Book Review: The Origin of Wizards, Witches and Fairies

Synopsis from Goodreads: This book tells the fascinating story of the origin of our ideas about wizards, witches and fairies. We all have a clear mental image of the pointed hats worn by such individuals, which are based upon actual headgear dating back 3,000 years to the Bronze Age. Carefully sifting through old legends, archaeological evidence and modern research in genetics, Simon Webb shows us how our notions about fairies and elves, together with human workers of magic, have evolved over the centuries.

This exploration of folklore, backed by the latest scientific findings, will present readers with the image of a lost world; the one used as the archetype for fantasy adventures from The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. In the process, the real nature of wizards will be revealed and their connection with the earliest European cultures thoroughly documented.

After reading this book, nobody will ever be able to view Gandalf the wizard in the same light and even old fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast will take on a richer and deeper meaning. In short, our perception of wizards, witches and fairies will be altered forever.

Thank you to NetGalley and Pen & Sword Books for the advanced reader’s copy of this title. Expected date of publication is January 30, 2022.

If you’ve ever wondered why we think things like Gandalf’s pointed, floppy-brimmed hat in LOTR or why fairies live under the hill and come out to steal milk and produce are “just how things are”, Simon Webb’s book on the origin of our contemporary knowledge of wizards, witches and fairies is a wonderful summary of why we think the things we think.

Drawing on resources from archeology, ancient cave paintings and oral traditions, this book traces the origins of many of the things we, in 21st century life, have assimilated as part of a general cultural knowledge. I particularly enjoyed the author’s tracing of the Merlin/Gandalf story back in time through Odin, as well as fast-forwarding to our current view of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. Most of the preconceptions we have about what a wizard looks like, or what powers a witch has, are rooted in century or even millenium-old traditions and stories, many of which have a base in historical fact. I also have a fascination with bog bodies, so the tie-ins to ritual sacrifices and how these traditions were tied into the beliefs of various cultures from Celtic to Indo-Europeans was of particular interest to me. I had a lot of “aha!” moments throughout the book and stopped to read my husband passages that resonanted really strongly with me.

My one criticism of the book is that the book felt a bit disorganized. I felt that there was a lot of jumping around to different topics, rather than carrying through one concept from start to finish in terms of an historical perspective. I wound up having to bookmark and reference back to a few sections, just to pick up the narrative thread.

I can see this book having a strong appeal for readers who want to know more about the origins of some of their favorite contemporary fantasy characters, as well as those who appear throughout literature of the past, including fairy tales and even casual superstitions like throwing coins into a fountain that continues today.

Overall rating of 3-3/4 out of 5 stars.

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