Worse than Pagans

Tom Shippey

  • Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church by Richard Firth Green
    Pennsylvania, 285 pp, £36.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 8122 4843 2

At the start of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, Chaucer has the Wife declare that her tale is set long ago, in the days of King Arthur. Back then the land was ‘fulfild of fayerye’, and the elf queen danced with her company in the green meadows. But that’s all over now. The elves and fairies have been driven out by the friars, who have blanketed the country with prayers and blessings. Women can go anywhere in safety, because there is no ‘incubus’ left lurking in the bushes except for the friar himself, and he ‘ne wol doon hem but dishonour’: all he will do is dishonour them (sexually).

The Wife’s joke tells us a few things. One is that in Chaucer’s late medieval milieu at least – educated, metropolitan, sceptical – belief in fairies was a thing of the past. Chaucer mentions fairies several times, in several tales, but never takes them seriously. It’s also clear, though, that stories about fairies, and narrative motifs concerning them, were still familiar. The Wife’s tale is about a knight who is sentenced to death for rape but told by a jury of ladies that he can save himself if he finds out what women most desire. A hag gives him the right answer, ‘sovereignty’, on condition that he promises to marry her, but she is a shape-shifter – a fairy, or one of the other inhabitants of Fairyland, an elf, perhaps, or a corrigan. So all ends happily. The Knight has the sense not only to give the right answer to the jury of ladies, but also to concede it in practice to his new bride, who thereupon changes into a beauty.

The Wife’s initial joke depends on her audience’s awareness that male fairies, or incubuses, had a reputation for being lovers, rapists, sexual predators. They may have disappeared, but the friars on their perpetual rounds of what we might call ‘chugging’, visiting peasant households while the husbands are out in the fields, have taken on the role of the creatures they exorcised. The joke didn’t need explaining, even to Chaucer’s original audience. Everyone knew stories about dangerous male fairy lovers, and dominant female fairy mistresses.

The tenacity of fairy stories, or fairy motifs, is remarkable. Even now, most of us ‘know’ that fairies are masters of ‘heterochronology’: they can freeze or accelerate time, creating many Rip van Winkles. They are very glamorous, which is the reason Icelanders say frið sem álfkona, ‘fair as an elf-woman’, and Anglo-Saxons said ides ælfscinu, ‘elf-fair lady’. But they are dangerous too. Elves are ‘cruel for fun’, Granny Weatherwax says in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies (1992) – another hardline view, denied by some (Tolkien), maintained by others (Keats). They were thought to be wise, even prescient, which explains names like Ælf-red, ‘Elf-counsel’. The idea that if you go into Fairyland you must not eat or drink, another common trope, has been borrowed by many modern fantasy writers.

For all their tenacity, though, ideas about the inhabitants of Fairyland are also unstable, liable to revision. J.K. Rowling’s ‘house-elves’ are nothing like Tolkien’s ‘High Elves’. Some would say they’re ‘brownies’: they do domestic tasks while everyone’s asleep, they are attached to houses and families, and they can be freed by a gift of clothing, even if it’s only an old sock. How did they come to be called elves, and turn from dancers into drudges? Maybe because the Grimms’ tale of the Wichtelmänner was translated into English as ‘The Little Elves and the Shoemaker’. But who knows? The trouble with stories about non-existent creatures is that there is no check on error or invention.

This instability, as R.F. Green points out at the start of his enjoyable study, means that there is no possibility of creating a ‘fairy taxonomy’, which would set straight all the stories, beliefs and motifs, and reconstruct a long lost original mythology (as Jacob Grimm attempted to do for the Germanic world in his Deutsche Mythologie of 1835). The desire for one was certainly there. Beating Grimm very slightly to the punch, Thomas Keightley brought out his Fairy Mythology in 1828; Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, which appeared nearly a century later, had a similar aim. Since then, books and articles about the ‘fairy faith’ have continued to appear. But there was no ‘faith’, no ‘mythology’. It would have been easier for the medieval Church if there had been.

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