‘The king o fairy with his rout’: Fairy Magic in the Literature of Late Medieval Britain–By Hannah Priest

Introduction: Fairy Literature

This article is a study of a selection of Middle English and Anglo-Norman narratives featuring beings that are – explicitly or implicitly – categorized as ‘fairies’. It will examine the ways in which such supernatural creatures are presented, and will explore the mechanisms of identity construction revealed in such tales. Drawing on recent critical works exploring the ‘monstrous’ in medieval writing, I will consider the distinction between the fairy and the human, as well as the problems that arise when seeking to differentiate these categories. Much scholarly work has been done on the folklore and (specifically Celtic) mythology of fairy creatures in the Middle Ages.[1] As I will show, the folkloric influences that shaped romance texts should not be ignored, but neither should the generic and literary conventions of this particular mode of story-telling. Episodes of cruelty, hybridity and the supernatural recur throughout the romances under consideration here, and I will consider the presentation of such themes alongside other contemporaneous romances to suggest ways in which one might conceptualize a specifically ‘romance’ notion of identity. Moreover, I will show that the ‘fearsome’ nature of the fairy does not lie solely in its cruel, hybrid or supernatural status; the parallels between the fairy and the human worlds are reinforced in different ways in the stories I will consider. The final section of this article will focus on the idea of transformation, arguing that the fairy creatures in these medieval texts represent a counterpoint to the usual flux and transition in which human identities are constructed. I will draw on recent studies of the ‘posthuman’ and ‘becoming-subjects’ to argue that the fairy is depicted as ‘freakish’ permanence, and a static identity against which human development can be defined.

Before beginning my analysis of specific narratives, however, I would like to consider the relationship between medieval folklore and literature in a little more detail. In his discussion of supernatural beliefs in the Middle Ages, Claude Lecouteux writes:

The extent to which Marie de France […] was familiar with folk traditions and belief cannot be known. Her lays show evidence of them, but this poetess adapts and psychologizes what she gathers – the unsolidified material in the mold of courtly poetry – which makes the primary meaning very difficult to discover. But we may try to clarify The Lay of Lanval.[2]

Lecouteux’s assertion here that the “primary meaning” of Lanval has been obscured by the workings of the “poetess” demonstrates a common concern of work on fairies: a desire to trace back the origins and ‘truth’ of fairy stories, and to connect these narratives to a wider mythology – often pre-Christian, sometimes prior to literary cultures in which these stories were first written. Fairies, far more than witches or werewolves, belong to folk tradition. Even when literary texts are the focus, it is difficult to avoid reading them through and with folkloric motifs. Jack Zipes has described the relationship between folklore and literature as “symbiotic”, arguing that “they often overlap and mutually support one another.”[3]

However, in the case of medieval romances about fairies, this relationship is not treated as “mutually” as Zipes suggests. Scholars often subjugate the literary sources to the folkloric, assuming that the written text represents a manifestation of the same cultural strategies and meanings as the oral. In her work on the history of fairies, Diane Purkiss considers the journey into the fairy world as described in the Middle English Sir Orfeo.[4] As Orfeo searches for his wife, he comes across a vast number of other abductees, all of whom are languishing in various states of torture and distress. Of these victims, Purkiss writes that:

Such persons – those who died in the middle of things – become unfinished, testaments to unfinished lives. They have left-over energy, energy that in pre-industrial folklore nearly always goes into malice and anger with the living.[5]

However, analysis of the lines in the Middle English texts does not support the claim of “malice” or “anger” in the fairy king’s victims. Heurodis’ fellow prisoners are described in distinctly static terms: some are “withouten hade” (l. 391); some are “armed on hors sete”. Even the women who are lying in “childe bedde” are eerily immobile and fixed: “Sum ded and sum awedde” (ll. 399-400). The overall impression is one of a tableau of “unfinished lives,” certainly, but its actors are wholly lacking in energy or motivation. These people are dead – or frozen in the act of dying – but they are not the same creatures as the dangerous fairies who ride out to kidnap the queen (ll. 283-296). Indeed, when Heurodis is eventually rescued by Orfeo, there is no more mention of the other prisoners in the fairy world. The only prisoner who specifically interacts with the “living” is Heurodis herself, when Orfeo encounters her on a fairy ride. This meeting is characterized as one of “messais [misery]” (l. 325), rather than anger. Purkiss’s assessment of this scene draws on the folkloric equation of fairies with the untimely dead, implicitly assuming that the “unfinished lives” in the literary text can be better understood through recourse to folklore and belief.

While not denying the complexity and influence of medieval folklore about fairy creatures, it is my intention in this article to consider a selection of romance literature from late medieval Britain and the specific presentation of fairies within them. In doing so, I will, at points, make reference to wider patterns of contemporaneous belief and narrative, but I am not setting out to trace genealogies for the supernatural beings that appear in these works. Nor do I intend, as is sometimes the case in works on fairies, to determine the extent to which medieval thinkers believed in their existence. I will focus instead on the relationships between fairies and humans, and consider how this “particular kind of experience” impacts on notions of human identity construction.[6]

I have chosen specifically to concentrate on three Middle English narratives: Sir LaunfalSir Degaré and Sir Orfeo, as well as two of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman lais of Marie de France (Lanval and Yonec). These texts are linked by similarities of plot, form and genre; however, they also make very clear references to fairies, and to the land of Fairy. Sir Launfal’s lover is the daughter of the “Kyng of Fayrye,”[7] and Sir Degaré’s father is a “fairi knyghte.”[8] That these fourteenth-century Middle English texts use the word ‘fairy’ to describe supernatural people and their realm is significant, as the word itself was a relatively new acquisition to the English language. The Middle English Dictionary gives c.1330 as the earliest known written usage of the word in Middle English. The first citations offered by the MED are all from texts in the Auchinleck manuscript, which contains the earliest extant versions of both Sir Degaré and Sir Orfeo. While not disputing the fact that there may have been pre-Christian, pagan or folk belief in supernatural beings, these narratives represent some of the earliest examples of self-defined ‘fairy stories’ in English literature.

Despite the fact that Thomas Chestre based his Sir Launfal on one of her lais, and that the Anglo-Norman faeire pre-existed its Middle English equivalent by many years, Marie de France does not use the word ‘fairy’ to describe the supernatural beings in Lanval or Yonec.[9] However, I have chosen to consider Marie’s texts alongside the Middle English ones, as I feel that the beings she is describing correspond to those defined as ‘fairies’ in the English poems.[10] Lanval’s lover is a beautiful woman who has travelled from her own “terre”[country] to meet with the knight.[11] This land, to which she eventually returns with the knight, is finally revealed to be the Isle of Avalon (l. 659). In Yonec, Muldumarec appears in the guise of a hawk, but soon changes into a “chevaliers bels e genz” [beautiful and handsome knight].[12] He has similarly travelled from his own “païs”[country] (l. 200) to be with the object of his affection. Before his arrival, the lai describes a type of knight who travels to save women who are in distress, and who “ne nul fors eles nes veeient”[no-one but the women could see](l. 104). This is reminiscent of the claim that Dame Tryamour makes in Sir Launfal: “No man alyve ne schall me se” (l. 356). The parallels between the lovers in Lanval and Yonec and those in the Middle English texts allow for a definition of ‘fairy’ to be applied to all these figures, despite the fact that the word does not appear in the Anglo-Norman texts.[13]

Are Fairies Human?

As the references to Marie’s lais suggest, the distinction between the human and the fairy is difficult to categorize. Knights and ladies need not be fairies to travel long distances for love; “bel e genz” could easily refer to a human knight. Fairies are often represented as magical beings, but the figure of the witch or the sorcerer demonstrates that human beings are just as capable as fairies of using magical means to achieve their ends. Fairies are ‘supernatural’ beings; yet, as Marie de France demonstrates in Yonec, they are just as vulnerable to the pleasure of sex or the threat of death as humans. In medieval literature, fairies and humans mate and produce children, suggesting that the species distinction between the two is not insurmountable. Indeed, within the world of these texts, trying to draw a categorical definition of the ‘fairy’ is doomed to failure.

Romance fairy lovers demonstrate a capacity for varied emotion comparable to that of human characters. Not only do these creatures demonstrate the ability to feel deep and enduring love, they also feel hurt and betrayal when these feelings are slighted. In Sir Launfal, the hero breaks his vow to Dame Tryamour, his fairy lover, and speaks of her to the other knights at court. She is angered by this, and withdraws the support she has offered him. She has previously warned the knight that, if he tells anyone of their relationship, he will lose her “love” (l. 365). Although the knight realizes that, in betraying his mistress, he has lost the material benefits she has offered, he also recognizes that the biggest punishment is her withdrawal of her affections:

‘All my joye I have forelore,
And the – that me ys worst fore –

Thou blysfull berde yn bour!’ (ll. 748-50)

The broken-hearted fairy lover shows an emotional existence that seems quite human. One can compare Tryamour’s behaviour with that of Alundyne in Ywain and Gawain. In this romance, there is no suggestion that the woman is anything other than human – though she is in possession of a magic fountain and a magic ring. However, when Ywain breaks his promise to return to her, she withdraws her material and emotional favours. Her maid explains:

‘My lady wend he had hir hert
Ay for-to kepe and hald in quert,
Bot now with grefe he has hir gret

And broken the term that sho him set[.]’[14]

She then takes back her lady’s ring and denounces Ywain as a traitor. The angry grievance of the woman who has been lied to bears a strong resemblance to the emotions displayed by Tryamour in Sir Launfal. The main difference, of course, is that, while Tryamour may be able to give back her gifts to Launfal through magical means, Alundyne must send a messenger to do this physically. Jeremy Harte has argued that the “risks involved” in loving a fairy are “those to be expected from any broken relationships”.[15] Certainly the betrayed fairy Tryamour does little to differentiate herself from her human counterpart save some distant prestidigitation. As I will argue further below, even this magical intervention is shown to be a problematic marker of Tryamour’s non-human nature.

However, attempts to define the distinction between the fairy and the human can be revealing – not of the nature of the supernatural being, but of the mechanisms through which the human seeks to distinguish and understand itself. In her conclusion to The Beast Within – entitled “What Is a Human?” – Joyce Salisbury writes that clothing “is central to the definition of humanity.”[16] She continues:

Only humans were self-conscious enough to clothe themselves,and the wearing of clothes was one of the things that medieval people though separated real humans from some of the monstrous races that were nude.[17]

If we follow Salisbury’s argument, then we can assume that the writers of these romance narratives intended us to read their fairy creations as human. They clothes themselves, therefore they are human. This is, however, an overly simplistic distinction, and one which does little to explore the complexities of the relationship between humans and ‘other’ races – monstrous or supernatural.[18] However, Salisbury’s definition of the human requires more than merely clothing. She argues that human beings wear clothes because they are “self-conscious”. Thus, the human has both a ‘self’ and a ‘consciousness’. Clothing is a symptom of these preconditions. This implies that the extent to which we read fairies as human depends not on their clothing, but upon their having the requisite self-consciousness that leads them to wear it.

Though self-consciousness may well be used as a characteristic and unique trait of humanity, it is a problematic notion with a long history. In Christian tradition, the link between self-consciousness and clothing is related to Original Sin and the fall from Paradise. In the Old Testament book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are clothed by God after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge.[19] The postlapsarian human is sinful and, denied access to the tree of life, must take other measures to save its soul. In Yonec, the young woman is frightened that the hawk who has entered her bedroom (now transformed into a man) may be a “demonic trickster”.[20] Muldumarec, however, takes the Eucharist and recites his creed. Furthermore, when his lover and son return to his land at the end of the lai, they find that he has been buried in a “tumbe […] grant”[large tomb] (l. 504) in the “chapitre”[chapter-house] (l. 503), lit by candles (l. 509) and perfumed by amethyst censers (l. 510). It is clear from this that Muldumarec is a Christian and, therefore, one assumes that he believes he has an immortal soul and must take conscious steps to safeguard it. Thus Muldumarec’s ‘self-consciousness’ does not lie simply in his possession of a soul, but in his recognition of its vulnerability. In attempting to protect his immortal being, the fairy performs ritual behaviours associated with the Christian human.

This presentation of the fairy knight as Christian is not unique. Other Middle English shape-shifting ‘monsters’ preserve a relationship to God behind extreme bodily transformation. In the fourteenth-century William of Palerne, a Spanish prince is transformed into a werewolf by his necromantic stepmother. Early in the text, the werewolf rescues the infant William from being murdered by his uncle. He leaves William in a cave for protection, where the child is soon discovered by a cowherd.[21] On finding his charge missing, the werewolf mourns (ll. 84-5). However, when he is able to track William to his new surrogate family, the werewolf accepts that the child is in the safest possible place and “þonked God mani þousand siþes” (l. 103). The werewolf’s prayer is not found in the French source for the tale, and appears to be an addition by the English adaptor. Later on it the narrative, the werewolf’s relationship to God is again invoked: “þe werewolf, as God wold, wist alle here happes” (l. 1840). Despite the fact that Prince Alphons has been transformed by necromancy, and that Muldumarec is a shape-shifting hawk-knight, they do not exist outside the sphere of God’s will. The perpetuation of their link with God situates them firmly within the Christian world. That they can (and do) pray identifies them as Christian subjects.

Thus fairies – like other monsters – may possess a Christian soul. They are able to protect their ‘selves’ and respond to hurt or grievance. How, then, are they different to the human? Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that: “The fact that a human soul can be said to be within hardly makes the shape-shifter less fearsome or more orthodox”.[22] Bynum is here referring to the werewolf, but her comments could just as easily apply to Muldumarec in Yonec. We have very clear evidence that this being is in possession of a soul, yet he is able to transform himself into a hawk at the will of his lover. I shall return to the complexities of this hybridity in a later section of this paper. First, however, I would like to examine what it is about the fairy that seems so “fearsome” and “unorthodox”.

Fearsome Creatures

The appearance of the fairy company in Sir Orfeo is an awesome and terrible sight:

Wele atourned, ten hundred knightes,
Ich y-armed to his rightes,
Of countenance stout and fers,
With mani desplaid baners,
And ich his swerd y-drawe hold –

Ac never he nist whider thai wold. (ll. 291-6)

The threat that this “ost” [army] (l. 290) poses is reinforced by both the fact that it is able to kidnap the queen without difficulty (ll. 191-3), and by the startling description of the tortured prisoners in the otherworld. Fairies here are frightening and powerful creatures, who show no hesitation in causing suffering.

The fairy knight in Sir Degaré also demonstrates this capacity for cruelty. Approaching a young woman who has been sleeping in the forest, the knight professes his love and then, without waiting for reciprocation, rapes the girl (ll. 105-113). That this behaviour is to be expected from fairies is made explicitly clear:

‘Ilich am comen here a fairi knight;
Mi kynde is armes for to were,

On horse to ride with scheld and spere[.]’ (ll. 100-2)

The knight’s “kynde”, one assumes, is the “stout and fers” fairy army of Sir Orfeo, who hunt human beings for sport.[23] The knights in Sir Orfeo carry Heurodis to an otherworldly kingdom filled with tortured and murdered humans. The knight in Sir Degaré uses physical restraint to force the woman into sexual intercourse, despite the fact that she weeps and wishes to leave (l. 110). If his assertion that the young woman has nothing to fear (l. 103) seems incongruous with the sexual violence he is about to inflict, it can be contextualized with reference to Sir Orfeo. In this narrative, Heurodis is warned what will happen to her if she does not accompany the King of Fairy:

‘And yif thou makest ous y-let,
Whar thou be, thou worst y-fet,
And totore thine limes al
That nothing help the no schal;
And thei thou best so totorn,

Yete thou worst with ous y-born.’ (ll. 169-74)

Better to be raped by one fairy than to be torn limb from limb and then carried off anyway. The humans in these romance tales are powerless to defend themselves against cruel and powerful attacks by fairies. No amount of human military resistance can prevent Heurodis being magically carried away.

However, Middle English verse romance is full of scenes of violence, rape and cruelty. The majority of this is, of course, not perpetrated by fairies, but by humans. In Sir Degaré, a damsel later petitions the knight Degaré for protection from another (human) knight who has threatened “with maistri/For to ravisse me awai” (ll. 889-90). There is no explicit sexual threat made against the woman, but rather a threat of physical abduction of her body and occupation of her property. This threat entails an ever-increasing number of deaths as the woman tries to protect herself. The danger of similar violence hangs over the recently-widowed Alundyne in Ywain and Gawain, who realizes that she must remarry to protect herself and her lands from the approach of Arthur and his knights. It is significant, therefore, that in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a narrative set in the world of the land of “fayerye”,[24] the rapist who “rafte” a young woman’s “maydenhed” (l. 888) is a human knight – one of Arthur’s retinue. The cruelty of romance fairies, therefore, can be compared to the trope of violence and invasion that is present throughout the genre. The fairy realm is a dark reflection of the human, but it is not its opposite.

These Middle English narratives draw attention to the parallel between human and fairy worlds through their comparisons of the two realms. In Sir Orfeo, the fairy king’s army is “stout and fers”, but Orfeo’s own army is described as “stout and grim” (l. 184). This draws attention to the fact that, while the fairies threaten violence to secure Heurodis, Orfeo threatens violence to protect her. The fairy otherworld has “castels and tours, / Rivers, forestes, frith with flours” (ll. 135-6); this description is repeated verbatim in lines 221-22 to characterize Orfeo’s kingdom. Social conventions, and even polite niceties, are present in the fairy world as they are in the human. It should be noted that Orfeo does not, in fact, ‘descend’ into the otherworld – he knocks on the door (l. 379). In Yonec, the otherworld is depicted even more clearly as another version of the human court. Not only are the buildings there the equivalent to those one would expect to see in a large human town, there is a suggestion of trade and commerce in the three hundred “nes ”[ships] (l. 373) that unload at its port.

As I have argued above, Muldumarec takes the Eucharist as proof of his possession of a Christian soul. His later interment in a tomb reiterates this faith. Indeed, his bleeding from a wound could be taken as a token of his corporeal humanity, as blood is often used as a marker of chivalric (human) identity in romance.[25] The audience is told that the woman has followed a trail of blood from her dying lover to reach his country. However, the sheer amount of blood that has been shed (despite a long journey across meadows, hills and fields, it is still wet and copious by the time she arrives at his bed) suggests that this is more supernatural sign than realistic wound. And despite all similarities, there are some striking differences between the fairy and human worlds of Yonec. The buildings, though similar to the human, have an uncanny appearance. They are made “tute d’argent” [completely of silver] (l. 367). When she eventually finds her dying lover, the young woman discovers a bed made “d’or esmeré” [of pure gold] (l. 392) and chandeliers worth more than all the gold in a city (l. 396). It is not only the opulence of this kingdom that is striking; there is something magical in its representation. As Muldumarec lies dying, he is surrounded by candles that apparently burn indefinitely (l. 395). Thus the scene is a hybridization of human society and supernatural magic.


The possibility of a hybrid of the natural and supernatural unsettles concepts of the human. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen asks:

What kind of inhuman becomings has Marie de France imagined in her lai Yonec, which describes a noble knight named Muldumarec who spends much of his life within the beautifully feathered body of a hawk?[26]

What is unsettling for Cohen is not that Muldumarec is non-human, but that he is always in the process of becoming “inhuman”. His being is one of multiple corporeal identities and represents the fearsome possibility that a ‘self’ may not be bounded by a particular body. Indeed, it is not always evident which body Muldumarec inhabits. When the woman’s husband discovers her infidelity, he lays a trap for her lover and places spikes on the window. The lover flies into the spikes and is mortally wounded. It is not made clear whether the fairy is in the guise of the hawk or the man. One assumes that he arrives as a hawk: “En la fenestre vient volant” [He came flying through the window] (l. 309). Yet as soon as he arrives, he is wounded, sits on the bed (l. 315) and speaks to his beloved. Until this point in the narrative, the fairy does not speak while in the form of the hawk, so it seems he has transformed back into the human body. And yet there is no mention of this transformation, nor is there any clue in the manner of the fairy’s departure from the tower: “A grant dolur s’en est partiz” [With great pain he departed] (l. 335). Does he walk or fly? Does he leap from the window as his lover does? Is he human or bird? Or both? I would argue that these questions are not particularly important. Their answers do not impact on the narrative which, at this point, concerns itself with the force and implication of actions, rather than with technicalities. One might just as easily question why, since it seems possible for her to do so, the lady has not leapt from the window and followed her lover sooner. However, these points are not the concern of the narrative; what matters is that Muldumarec is mortally wounded and must return to his home. The vagueness of the description of his departure suggests that, perhaps, we should not seek to define the fairy’s body at all at this point, nor try to determine where the ‘bird’ ends and the ‘man’ begins. He leaves as he arrives – as Muldumarec. As I have argued, the shape-shifter is figured as problematic and troubling. A further complication is added by the fact that this fairy has ingested the Host, and I would like to turn now to a closer examination of some of the issues raised by Muldumarec’s accepting of the Eucharist.

The disregard for the actualities of the physical form in Yonec suggests such fluid boundaries that a ‘body’ need no longer conform to a specific ‘type’ to make sense. It could be argued that we do not need an understanding of the difference between humans and birds to understand the identity of Muldumarec. However, this would be to ignore the earlier evidence of the text that examines more closely the breachable, though still existent, boundaries of the fairy’s body.

The narrative of Yonec has already demonstrated that Muldumarec can be more than one thing at once. He changes himself into the likeness of his lover to accept the Eucharist, but remains a knight:

Li chevalier l’ad receü,
Le vin del chalice beü. (ll. 187-88)

The knight received it, and he drank the wine from the chalice.

The corpus domini, the woman’s body and the knight’s body combine here to create what Cohen has termed a “transsexual moment”.[27] Cohen uses this term to highlight the fact that not only does Muldumarec alter his own physical form, but in doing so he breaks through the ostensibly inviolate categories of male/female as easily as he has those of human/animal in his transformation into a hawk.

The ingestion of the Host – Christ’s body – by Muldumarec also raises questions about the importance of border definition. Acceptance of the Eucharist is the tool by which the fairy’s orthodoxy is affirmed:

‘Jeo crei mut bien al Creatur,
Que nus geta de la tristur,
U Adam nus mist, nostre pere,

Par le mos de la pumme amere’ (ll. 149-52)

I well believe in the Creator who freed us from the sadness into which our father Adam put us, through his bite of the bitter apple.

Taking the Eucharist is an outward performance of this belief, enacted to reassure his lover that he is Christian. His assertion of the paternity of Adam appears to be a claim to humanity on the part of the fairy. Thus the convergence of bodies here relies on preset categories and patterns of behaviour for its intelligibility – it is not simply a free-flowing set of incidences.

However, the ingestion of the Host by Muldumarec is more complex than simply his adherence to formulaic behavioural rituals. Earlier in this paper, following Bynum, I argued that this very behaviour (by a shape-shifting fairy) could be considered an unorthodox commingling of the human and the supernatural. Kathleen Biddick has written that the Host “can be regarded as a hybrid sacred object”.[28] Furthermore, the hybridity of the Eucharist upsets fixed binaries and results in a “fluid body that troubled any container.”[29] Through the transformation of Muldumarec’s body into that of his lover, and the subsequent ingestion of the Host, we can view the fairy as a hybrid. Hybridity need not result in a ‘new’ form that can be named or easily categorized; it is dependent on the possibility of bodies to merge and blend with one another. However, its intelligibility is also dependent, to some extent, on the categorization of the pre-hybridized bodies. Some assumption of boundaries must be made for the breaching of them to have any power.

Furthermore, it is important to note that, though hybrid, Muldumarec’s body still exists within a set of distinguishable contours – otherwise he would not be killed by the spikes on the window. There has to be some distinction between the body of the husband, the phenomenal reality of the spikes and the, admittedly hybridized, body of the fairy. The reader will discover that a collision of bodies – during the sexual act – can result in a partial continuation of the subject in the form of a son to avenge him. However, collision of bodies – in the impaling of the fairy on the spikes – can also result in the partial destruction of the subject through death.[30] Thus, collision and convergence must be understood contextually and with reference to pre-existing criteria and relationships. The parallels between the human world and that of the fairy, which I have examined above, suggest that it may be possible to use the criteria of human corporeal identity to understand the fairy. Yet these parallels do not represent absolute correspondence, and in acknowledging the similarities between the races, it is important not to deny the differences. Cohen’s Medieval Identity Machines posits the notion of a “posthuman” Middle Ages, and explores ideas of “becoming-subjects” and “identity circuits” in many texts. What is interesting about his assertions regarding Muldumarec is that he does not argue that the fairy is another example of the posthuman becoming-subject, but rather that, in his hybridity, he is becoming inhuman, Cohen is returning automatically to the basic and scarcely-challenged tenet of fairy studies: fairies are not human. In the final sections of this article, I would like to address the question of why we are often resistant to including the fairy in human identity schema.

Supernatural Powers

I have used the word ‘supernatural’ several times to describe fairies, and I would now like to consider how accurate this term is to describe these beings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘supernatural’ as that which “is above nature; belonging to a higher realm or system than that of nature; transcending the powers of the ordinary course of nature.” It is hard to apply this definition to creatures that eat, drink, sleep, have sex and die. Moreover, ‘nature’ itself is not a transhistorical term, and what is understood as “the ordinary course of nature” varies from culture to culture.[31]

Contemporary popular understandings of the word ‘supernatural’ link it with magic and the ability to carry out mysterious or enchanting deeds. As I have shown, it is in this regard that Dame Tryamour is differentiated from other scorned women of romance. She is not only able to withdraw her material favours from Sir Launfal in absentia, but she also punishes Guinevere by blinding her with a single breath:

Wyth that Dame Tryamour to the queen geth,
And blew on her swych a breth

That never eft myght sche se. (ll. 1006-8)

However, this blinding of the queen is the only act of magic that Tryamour performs in front of an audience. The other ‘mysterious’ events occur without her presence, and one can only assume she is responsible. For example, when Launfal breaks his promise and speaks of his lover, his knightly accoutrements simply disappear:

All that he hadde before ywonne,

Hyt malt as snow ayens the sunne. (ll. 739-40)

It is striking that there is no mention at all of Dame Tryamour in this passage. Furthermore, there is a possible explanation for the change in Launfal’s circumstances that requires no supernatural intervention. Since meeting Tryamour and gaining his new wealth, Launfal has spent lavishly, wearing robes of purple fabric trimmed with ermine (ll. 417-8), holding rich feasts (l. 421), dressing and feeding the poor (ll. 422-6), freeing prisoners (l. 428), and clothing minstrels (l. 430). He now finds he has no money left. His squire – facing employment with no further pay or security – rides away on his horse. Finally, Launfal sees that his armour, which has been put under serious strain in his numerous battles, is blackened. He now has no money to pay for its maintenance. Interestingly, the narrative employs a simile based in natural imagery to describe Launfal’s impoverishment: everything he has won has melted like snow.[32] And just as snow will always melt “ayens the sunne”, so too will riches melt in the heat of lavish spending.

If the magical element in Sir Launfal is somewhat elusive, it is non-existent in the Anglo-Norman analogue. When Lanval betrays his (unnamed) lover, all he loses is the woman herself: “dolenz en est, perdue l’a” [he was sorry for it, as he had lost her] (l. 380). In addition to this, the fairy mistress enacts no revenge, magical or otherwise, against the queen.

Similarly, Degaré’s father, the self-professed “fairi knyghte” apparently works no magic whatsoever. Possibly, the knight sends his lover a pair of gloves from his fairy realm. After their initial encounter, there is no reference made to the young woman seeing the fairy again. However, she later refers to the gloves “[t]hat here lemman here sente of fairi londe” (l. 195). The gloves are out-of-the-ordinary as they will only fit the young woman, but there is no reference to their delivery having been supernatural. The knight also predicts that the young woman is pregnant with a son after he has forced his attentions on her (ll. 116-7), but it is not made clear how he knows this – whether it is supernatural magic or some other type of divination.

Despite their supposedly ‘supernatural’ status, there is often little to differentiate between the behaviour of fairies and the behaviour of humans. And yet the boundary between the two realms is constantly figured as being a very real divide: it is impossible to place geographically, hard to exactly define but, nevertheless, it is there. Discussion of fairies almost invariably returns to the notions of borders, edges, boundaries. Jeremy Harte writes: “Fairies are the hidden people, the other crowd; talking about fairies is also a way of talking about boundaries”.[33] The boundary between the human world and the otherworld can work in many different ways, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the many different ways in which this border was depicted in medieval literature. I will focus my analysis here on how this boundary is presented and problematized in the specific texts of my study.[34]

The frontier of the otherworld is often represented as a border between realms that is difficult to cross, shifts geographically and can only be traversed with the permission or guidance of one of the “other crowd”. The hill through which the woman must travel to reach her lover’s kingdom in Yonec may be such a border (ll. 350-60); the rock through which Orfeo follows the fairy ladies may be another (ll. 347-52).[35] However, it may also be figured as a border between realities, as James Roy King suggests:

We may say, then, that an edge is not simply the place where something definable terminates or commences; it is a place – or a state of mind – in its own right, between blunt physical facts that most people regard as the only reality, a place where certain rather subtle people choose to be and where they accept vulnerability, out of necessity or because of the rewards it may bring them.[36]

The divide between the human and the fairy is thus described as a “state of mind”, and those who live there are “subtle” and “choose to.” This would suggest that residents of this “edge” have a certain freedom and choice about being there. However, in Yonec, Muldumarec states that he is unable to leave his own country until his lover has wished for him. Conversely, one assumes that the penniless Launfal would happily “choose” to return to his lover’s fairy land and be reunited with her. Having broken his vow, this option is not open to him. In these texts, acceptance is not enough to ensure transportation to the realm of the fairy: the human must undergo certain trials and tests before they can be reunited with their fairy lovers.

Despite the apparent lack of solidity, the border between the human and fairy realms remains very real in the minds of many writers. Robert Bartlett goes one step further and describes it as a “barrier”:

Relations between human beings and non-human beings in human form could be of the most intimate kind[…]and sexual contacts across the barrier between the two types of creature seem to have been common.[37]

This statement articulates some of the many contradictions in representations of fairies in literature. They are “non-human beings in human form”. The divide between the worlds is a “barrier”, but “sexual contact” was common. Fairy literature can thus be characterized by permeable boundaries and hybridized forms.

This idea of “sexual contact” between humans and fairies raises another problem in seeking to define the distinction between the “two types of creature”. In the texts under examination here, many of the relationships between humans and fairies are sexual. As I have shown, fairies can threaten and perpetrate rape. Furthermore, sexual relationships between the races often result in procreation or authorization. Two of the encounters result in children, and three result in marriage. In Yonec, a half-human-half-fairy boy assumes the throne in the land of Fairy, and at the end of both Lanval and Sir Launfal the fairy mistress returns to her kingdom with a new human husband. The suggestion made by Yonec’s mother is that fairy knights often leave their country to seek out (human) women who are in distress, which implies that many other children may be born of the same mixed parentage as Yonec and Degaré. Who, then, are the Fairy? Jeremy Harte has asked:

If the company of Faerie is being continually recruited from the human race, are there any actual fairies at all, or are they simply the elder Taken, so long distant from this world that they have become cruel and indifferent?[38]

We can see this confusion in Sir Orfeo, when the king encounters sixty fairy women. It is clear that these women have come from the fairy kingdom, as Orfeo must follow them to reach the otherworld. However, he recognizes his wife among them. At the moment of recognition, the other women, perhaps “cruel and indifferent,” separate the couple:

The other levedis this y-seighe
And maked hir oway to ride –

Sche most with him no lenger abide. (ll. 328-30)

The text is ambiguous as to who these other women are. They seem to be of the fairy king’s company; yet the presence of Heurodis in their party suggests that they too may be human women captured by the rout. They are not depicted as actively seeking human mates, like Tryamour and Muldumarec, but neither are they displaying any of the “messais” of the captured human woman (l. 325). The text is unclear as to their humanity. Of course, it should be noted here that Orfeo himself is not truly human – he is descended from both Pluto and Juno (ll. 43-4). This reminds the audience that not all romance heroes were presented as unequivocally ‘human’, and that miscegenation was a common generic motif.[39]

The question as to whether or not fairies are related to humans is complex. The number and variety of texts and oral stories that have circulated over the centuries offer diverging, and often contradictory, accounts of the distinction between the two types of being. However, in the texts under consideration here, there seems little evidence on which to base a definition of fairies as a wholly separate species to humans. As I have shown, they can closely resemble, have intercourse with, and change into human form. Yet their intervention in the lives of their human lovers – and the wider human society – suggests that they have a specific role to play in explorations of identity construction. Fairies in these tales are not a separate race; however they are not exactly human either.


The human protagonists in romance are often characterized by their development and transformation through the course of the narrative. Many romance tales feature characters who must develop from their young, inexperienced beginnings through a series of trials, lessons and changes.[40] Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that metamorphosis is a crucial concern in explorations of human identity. Humans, she argues, are “always changing”.[41] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen draws attention to the “impassioned and mutually transformative encounters” to be found in medieval writings.[42] The circuit of identity constructed in the encounters between humans and fairies is certainly impassioned, grounded as it is in sex, violence and death. It also represents an encounter of worlds and the transformative encounter of two different beings. Yet how far can we describe this encounter as “mutually transformative”? Though it cannot be doubted that the human is transformed through this relationship, does the fairy ever change?

Dame Tryamour, Lanval’s lover, Muldumarec and Degaré’s father have all loved humans for a long time, and from a distance. It seems that the fairy is capable of long and abiding emotions, and is not put off by the prospect of a long delay in fulfilling its desires. Indeed, as presented in these texts, it seems that a fairy is incapable of any infidelity to their loved ones. They fall in love and remain that way forever. Even when betrayed, Lanval’s lover and Dame Tryamour cannot ultimately renounce their loved ones, and both fairies eventually re-enter the human realm to reclaim their knights. Despite his beloved leaving him to return to her father’s kingdom, Degaré’s father never takes another lover and does not marry until he is reunited with her.

It could be argued that Muldumarec undergoes the most extreme transformation of all – he is killed. However, although the knight dies, he remains a permanent presence in the lives of those around him. Not only is he not replaced as lover – the woman stays faithful to her husband after the fairy’s death – but he is not replaced as a lord. When Yonec and his mother return to the fairy world years later, the citizens are still grieving. Muldumarec is not replaced until his own son has avenged his death. At this point, his lover dies and is buried in the tomb in which the fairy is waiting.

Many critics have argued that ‘self-identity’ is not a notion that can be applied to fairies, either in folk tradition or in pre-modern literature. Jeremy Harte writes:

[T]hose who passed on the traditions were not concerned with what the fairies were like in themselves; they were interested in how they might deal with people. It is only literature – and that not until after Shakespeare – that asks us to imagine what fairies do when there is no-one watching them.[43]

The ways in which fairies deal with people are, indeed, the primary concern of these texts. There are no passages in which the fairy appears without the company or witness of a human (and usually only their particular beloved). However, in both Yonec and Sir Launfal, there are clear suggestions as to the nature of the life the fairy leads away from contact with humans. Muldumarec is a loved and respected lord of a resplendent court; Tryamour is the daughter of a great and powerful king. Though these hints do not represent an actual presentation of the fairy’s life without the human, they do encourage the reader to imagine what that life might be like.

But despite these imagined possibilities for the fairy’s independent and dynamic life, every time the human looks for the fairy, it can be found – in the same place and the same role as before. They may have an ‘identity’, but it is static and unchanging. Even in death, the fairy remains in a permanent relationship to the human and is never replaced; it acts as an unmoving site at which the human self undergoes transformation and definition. In some respects, the fairy is almost indistinguishable from the human. Yet, whereas human identity is constituted in flux and transformation, fairy identity exists in stasis, an inert catalyst for human development.

It is also in this respect that fairies are distinct from many of the other monsters encountered in medieval verse romance. Unlike the otherworldly opponents of romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, these creatures are not reintegrated into the human court by a final transformative transaction. When Orfeo recovers Heurodis, he leaves the fairy kingdom exactly as he found it: “Right as he come, the way he yede” (l. 476). In considering a psychological analysis for the continuing fascination with monsters, Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills write that “freakish beings, in combining familiarity and difference, provide platforms for self-definition”.[44] The romance fairy, so familiar and recognizable, remains an unchanging platform for human transformation. It is in this respect that the fairy seems most “freakish”, most monstrous.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I have chosen to confine my consideration to a specific set of medieval texts. These texts are closely linked to one another, and also share thematic and generic concerns with many other texts. However, these texts also differ from one another and from other fairy stories. An attempt to define or characterize the ‘fairy’ is doomed to be reductive and fruitless. So many stories have been told that draw on the traditions that inspired the narratives in this study, and incorporate other sources and references, that it is impossible to try and approach an ontology. I intended, here, to explore the presentation and role of fairies in one particular group of texts. If these narratives contradict one another, or other sources, then the reader should not be wholly surprised. The perennial interest in fairies, and the variety of strategic and aesthetic purposes of fairy legend and literature, has resulted in a body of texts riddled with inconsistency and problems. The fairy is a multivalent creature – familiar, freakish and fascinating.

Hannah Priest is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Manchester, where she also completed her MA. Her thesis looks at identity construction in Middle English and Anglo-Norman romance, specifically in relation to episodes of sex, violence and transformation. Her interests include monsters (especially werewolves and fairies), chivalry and gender theory.

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‘The king o fairy with his rout’: Fairy Magic in the Literature of Late Medieval Britain by Hannah Priest is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


  1. See, for example, Jan M. Ziolkowski, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies (Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007); Christopher R. Fee, Gods, Heroes, and Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain (New York: Oxford University Press US, 2001).
  2. Claude Lecouteux, Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages, trans. Clare Frock (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 2003), p.65.
  3. Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), p.14.
  4. Sir Orfeo, ll. 387-402, eds. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995).
  5. Diane Purkiss, At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p.77.
  6. Jeremy Harte, Explore Fairy Traditions (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2004), p.32. Harte argues here that the word ‘fairy’ should be considered as an experiential, rather than ontological, definition.
  7. Sir Launfal, l. 280, eds. Laskaya and Salisbury, The Middle English Breton Lays.
  8. Sir Degaré, l. 100, eds. Laskaya and Salisbury, The Middle English Breton Lays.
  9. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary gives c.1240 as the first recorded use of the word in its Anglo-Norman form. It offers the translation “witchcraft, enchantment”. The word ‘fee’ is also found in Anglo-Norman texts, referring to supernatural beings or other creatures under enchantment. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary defines ‘fee’ as “enchanted being or elf”.
  10. While it may be possible that the creatures in the Anglo-Norman lais were a source for the fourteenth-century Middle English conception of fairies, only one of the English texts under consideration here (Sir Launfal) is a direct adaptation of an earlier narrative by Marie. Nevertheless, the English romances under consideration here are among those classed as “Middle English Breton lays”, a sub-genre which is often regarded as a descendent of Marie’s method of story-telling. See Laskaya and Salisbury, The Middle English Breton Lays, pp.1-2; A.C. Spearing, “Marie de France and Her Middle English Adapters”, Studies in the Age of Chaucer 12(1990): 117-56.
  11. Lanval, ll. 111-2, ed. Karl Warnke, Lais de Marie de France (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1990). All translations of Marie’s lais are my own.
  12. Yonec, l. 119, ed. Karl Warnke, Lais de Marie de France.
  13. The word does, however, appear in other twelfth-century French romances. For example, the Old French Lai du Cort Mantel and the Anglo-Norman Lai du Cor attribute the magical items brought to Arthur’s court to “un fee”. See Philip Bennett (ed.), Mantel et Cor: Deux Lais du XIIe Siecle (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1975).
  14. Ywain and Gawain, ll. 1613-6, ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd, Middle English Romances (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995).
  15. Harte, Explore Fairy Traditions, p.132.
  16. Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994), p.169.
  17. Ibid.
  18. It should be noted here that, while many depictions of the so-called ‘monstrous’ or ‘Plinian’ races show nude figures, several extant sources show clothes figures. Nor is there any apparent consensus among “medieval people” as to which races wore clothes and which did not. For example a Beatus map in the Bibliothèque Nationale, clearly shows a sciopod wearing a full robe, while a thirteenth-century bestiary at Oxford shows a decidedly naked sciopod but a fully-dressed blemmy with a sword and shield. See Pairs, Bibliothèque Nationale Nouv. Acqu. MS1366, fols. 24v.-25r; Oxford Bodleian Library MS Douce 88, pt. 2, fols. 69v.-70r. Reproduced in John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000), p.50, 20.
  19. Genesis 3:21-22.
  20. Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p.85. Bartlett argues that the woman makes the knight take communion to prove that he is not a demon in disguise. The text states that she wishes to be sure “s’en Deu creïst”[if he believed in God] (l. 143). It is unclear whether she fears he is a devil, a heathen, or something else entirely.
  21. William of Palerne exists in only one manuscript, Cambridge, King’s College MS 13. Three folios, containing around 216 lines of text, are missing from this manuscript. The extant copy opens with the cowherd discovering the child William. Based on the subsequent narrative, and the French source Guillaume de Palerne, this summary seems a likely conjecture as to how the opening lines may have read. See William of Palerne: An Alliterative Romance, ed. G.H.V. Bunt (Groningen: Boekhuis B.V., 1985), p.125. All quotations from this text are taken from Bunt’s edition.
  22. Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2005), p.97.
  23. The figure of the predatory male fairy that waits in the forest to prey on virgins was common in folkloric tales and ballads. One of the most well-known examples is the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, although there is no manuscript evidence of this ballad predating c.1549. In this narrative, Tam Lin is a (admittedly human) knight who lives in the land of the Fairy and guards Carterhaugh Forest. As virgins enter the forest, he takes their maidenheads. He is eventually rescued by his lover, Janet (sometimes Margaret) – although only after taking her virginity and impregnating her. See F.J. Child, The English and Scottish Ballads (New York: Dover Publications, 1965, orig. pub. 1882-98). However, the reference to weaponry and hunting in Sir Orfeo, and the fairy’s admittance that he would normally ride out fully armed in Sir Degaré, seem to suggest a different fairy “kynde” than the solitary sylvan rapist of the ballad tradition.
  24. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, ed. Larry D. Benson, The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), l. 859.
  25. For instance, in Ywain and Gawain, as Ywain and Salados fight, the audience is told that the two men bleed copiously “that men might ken” (l. 649). This idea is repeated later in the narrative when Ywain fights Gawain (ll. 3543-4). The idea of blood as important ocular proof of chivalric masculinity is prevalent throughout the romance genre. Bettina Bildhauer has argued that “blood held a particularly high status of proof in the Middle Ages”, seeMedieval Blood (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006), p.20.
  26. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.72. I would question Cohen’s assertion that Muldumarec spends “much of his life” in the body of the hawk, as the text gives no indication that the knight has assumed the form other than to see his beloved.
  27. Ibid., p.72
  28. Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), p.153.
  29. Ibid.
  30. I argue that death, here, represents only a “partial destruction” of the subject as the text posits Yonec, the fairy’s son, as a continuation of the dead man’s identity. Eventually, Yonec will succeed to his father’s throne and complete the task of freeing his mother from her loveless and oppressive marriage.
  31. It is beyond the scope and purpose of this article to explore the numerous medieval conceptualizations of ‘nature’. Many scholars have explored the ways in which both Latin and vernacular writings sought to identify natural laws and codify human nature. For example, see Hugh White, Nature, Sex and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). White’s work focuses on Latin, French and English traditions of presenting Nature in a personified form, and the uses to which this figure can be put in an examination of human identity and ethics.
  32. Although it is not the focus of my argument here, it is worth noting that a number of medieval writers commented on the ways in which nature (and Nature as a personified figure) could be conveyed through poetry and poetic imagery. For instance, writers such as Alan de Lille and John Gower suggested that the artistic act of creation involved in the composition of poetic fictions could be representative of the “formative processes of Nature”. See James Sampson, Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry: Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus and John Gower’s Confessio amantis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.8.
  33. Harte, Explore Fairy Traditions, p.81.
  34. On the depiction and significance of the otherworld and its borders in medieval literature, see Howard Rollin Patch, The Other World According to Descriptions in Medieval Literature (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1950); Robert Easting, Visions of the Other World in Middle English (Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 1997).
  35. Such a description may also describe the watery boundary between England and the Isle of Man in The Turke and Sir Gawain. This comparison raises the question of whether we should read the fairy’s kingdom as more human, or the human kingdom of Man as more fairy.
  36. James Roy King, Old Tales and New Truths: Charting the Bright-Shadow World (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p.57.
  37. Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, p.691.
  38. Harte, Explore Fairy Traditions, p.106.
  39. For instance, in Sir Gowther, the hero’s father is a devil – the same devil who had fathered Merlin. Elsewhere in chivalric romance, knights marry into ‘monstrous’ families. In Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, the protagonist marries a giant’s daughter.
  40. One such narrative is the Middle English Octavian, in which the young Florent must fight a giant, fall in love, be dubbed a knight and rediscover his true parentage in order to fulfil his quest for self-development. In Sir Degaré, too, the eponymous son of the fairy must go through a number of transformative stages before achieving a settled and fulfilled sense of self.
  41. Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, p.188.
  42. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, p.33.
  43. Harte, Explore Fairy Traditions, p.6.
  44. Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, “Introduction”, in The Monstrous Middle Ages, eds. Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), pp.1-27, at p.18.


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