Small gods are big history

Creatures such as faeries and fauns have persisted for centuries in the human imagination. A new book looks deeply into their origins
June 14, 2023
Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britain’s Supernatural Beings
Francis Young (RRP: £30)
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Meet the godlings, a family of “small gods” who are as persistent in history as they are hard to pin down. They have names such as faery, faun and boggart. They are less worshipped than they are, by certain people at certain times, believed in.   

Francis Young’s Twilight of the Godlings is an attempt to grapple with these strange beings and particularly the question of their origin. Where did they come from? Why did they live on in medieval Britain—and beyond—even as the world around them turned Christian?

Young’s answers have the feel of an intellectual hitjob: a merciless repudiation of previous thinking on this subject. In particular, he confronts the idea that godlings are a mere vestige of old, pagan ways; they are instead their own living strand in history, reminiscent of the classical past but responsive, too, to whatever present they inhabit. 

It’s a persuasive argument, though also a highly academic one. The book is stuffed with university essay-style self-reference—“This chapter will go on to address…”—and a sizeable portion of its pages is given over to a dryly methodical introduction and, later, the back matter. There’s no doubting that, as Young puts it, “the study of folkloric beings should be conducted as rigorously as any other historical investigation”—but, still, as a lay reader, I could have done with some mischief and wonder.

Which brings us to our own question: why should anyone outside of the narrow world of faery studies care? Happily, there is an answer here, as well. The challenge posed by the godlings—supernatural creatures who lived in the hearts and imaginations of mostly forgotten people—is, in a way, the challenge of history itself. What can we ever truly know?