In the recent Elf Queens and Holy Friars Richard Firth Green suggests that the medieval church found folk beliefs in fairies (‘good folk’) difficult to eradicate because they were more than quaint stories. They were entrenched beliefs, and people were entirely sure of fairies’ existence, and, importantly, powers. The ‘fact’ that they were very good at hiding meant that you couldn’t just go hunting for them to prove their existence, but there were hints they were active. More than that, they were not simply competition for the church – for many, Christianity and folk belief sat side-by-side and intertwined. Fairies themselves could be fitted into theological and biblical schemes, and were merely part of what Charles Taylor calls an ‘enchanted’ world, which included demons, spirits, witches, saints, miraculous relics and two-headed people at the edges of the known world.
Hannah Kent steps into this world fictionally with The Good People. In rural nineteenth-century Ireland, a widow, Nora, with the help of a local healer, Nance, an old woman who mixes herbal remedies with more occultish cures, seeks a cure for her grandson who they are convinced is literally off with the fairies. It doesn’t end well. The villagers entertain a mix of Catholic and folk belief, but the local priest is sceptical of pagan traditions and tries to warn off the healer.
Some may see this as a clash between two competing superstitions. But that is a modern prejudice. Christianity has generally been wary of superstition, in its early stages at least, attracting the wrath of Rome for failing to observe the superstitions of the day, in favour of the more mundane work of caring for the outcast. Kent’s portrayal is complex. She makes the priest into a cold character. But he is more level-headed compared to the otherwise kind-hearted Nance, and his suspicion of the dangers of not just fairy belief but mystical cures is in the end entirely justified. On the other hand, the desperation that slowly percolates up through the widow’s grief, that drives her to mad conclusions, is intricately and plausibly built-up by Kent.