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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Critical Reviews: Why They Matter and How to Spot a Good One

 Critical reviews are important but are often misunderstood or maligned, particularly in communities which emphasize harmony or focusing on the good over the bad. While I can understand this desire the truth is that a critical review can be an important way to address misinformation presented in nonfiction books or various issues in fiction. These issues are important to address because without a fair counterpoint being offered many readers, particularly of nonfiction, may not be aware of issues that are significant such as radical factual errors. Critical reviews are also important to authors, because they allow an author to see where they may have misstepped, been inaccurate, can be more clear, or where particular demographics may have been offended or ignored. A critical review should be a learning tool for the reader and the author, highlighting things that needed improvement, editing, or revision. 

No book or author should be above or beyond criticism and the idea that anyone is should be a red flag for people that things are edging into personality cult territory. Fair and balanced criticism is essential and should apply to anyone.

The following are of course entirely my own opinions and suggestions.

Basic Guidelines for a Nonfiction Critical Review

  • A good critical review should critique content. If a review is attacking the author personally then you aren't reading a review of the book you are reading a review of the author, which is an entirely different thing. Criticism of content is valuable and can help people learn to distinguish good information from bad or see where errors are occurring which they may not have the knowledge of the subject to spot themselves. It can be important to frame a book in the context of the author's biases but ideally this shouldn't feel like an attack but rather give context to the wider review. For example pointing out that an author doesn't come from the culture they are writing about isn't an attack but can be important context for a review. 
  • A good critical review should not be a vehicle to attack an author, viewpoint, or group. This one is fairly obvious but if the entire point of the review is just to have an excuse to write an attack piece aimed at something besides the book itself then it isn't a good review. If the book opens up the author, perspective, or group to criticism based on the content of the book that's a different story, but if the two are largely unrelated then they should be treated separately. The only exception to this would be if the author has a known history of blatant harmful behavior or opinions which readers should be made aware of. For example if the author is a known neoNazi or pedophile; even in those circumstances however it should be presented as a caveat emptor [buyer beware] not attack.
  • A good critical review should align criticism with the subject. A book on folklore should be discussed based on folklore, for example, just as a book on witchcraft should be discussed through that lens. Criticizing a book on folklore based on personal experiences is never going to result in a solid review, just like criticizing a book on witchcraft through the lens of, say, modern American Protestantism won't result in a good critical review. 
  • A good critical review should offer solid examples of what is being criticized. Ideally this should be in the form of quotes from the text being reviewed which are then discussed, with counterpoints or better information offered. Vague mentions or hints of what might be the issue that are never well defined do not make for a good review.
  • A good critical review should have no logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are, quite frankly, a huge issue in many of the arguments people put forth even though they actually don't support what the person is trying to say. 
  • A good critical review should be clear on what the issues with the book were. After reading a good critical review a person should have a clear understanding of what the criticism was, how it was supported, and how the issues affected the book overall. 

Basic Guideline for a Fiction Critical Review
  • A good critical review should be aimed at content. Just like with nonfiction the point is to critique the book not the person's feelings about the author. Although there are some circumstances where an author's personal history or background may come into play that should ideally be tied into examples from the book itself. 
  • A good critical review should look at things like: pacing, plot holes, repetition, character development, dialogue, and believability. Some of these things, like pacing, will always be a personal preference by the reviewer but others like plot holes are more objective. 
  • A good critical review should warn about spoilers. If the review is going to give away key plot points or character's fates its important to warn the reader before they get to that section; some people do not want that sort of advanced knowledge if they are still trying to decide whether or not to read the book. 
  • A good critical review should be honest. If a person is criticizing something that bothered them personally they should acknowledge it. In contrast if they are critiquing something that has a factual basis - say the author radically misrepresented how quickly travel riding a horse is - that should be addressed on that basis. In other words it should be clear if the reviewer is saying "I didn't like how this was handled" versus "that's not how that physically works".
  • A good critical review shouldn't shy away from addressing issues of prejudice. Its entirely fair to criticize a book for falling into problematic tropes like the Magical Negro (or Magical Jew or Magical Queer, etc.,) or failing the Bechdel Test or similar. Good reviews shouldn't feel like they are trying to find these issues to point out however and should be able to offer clear examples.
A final note: criticism of grammar and spelling. In my opinion grammar and spelling should only be criticized if the mistakes are blatant, constant, and distracting to the reader. 

one of the more important critical reviews I have written was for Matthews' 'Secret Lives of Elves & Faeries'

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

7 Warning Signs of a Bad Fairy Source


I am often asked for direction on finding good sources on the subjects of fairies, which is fair because there is a lot of material out there and it ranges from good to terrible. I thought today it might be helpful to offer a very basic outline of what can indicate something is a bad source, or at least one that needs further vetting. Of course these are only my opinions and other people may have different thoughts on this subject but I have found these guidelines work well in vetting the quality of a source on fairies. 

  1. Using Names from Gaming - this is always a big red flag for me, when I see people using terms and names that explicitly come from role playing games or video games when discussing folklore and fairy belief. There are multiple things floating around online being shared as folklore that are actually excerpts from gaming manuals or websites, because people don't realize the excerpt isn't folklore. RPGs follow specific rules of game play which shapes the worldbuilding and lore that they create and this is often contradictory to or incompatible with functional belief.
  2. No Sources - its always a concern when a source doesn't have any sources of their own, unless we are dealing with a purely autobiographical work or anecdotal account. But when the subject is fairies  unless the work is clearly labeled as personal gnosis or experience (which is fine) outside sources are important especially when the work is claiming to describe or write about beings that have a long history in folklore. I always recommend looking at the bibliography of a book first to see what's there. Even if the bibliography seems solid if the text itself doesn't make it clear what sources are being used for what portions of the text its still a problem. I find it enormously frustrating to be reading a book where I can pick out segments of text that are paraphrased or even quoted without properly indicating the source, such as a book that uses a quote from Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries but only says something like 'this is the opinion of a 19th century Irishman in Galway'. Readers should be able to go to the source themselves to verify the part used in the book or further research. 
  3. Blurring Personal Gnosis and Folklore - now to be clear before everyone jumps in and yells at me, I am 100% in favor of personal gnosis and experiences and I think they are vital to the subject of fairies. But what I see a lot of in sources I find problematic is a failure to differentiate between personal gnosis and established folklore which often gives the impression that the personal gnosis is accepted folklore when it isn't. I am of the opinion that its important for authors on this subject to be clear as to what is their own thought or theory and what is found in wider folklore. Switching back and forth between personal opinion and established folklore without any indication of which is which is extremely confusing. 
  4. Claiming To Be The One True Source - claiming folklore is all wrong but the author has some special insight to the truth is another big red flag, not just for a bad source but for larger issues that can lean into cults of personality. There are a huge array of folklore and folk beliefs out there and much of it can be contradictory but its important to understand that diversity means no one is ever necessarily entirely right or wrong in their personal gnosis. When people seek to erase everyone else's experiences and thousands of years of folk belief in favor of their own ideas that should be considered problematic at the very least. 
  5. Plagiarism - there is a shocking amount of plagiarism in printed texts on fairies and on websites, whether that's from people who don't understand how to properly paraphrase or cite a source or people intentionally using someone else's writing. Either way any source that is using someone else's words without credit should not be trusted. 
  6. Fiction - I hate to even have to say this, but here we are. Fiction is not a source for fairy folklore. Despite what some people like to say to dismiss the subject folklore is not the fiction of our ancestors, its the collected beliefs and practices of specific groups which makes it diametrically different than fiction which is not belief but creative storytelling. If you find something interesting in fiction then take it further and research the actual folklore, don't just take the fiction and run with it. 
  7. Anthropocentricism - so this is undeniably my own hobby horse here, but I always tend to mistrust a source that centers humans or implies that humans have all the power and fairies need human protection and care to survive. If you could switch out the word fairies with 'wild birds' and not really effect the text then you are probably looking at one very particular opinion and a view that heavily diminishes and disempowers beings that have long been understood as powerful and possibly dangerous. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Excerpt: Pagan Portals Lugh

 My new book Pagan Portals Lugh comes out the beginning of May and so today I'd like to share an excerpt from it for everyone.

After the death of Nuadu and of those men, Lug took the kingship of Ireland, and his grandfather Balar the Strong-smiter fell at his hands, with a stone from his sling. Lugh was forty years in the kingship of Ireland after the last battle of Mag Tuired

-          Macalister, 1944

Lugh is a popular character in Irish mythology and was understood to be a popular God during the pagan period. He was depicted as both heroic and tempestuous, skilled and hot tempered, an excellent king and also sometimes unforgiving. He is compared to Christian figures like King David and the archangel Michael and appears as a pagan figure with the virtues valued by monotheism, yet he is also solidly depicted as a pagan deity and member of the Otherworldly Tuatha De Danann. All of these contradictions exist within the character of Lugh who has been shaped across millennia of shifting culture. He was never a sun God yet he is a sun god to many people today. He is still known as a great warrior yet his role as a mediator of sovereignty is not often discussed anymore. To understand who Lugh was and is and may yet become we must begin with his main features and relations.

Lugh was one of the High Kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, ruling for 40 years after Nuada, and he was the only one who could defeat his grandfather, the Fomorian Balor, in the second Battle of Maige Tuired, placing him in a pivotal position in the mythology. During this battle we see Lugh demonstrating his epithet of many-skilled as he earns his way into the High King’s hall by proving he has more skills than any other single individual among the Gods. Before the battle itself we also see him actively using his magical skill to rally his army and to curse the opposing army (Gray, 1983). This multitude of skills, including magical ability, is a core facet of Lugh’s nature and perhaps reflects the source of his wider appeal as he was a deity who resonated with people across social dynamics, a god of kings and also of skilled labourers, of poets and magicians, of warriors and healers.

Lugh’s adeptness with all skills that were valued among the nobility is one of his key characteristics. He contains within himself all of the skills of his civilization, and in doing so he outshines the reigning king Nuada who has no such excessive talent (Williams, 2016). When he first arrives at the royal court of the Tuatha De Danann he is challenged before being allowed in and offers a series of skills that he can preform including as a builder, smith, champion, harper, warrior, poet, historian, sorcerer, physician, cupbearer, and brazier. He later goes on to prove his cleverness by defeating all present in a game of fidchell1, his strength by matching the champion Ogma’s throw of a heavy flagstone, and his skill with the harp by playing the three traditional strains of music2. Two of his epithets are based around his many skills and his role as the superlative leader and deity is often predicated on his vast knowledge and ability.

He is also in many ways the ideal king in contrast to Bres mac Elatha and may, therefore, have symbolized the importance of patrilineal inheritance. Bres is the son of a Fomorian father and Tuatha De Danann mother; Lugh represents the inverse of this as the son of a Tuatha De Danann father and Fomorian mother. When Nuada is maimed in the Cét-Cath Maige Tuired and loses his kingship afterwards it is the women of the Tuatha De Danann who urge the group to accept Bres as their new king. Bres proves to be a poor king and allows his paternal kin to put the Tuatha De Danann under great oppression. In contrast Lugh shows up in their greatest hour of need and proves himself skilled in very craft and noble skill, motivating King Nuada to voluntarily step aside and let Lugh lead the Tuatha De Danann. While the idea of the two figures representing juxtaposing values of kinship may seem to be a foreign or even offensive concept to modern thinkers it does reflect the mindset of the times that the stories were recorded in. This implicit bias must always be considered and whether we agree with the underlying viewpoint or not there is value in exploring the way it may have shaped aspects of the mythology.

Lugh’s place as the idealized king may have been so deeply ingrained that even after the conversion to Christianity he was retained as a symbol of divine sovereignty. Williams suggest this as an explanation for Lugh’s retention as both a literary figure and euhemerized human ancestor, as well as the persistence of the idea that Lugh was incarnating or favouring human heroes who bore his name (Williams, 2016). In this way Lugh becomes a contrasting figure to the divine Christ and Christian God, having both echoes of their stories worked into his own but also being used perhaps to show the lesser power of the pagan gods; for example Williams posits that Cu Chulainn’s triple conception may have been a subtle commentary on the pagan god’s inability to easily do what the Christian god had, that is conceive a mortal child or incarnate in a mortal form. While this would obviously reflect a much later bias being written into the material by Christian scholars it also demonstrates the continued importance and power of Lugh, that even hundreds of years after conversion there was both a need to bring Lugh down and also an understanding of his continued importance.

One final less emphasized but still vital aspect to Lugh is his appearance in a later text as a Scál. This word, like many in older Irish, is difficult to translate because it has many layers of meaning including ghost, phantom, spirit, hero, champion, giant, and person. MacNeill, citing another author, suggests that it may best be applied “to disembodied spirits of the dead or supernatural beings” (MacNeill, 1962, p 6). Lugh appears as such a being to the king Conn and Lugh’s father is called ‘Scál Balb’ in the Lebor Gabala Erenn. This may have been one way that Lugh remained active and relevant after the conversion period, losing his explicit divinity but remaining a clearly powerful and important supernatural being that could not easily be fit into the more common categories of saints or demons that were the fate of other members of the Tuatha De Danann.

End Notes

1 fidchell is a board game of strategy somewhat like chess

2 in many Irish tales these three types of music are mentioned, with mastery of all being a true sign of skill. They are: sleep music, sorrowful music, and joyful music. When a master plays each one the correlating effect should occur among the listeners so that sleep music puts the audience to sleep and sad music makes them weep or happy music makes them dance. 


McNeil, M., (1962) Festival of Lughnasa
Williams, M., (2016) Ireland's Immortals
Gray, E., (1983) Cath Maige Tuired