Belief in Early Modern Scotland, 1500-1800.)


Illustration from Joseph Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales. 1902. Public domain.


And I don’t blame them. Me, I’m Cynthia or C.J. but never “Cindy.”


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