Medieval Fairies as Other

MacAllister Stone has been posting a series about the roles of the other in spec fic. You can find Part I Magical Negroes, expendable queers, and other well-worn tropes here, Part II here, and Part III, or, The Magical Other here. Part IV is likely to appear some day in the future, but I wanted to pick up on two observations MacAllister makes that particularly intrigued me because they deal with the role of fairies as the other in medieval literature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot.

First, MacAllister defines Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

The best example of medieval fairy other I know of is the c. 1400 Middle English anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s hall on New Year’s day, while the court is at table. He rides a horse that, while elaborately caprisoned and saddled, is entirely green, as is the equally expensively garbed and very large knight. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other, and is shockingly uncanny, and other.

Indeed, the courtiers recognize the Green Knight for what he is, immediately:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene
He ferde as freke were fade (ll. 147-49).

[Cawley translates line as 149 “He behaved like an elvish man” (Everyman 1962, 56). Vantuono has “He acted like an elvish knight” (12 l. 149). Tolkien’s translation reads “as a fay-man fell he passed” (1982, 23). Garbáty glosses “were fade” as “were fey”-“He fared as man (that) were fey” (Garbáty 1984, p. 260).]

The courtiers identify the Green Knight, quite correctly, as an otherworld intruder, clued in to his origins in part by his color. Keep in mind that other than being large and very green, the Green Knight is in no way monstrous; he is in fact quite a handsome figure. Having identified the intruder as what Professor Carnicelli called “a big green fairy,” they then begin to contemplate the meaning of his arrival “For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt / Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach, / As growe grene as þe gres” (ll. 233-35).

Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre
Wyþ al þe wonder of þe worlde what he worch schulde.
For fele sellyez had þay sen, bot such neuer are;
Forþi for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed (SGGK ll. 232-240).

To the courtiers and serving folk, waiting in the hall, the Green Knight is not just clearly other, he’s fairy other. They’re not an unsophisticated audience, either; they’ve seen other sellys, other marvels, but he is very very different, and quite clearly a magical creature; “for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed” (SGGK l. 240).

Britiish Library MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v. Used with permission

They are cautious and silent, wary of risking the dangers of speech with something so different. Consequently, they’re not terribly surprised when the Green Knight issues his bizarre challenge and invites any of the knights to take the axe he carries and strike off his head, in return for the promise to allow the Green Knight to return the favor a year and a day later. Nonetheless, when Gawain takes him up on the challenge, and the Green Knight picks up his severed head where the courtiers have been kicking it around under the table, and rides off, they’re pretty sure that Gawain is for it when he has his rendezvous to receive the Green Knight’s return blow in a year and a day at the mysterious Green Chapel. The court watches on All Souls Day the following November 1 as Gawain departs in search of the Green Knight and the Green Chapel. They lament that Gawain is to be “Hadet wyþ an aluisch mon, for angardez pryde” (l. 681 ).

The courtiers have good reason to assume the worse; not only because the Green Knight can happily survive decapitation, but because, well, he’s a fairy. Fairies and otherworld folk in general are dangerous in the extreme, prone to kidnap mortals simply because the mortals were in the wrong place at the right time, like Hereudis in Sir Orfeo. She falls asleep under an ympe tree, a grafted fruit tree, in her own orchard around noon, and sees the fairy king and his knights. The king tells her:

“Loke, dame, tomorwe þatow be
Riȝt here vnder þis ympe-tre,
& þan þou schalt wiþ ous go
& liue wiþ ous euermo;
& ȝif þou makest ous ylet,
Whar þou be, þou worst yfet,
& totore þine limes al {f.300vb}
Þat noþing help þe no schal;
& þei þou best so totorn
Ȝete þou worst wiþ ous yborn” (Sir Orfeo ll. 165-74).

Notice that the king explicitly threatens her; if she does not make the assigned rendezvous, and go with the king to the fairy otherworld, she’s to be torn limb from and still be taken by the fairies. Despite the best efforts of Orfeo, and his hundred knights, the next day Heurodis is taken from them by the fairies. Despondent, Orfeo resigns his crown, turning his reign over to his steward, and exiles himself as a wanderer with a harp in the wilderness. In his exile he manages to see the fairies engaged in fairy pursuits, including a group of women hawking, with Heurodis a silent member of the party. He follows them “in at a roche,” into the otherworld. There, in the otherworld, he sees a chamber of horrors, filled with other mortals taken by the fairies.

. . . Of folk þat were þider ybrouȝt
& þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt.
Sum stode wiþouten hade {f.302ra}
& sum non armes nade
. . .
& sum lay wode, ybounde,
& sum armed on hors sete
& sum astrangled as þai ete
& sum were in water adreynt
. . .
Wiues þer lay on childbedde,
Sum ded, & sum awedde;
& wonder fele þer lay bisides
Riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome,
Wiþ fairi þider ycome.
(ll. 389-92; 94-97; 99-404).

These are mortals taken in various liminal states. They were not quite dead, nor quite alive, not quite sactified, not quite unfit. These are explicitly, despite the assertions of some, not dead people; they are, the poet tells us, “folk þat were þider ybrouȝt / & þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt” (ll. 389-90). They are maimed, and wounded, headless, armless, some bound and mad, some armed on horseback, some strangled, some drowned, or burned. There are examples of special liminal cases, too, like wives taken in childbed, as well as those, like Heurodis, taken as they slept in the heat of the day.

Keep in mind that these fairies are the same fairies that, when Heurodis first sees them,

“Al on snowe-white stedes;
As white as milke were her wedes,
Y no seiȝe neuer ȝete bifore
So fair creatours ycore (ll. 145-48).

The fairies who abduct Heurodis are no more monstrous than the Green Knight is, yet they still threaten Heurodis, and take mortals at will. Indeed, their strikingly beautiful appearance marks them as other just as much as the Green Knight’s color does. The actions of the fairies, however motivated, or rule-based they may be, appear arbitrary and unmotivated to the mortals of the communities where the fairies intrude. Fairies are capricious, unknowable, and, given the threats made to Heurodis, and the Green Knight’s ability to suffer decapitation in good cheer, quite possibly malicious in intent. Certainly they are “other,” with all its connotations of dangerous, incomprehensible, and alien. Both the fairies who kidnap Heurodis, and the Green Knight fit MacAllister Stone’s definition of other: they are outsiders, and they represent a threat to the community.

I’m going to skip forward about fifteen hundred years in my next post, to look at a fairy otherworld intrusion in nineteenth century Tipperary, Ireland, in 1895, and the burning of Bridget Cleary. My third post is about Bridget Cleary, too, in the context of fairies, sex, death and the other.

In the meantime, here are some links for the curious:

Luke 2:1 in Gothic

Warth than in dagans jainans. urrann gagrefts fram kaisara
Agustau gameljan allana midjungard. soh than gilstrameleins
frumista warth at wisandin kindina Swriais raginondin Saurim
Kwreinaiau. jah iddjedun allai ei melidai weseina. hwarjizuh in
seinai baurg. urrann than jah Iosef us Galeilaia. us baurg
Nazaraith in Iudaian. in baurg Daweidis sei haitada Bethlaihaim
duthe ei was us garda fadreinais Daweidis. anameljan mith Mariin.
sei in fragiftim was imma qeins. wisandein inkilthon. warth than
miththanei. tho wesun jainar. usfullnodedun dagos du bairan izai
jah gabar sunu seinana thana frumabaur. jah biwand ina jah galagida
ina in uzetin. unte ni was im rumis in stada thamma.

Via Jim Marchand, medievalist extraordinaire.

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Welsh, Cyclists, and Bladder Disease

A temporary sign on the side of the road at Barons Court roundabout between Penarth and Cardiff correctly reads “cyclists dismount” in English, but the Welsh translation, “llid y bledren dymchwelyd,” isn’t, actually, a translation. In fact, strictly speaking, it isn’t even Welsh, since the syntax is all wrong. Llid y bledren means “bladder disease,” while dymchwelyd means “return.” So, ignoring the syntax problem, the sign reads something like “Bladder disease [has] returned.” You can read the story and see a picture of the sign here.

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JKW on Culwch ac Olwen

Jeffry Jerome Cohen, medievalist and blogger at In the Middle, is on vacation, so guest blogger JKW who usually blogs at Pistols in the Pulpit is filling in. JKW says of himself:

My dissertation, which I’m beginning this summer, is about political language, specifically the language of kingship, in England and Wales in the age of Chaucer.

Thus far he’s blogged about Culwch ac Olwen and the implications of the “oldest animals” here.

Gawain and Gough

In a 1990 seminar Derek Pearsall made a passing reference to the Gough Map, in a discussion of the journey Gawain makes across the realm of Logres, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Gough Map is the oldest surviving road map of Great Britain, dating from around 1360. It’s roughly oblong in shape, made of two pieces of vellem, and is half map and half sketch. Not much is known about its provenance; the map was given to the Bodleian library in 1809 by its owner, Richard Gough. The dating is based on the inks and materials used to make the map, and on the place names.

691. Now rideȝ þis renk þurȝ þe ryalme of Logres,
692. Sir Gauan, on Godeȝ halue, þaȝ hym no gomen þoȝt.
693. Oft leudleȝ alone he lengez on nyȝtez
694. Þer he fonde noȝt hym byfore þe fare þat he lyked.
695. Hade he no fere bot his fole bi fryþez and dounez,
696. Ne no gome bot God bi gate wyþ to karp,
697. Til þat he neȝed ful neghe into þe Norþe Walez.
698. Alle þe iles of Anglesay on lyft half he haldez,
699. And farez; ouer þe fordez by þe forlondez,
700. Ouer at þe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
701. In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale; wonde þer bot lyte
702. Þat auþer God oþer gome wyþ goud hert louied.
703. And ay he frayned, as he ferde, at frekez þat he met,
704. If þay hade herde any karp of a knyȝt grene,
705. In any grounde þeraboute, of þe grene chapel;
706. And al nykked hym wyþ nay, þat neuer in her lyue
707. Þay seȝe neuer no segge þat watz of suche hwez

Thanks to the exceedingly excellent S. Worthen, I know about the exceedingly excellent interactive version of the Gough map.

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New Texts Added to the Corpus of Middle English

The University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Texts is one of the most useful text depositories on the Internet. It’s right up there with CELT, in my book. And it’s now even better; they’ve added another 85 texts to the 65 that were already up there. Now, these texts are all searchable, and many of them are linked to pull page images of the books from which the texts are derived.

The complete list of 145 texts is here. There are gems that you won’t find in a surprising number of academic libraries, like The babees book, Aristotle’s A B C, Urbanitatis, Stans puer ad mensam, The lvtille childrenes lvtil boke, The bokes of nurture of Hugh Rhodes and John Russell, Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of keruynge, The booke of demeanor, The boke of curtasye, Seager’s Schoole of vertue, &c.; &c;, edited by Frederick J. Furnivall for the EETS. In it you may find “A fest for a franklen” from John Russell’s Boke of Nurture:

“A Franklen may make a feste Improberabille,
brawne with mustard is concordable,
bakon serued with peson,
beef or moton stewed seruysable,
Boyled Chykon or capon agreable,
convenyent for þe seson;
Rosted goose & pygge fulle profitable,
Capon / Bakemete, or Custade Costable,
when eggis & crayme be geson.
Þerfore stuffe of household is behoveable,
Mortrowes or Iusselle ar delectable
for þe second course by reson.
Than veel, lambe, kyd, or cony,
Chykon or pigeon rosted tendurly,
bakemetes or dowcettes with alle.
Þen followynge, frytowrs & a leche lovely;
Suche seruyse in sesoun is fulle semely
To serue with bothe chambur & halle.

I’m pleased to see that the Tolkien, Gordon and Davis 1967 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is available (even if it is just the text, not the notes or glossary). I’m also very glad to see all eight of the Chaucer Society single mss. (all the main mss.) of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are now available.

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