MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v.

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).

MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v.

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:

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