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Research Fellow: James Wade (2009–12) – Rethinking Medieval Fairies

Nowadays we tend to think of fairies as Tinkerbell-type creatures with fuzzy antennae and magic wands. Only after several hundred years of evolution, however, did fairies end up as the harmless playthings of children's fantasies. James Wade (Research Fellow) dispelled the myths in the Emmanuel Review in 2011.

We can blame Shakespeare for making fairies small, and we can blame the Victorians for making them cute. In the Middle Ages fairies were seen as dark, ambiguous beings, somewhere between humans, animals and demons. They were fully human-sized and very dangerous, and though not everyone in the Middle Ages believed in fairies, the possibility of doing so was taken seriously by many of the most learned and influential.

The medieval theological explanation for the existence of fairies begins long before the start of human history, back during the war in heaven. When Lucifer rebelled against God, so the story goes, one-third of the angels sided with him and were cast down to the centre of the Earth as punishment. Of the remainder, half sided with God and stayed in heaven. But the other half, the ‘neutral’ angels who sat on the fence during the conflict, were sent down to the sphere between the Moon and Earth. Here they have remained, haunting dark forests and remote wild places to this day.

This explanation of fairy origins is the result of intellectuals working backward from existing folklore to make popular beliefs fit with a Christian model of the created universe. It does, however, manage to capture something of the ambiguity of these creatures which, along with their propensity for illogical behaviour, became a signature of their appearances in the literature of the period. My research focuses on the form this literature takes: the romances, or stories of adventure, which became the pulp fiction of medieval England.

I strive to dismiss the notion that later medieval fairies were in any way ‘pagan’. If they ever had roots in the oral lore of pre-Christian Britain, this mythological past had no discernable effect on how they were understood and imagined in the literature of the later Middle Ages. Even the early Anglo-Saxon elves – ‘ælfe’ being Old English for the French-derived ‘faierie’ – were more like malignant folk-spirits of superstitious belief than the anthropomorphised ‘fairy knights’ and ‘fairy ladies’ that began to crop up in the twelfth century. We have no idea how fairies were understood before our earliest written sources, the first mention of fairies being the Beowulf manuscript of c. 1000, but there is no reason to suspect they would have looked anything like the fairies of the courtly and chivalrous Middle Ages.

Yet this pagan or ‘Celtic’ connection has been difficult to shake off, and it has had a significant effect on how medieval fairies and their romances have been interpreted since the birth of Folklore Studies in the mid-nineteenth century. The folklorists argue that the fairies who appear in these romances have been corrupted from their original mythological form, as medieval authors did not understand the complexities of the ancient material they were dealing with. One of the characteristics of fairies in romance throughout the Middle Ages is their tendency to behave illogically. The folklorists explain this as a misunderstanding: fairies behave strangely because medieval authors didn’t know how they were supposed to behave, and the stories that We can blame Shakespeare for making fairies small, and we can blame the Victorians for making them cute survive from the Middle Ages are garbled versions of earlier legends of the Celtic supernatural.

This folkloric interpretation has a certain allure, since it allows for the possibility of finding ancient and lost mythologies buried just below the surface of these romances. But the argument that medieval fairies are always degenerations of ‘real’ myths or fairies, and that they always constitute a form of authorial failing, is problematic on at least two fronts. First, this view forecloses consideration of how fairies actually function in the romances themselves. Second, it is difficult to accept that some of the greatest writers of European literature – such as Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France and Geoffrey Chaucer – failed to understand the ramifications of contradictory supernatural elements in their constructions of complex and dynamic fictive worlds.

My work attempts to challenge the bad press these medieval authors have received over the past hundred years and more. Take, for example, the fifteenth-century Partonope of Blois. A pivotal moment in this romance occurs when the heroine Melior unexpectedly shifts from appearing as a fairy mistress to an ordinary human heiress. Earlier scholars have read this sudden shift as an awkward muddling of motifs by a confused author. I, on the other hand, read this transition from fairy to human as a skilled manipulation of audience expectations, a typical example of the inventiveness of romance authors who play with fairy conventions to fulfil specific narrative and thematic needs. For instance, while fairy mistresses are desirable figures in romance for their ability to provide mystery, suspense and exoticism, human heiresses are also desirable for worldly-wise knights, who are interested in dynastic concerns of material wealth and lineal progression. By making Melior appear to be fairy and human in turn, the author can get the best of both worlds, and can pick up fairy conventions and motifs circulating in his imaginative networks and manipulate them to cater to audience tastes for the marvellous, and the ideological desires of social ascendancy. These are, after all, the chief preoccupations of medieval romance.

Attending to such authorial strategies is critical. By focusing on the mechanics that go into creating a literary work, rather than hunting for sources, this approach allows us to think about how authors can achieve narrative and aesthetic effects by manipulating generic conventions. And when it comes to fairies in medieval romance, these effects are particularly remarkable, for fairy worlds in romance are primarily characterised by the persistence of their exception from human logic. Indeed, what makes fairies most distinctive – their mysteriousness and illogicality – is also what makes them particularly interesting in their adaptability and their potential to be used by authors to do a vast range of things that would not normally be possible with humans or animals, angels or demons. My research attempts to think afresh about medieval fairies, reading them neither as folkloric curiosities, nor as mythic remnants from a Celtic past, but as cleverly designed narrative devices that become central to the concerns of romance throughout the Middle Ages.

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