The Sources and Analogues of 'A Midsummer-Night's Dream'/The Fairy Plot

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3. The Fairy Plot[edit]

Siècles charmants de féerie,
Vous avez pour moi mille attraits,
Que de fois dans le rêverie,
Mon cœur vous donne de regrets.
Tout ne fut alors que mensonge aimable;
Tout n'est plus que réalité;
Rien n'est si jolie que la fable,
Si triste que la verité!

In The Midsummer-Night's Dream, Shakespeare presents a conception of fairy-land as original as that which owes its propagation to Perrault and the other French collectors of fairy-tales; its merits as a popular delineation of the fairy-world are proved by the fact that it has obtained the sanction and approval of tradition, passing almost at once into an accepted literary convention; so that even to-day it is not easy to shake off the inherited impression that the fairies are only what Shakespeare shows them to be. He did not, of course, invent them; he had doubtless both read of them and heard tales of them; but he invested them with a delicate and graceful fancy that has held the popular imagination ever since. Thanks to him, the modern English conception of the fairies is different from the conceptions prevalent in other countries, and infinitely more picturesque and pleasant.

As before, it will be convenient to deal first with the names of his characters.

Oberon is the English transliteration of the French Auberon in the romance of Huon of Bordeaux, and Auberon is probably merely the French counterpart of Alberich or Albrich, a dwarf occurring in the German Nibelungenlied and other works. Etymologically Alberich is composed of alb = elf and rich = king. The name Oberon appears first in English literature in Lord Berners' translation of Huon of Bordeaux (c. 1534), and afterwards in Spenser[1] and in Robert Greene's play James IV, which was acted in 1589.[2] But the king of the fairies in Chaucer[3] is Pluto, and the queen Proserpine.

Titania. Proserpine is the wife of Pluto (in Greek, form, Persephone, wife of Dis). In Elizabethan times, Campion's charming poem "Hark, all you ladies that do sleep"[4] keeps the name of "the fairy-queen Proserpina." Shakespeare appears to have taken the name Titania from Ovid,[5] who uses it as an epithet of Diana, as being the sister of Sol or Helios, the Sun-god, a Titan. Scot, in his Discovery of Witchcraft,[6] gives Diana as one of the names of the "lady of the fairies"; and James I, in his Demonology (1597) refers to a "fourth kind of sprites, which by the Gentiles was called Diana and her wandering court, and amongst us called the Phairie."

Curiously enough in Shakespeare's most famous description of the Fairy Queen, she is called Queen Mab;[7] this is said to be of Celtic derivation. Mercutio's catalogue of Mab's attributes and functions corresponds closely with the description of Robin Goodfellow.

Puck is strictly not a proper name; and in the quartos and folios of A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Puck, Robin, and Robin Goodfellow are used indiscriminately. In no place in the text is he addressed as "Puck"; it is always "Robin"[8] (once[9] "Goodfellow" is added). In the last lines of the play he twice refers to himself as "an honest Puck" and "the Puck," [10] showing that the word is originally a substantive. Dr. J.A.H. Murray has very kindly allowed the slips of the New English Dictionary which contain notes for the article 'Puck' to be inspected; his treatment of the word will be awaited with much interest. The earliest and most important reference is to Prof. A.S. Napier's Old English Glosses (1900), 191, where in a list of glosses of the eleventh century to Aldhelm's Aenigmata occurs "larbula [i. e. larvula], puca." Prof. Napier notes that O.E. pūca, "a goblin," whence N.E. Puck, is a well authenticated word. Dr. Bradley suggests that the source might be a British word, from which the Irish púca would be borrowed; this word pooka, as well as the allied poker, has already been treated in the N.E.D. Puck, pouke, we find in O.E. (Old English Miscellany, E.E.T.S., 76), in Piers Plowman, and surviving in Spenser; but there are countless analogous forms: puckle, pixy, pisgy, in English, and perhaps (through Welsh) bug, the old word for bugbear, bogy, bogle, etc.; puki in Icelandic; pickel in German; and many more.[11]

We may note here the euphemistic tendency to call powerful spirits by propitiatory names. Just as the Greeks called the Furies "Eumenides," the benevolent ones, so is Robin called Good-fellow; the ballad of Tam Lin[12] refers to them as "gude neighbours"; the Gaels[13] term a fairy "a woman of peace"; and Professor Child points out the same fact in relation to the neo-Greek nereids.[14] Hence also "sweet puck."[15] The names of the four attendant fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustard-seed, are Shakespeare's invention, chosen perhaps to typify grace, lightness, speed, and smallness.

The literary sources on which Shakespeare, in writing of fairies, probably drew—or those, at least, on which he could have drawn—can be shortly stated. We have already mentioned Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584); this was no doubt the chief source of information regarding Puck or Robin Goodfellow, as well as of the fairies themselves. Shakespeare was doubtless also familiar with the treatment accorded to the fairy-world by Chaucer[16] and Spenser[17] and with the many tales of supernatural beings in romances like Huon of Bordeaux and others of the Arthurian cycle. There is also a black-letter tract concerning Robin Goodfellow,[18] but no one has yet proved that this pamphlet was in print before 1628, the date of the earliest surviving edition. Ultimately, however, this matters little, because the tract is evidently drawn largely from oral traditions about Robin, and so has a source common with that of much of Shakespeare's fairy-lore.

Minor allusions, chiefly, to Robin Goodfellow, he may have met with in various works[19] published before the assumed date of the play; but these, again, add nothing which Shakespeare could not have learned just as well from the superstitions of his day. What these were, and how he handled them, we must now proceed to discuss.

In approaching a subject such as fairy-lore, it is necessary to prepare the mind of the reader to go back to days not merely pre-Christian but even pre-national. Our fairies can no more justly be called English than can our popular poetry. Folk-lore—the study of the traditional beliefs and customs of the common people—is a science invented centuries too late;[20] for lack of evidence, it is largely theoretical. But it teaches its students continually to look further afield, and to compare the tales, ballads, superstitions, rites, and mythologies of one country with those of another. The surprising results thus obtained must not make us think that one country has borrowed from another; we must throw our minds back to a common ancestry and common creeds. "The attempt to discriminate modern national characteristics in the older stratum of European folk-lore is not only idle but mischievous, because it is based upon the unscientific assumption that existing differences, which are the outcome of comparatively recent historical conditions, have always existed." These are the wise words of a sound folk-lorist,[21] and should be laid to heart by all who take up the study.

We cannot begin to investigate the origins of the fairy superstition in the cradle of the world; we must be content to realise that there was a creed concerning supernatural beings common to all the European branches of the Aryan peoples, Greek, Roman, Celt or Teuton. When Thomas Nashe wrote in 1594 of "the Robbin-good-fellowes, Elfes, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former daies and the fantasticall world of Greece ycleaped Fawnes, Satyres, Dryades, and Hamadryades," he spoke more truly than he knew.[22]

First of all, let us consider the word fairy. Strictly, this is a substantive meaning either "the land of the fays," or else "the fay-people" collectively; it is also used as an equivalent for "enchantment." It was originally, therefore, incorrect to speak of "a fairy";[23] the singular term is "a fay," as opposed to "the fairy." Fay is derived, through French, from the Low Latin fata, misunderstood as a feminine singular; it is in fact the plural of Fatum, and means "the Fates."

Reversing the chronological order, let us proceed to compare the functions of these beings. The Fates, whether the Greek Moirae or the Roman Parcae, were three in number, and were variously conceived as goddesses of birth or of death; the elements of the primitive idea are, at least, comprised in the conception that they allotted man his fate; we may also note that the metaphor of spinning was used in connection with their duties.

Leaving classical lands and times, we find in the tenth century, amongst the Eddic Lays of northern Europe, the following passage:—

"It was in the olden days ... when Helgi the stout of heart was born of Borghild, in Braeholt. Night lay over the house when the Fates came to forecast the hero's life. They said that he should be called the most famous of kings and the best among princes. With power they twisted the strands of fate for Borghild's son in Braeholt...."[24]

Here the "Fates" are the "Norns" of the northern mythology. We find them practising the same functions again in twelfth century Saxo Grammaticus,[25] who calls them "three maidens"; their caprices are shown when two of them bestow good temper and beauty on Fridleif's son Olaf, and the third mars their gifts by endowing the boy with niggardliness.

In commenting upon both the Eddic Lay and the Danish Historian, the editors remark that this point of the story—the bestowal of gifts at birth—survives in the chanson de geste of Ogier the Dane,[26] whose relations with the fairy-world may be narrated shortly as follows.[27]

At the birth of Ogier the Dane, five fairies promised him strength, bravery, success, beauty, and love; after them came Morgan le Fay, whose gift was that, after a glorious career, Ogier should come to live with her at her castle of Avalon. When the hero was over a hundred years of age, Morgan caused him to be wrecked near Avalon. In his wanderings he comes to an orchard, where he eats an apple. A beautiful lady approaches whom he mistakes for the Virgin; but she tells him she is Morgan le Fay. She puts a ring on his finger and he becomes young; she puts a crown on his head, and he forgets the past. For two hundred years he lives in unearthly delights, and the years seem to him to be but twenty. He then returns to earth to champion Christendom; but after triumphing over his foes he returns to Avalon.[28]

The tale of Ogier was long popular in Denmark—of which country he is the national hero—and also in France; and the notion of supernatural gifts at birth has obtained a very wide vogue. But Ogier's story also exhibits another very popular piece of superstition—that of a journey to or a sojourn in the supernatural world.[29] Our English parallel to Ogier, as Professor Child points out,[30] is Thomas of Erceldoune.

This leads us to the consideration of three English metrical Romances, which in all probability are derived from French sources, containing accounts of the visits to fairy-land made by Thomas of Erceldoune, Launfal, and Orfeo. The first and last of these are also known in the form of ballads; whether these ballads derive directly from the romances, or may be supposed to have existed side by side with them in the fifteenth century, is a question which must not delay us here. The romances and the ballads may all have been known to Shakespeare in book-form or in tradition.

The romance of Thomas of Erceldoune is a poem in three "fyttes" or sections, which is preserved wholly or in part in five manuscripts, of which the earliest may be dated about 1435. The poem tells us that Thomas of Erceldoune's prophetic power was a gift from the queen of Elf-land, with whom he paid a visit to her realm. The first "fytte" is occupied in narrating his sojourn;[31] while the other two set forth the predictions with which the queen supplied him. The romance is probably of Scottish origin, as the prophecies treat mainly of Scottish history; but the first "fytte" (which alone concerns us here, and indeed appears to be separate in origin from the other two) refers to an "older story." This, Professor Child says, "was undoubtedly a romance which narrated the adventure of Thomas with the elf queen simply, without specification of his prophecies."

Doubtless the older story was not originally attached to Thomas of Erceldoune, who, as "Thomas Rymour of Ercildoune," is a historical character. He lived, as is proved by contemporary documents, in the thirteenth century, at Ercildoune (Earlstoun on the banks of the Leader in Berwickshire), and gained a reputation as a "rymour," i.e. poet and prophet—in which character he was venerated by the folk for centuries.

But the Rymour does not concern us; the tale of a mortal's visit to elf-land would have been told of some one, whether Thomas or another; he was a prophet, and prophets needed explanation. His journal to fairy-land, as narrated in the fifteenth-century romance, survives in the well-known ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.[32]

Two points in romance and ballad may be noted. (i) In the romance the lady shows Thomas four roads, leading respectively to heaven, paradise, purgatory, and hell, besides the fair castle of Elf-land. The ballad is content with three roads, to heaven, hell, and Elf-land. (ii) Both in the romance and the ballad, and also in Ogier the Dane, the hero makes the same mistake, of supposing his supernatural visitor to be the Virgin Mary.[33]

A curious point about the first "fytte" is that it opens (ll. 1-18) in the first person; at line 41 Thomas is mentioned, and the poem continues in the third person to the end, with a single and sudden change to the first in line 208. I do not know whether any assumption as to the authorship of the romance can be based on such facts; the "I" question in early popular poetry forms an interesting study in itself.[34]

The English romance of Sir Launfal, which survives in a manuscript[35] of the fifteenth century, is therein said to have been "made by Thomas Chestre"; but in fact it is chiefly a translation from Marie de France's lay of Lanval, dating from the middle of the thirteenth century. The translator, Thomas Chestre, has, however, taken incidents from other "lais" by Marie de France, and enlarged the whole until it is some three hundred lines longer than the French original.

Shakespeare may have read the tale in print. Sir Lambewell appears to have been printed about 1558,[36] and to have remained in circulation at least until 1575,[37] but no complete copy is now known. A single MS. version of 1650 survives, however, in the Percy Folio.[38] This is another translation from the same French original, but made by some one acquainted with Thomas Chestre's version.

The story as told in the first of these manuscripts may be condensed as follows. Launfal had been ten years a steward to King Arthur before the King's marriage. He did not like Guinevere, who gave him no gift at her wedding; so he asked leave of the King to go home and bury his father. He went to Caerleon, with two knights given him by Arthur, and sojourned with the mayor; but when his money was spent, he fell into debt, and his knights returned to Arthur's court in rags; but at Launfal's request, they gave out that he was faring well.

One day Launfal rode out in poor attire into the forest, and sat him under a tree to rest. After a while, two fair damsels, beautifully attired and bearing a gold basin and a silk towel, approached him, and bade him come speak with their lady, Dame Triamour, daughter to the King of Olyroun, king of fairy. Launfal was led to where the lady lay, and "all his love in her was light."

On the morrow she promised him rich presents, and said she would come to him whenever he wished for her in a secret place; but he was never to boast of her love. Her presents came to him at the mayor's house of Caerleon, and he spent his riches charitably.

The King, hearing of an exploit of Launfal's, summoned him back to court. The Queen tempted him, but he repulsed her by saying he loved a fairer woman; this of course lost him Triamour. Guinevere (by a trick common in romances) accused Launfal to Arthur; but he was saved from disgrace by the appearance of Triamour, who then carried him off into fairy-land to Olyroun.

The romance of Sir Orpheo, a mediaeval version of the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice, has come down to us in three manuscripts,[39] two of which are not quite complete, which are to be assigned to the fifteenth century at latest. As in the case of Launfal, it is doubtless a translation from the French; but as there is no extant original, this can only be presumed. Orpheus becomes Orpheo or Orfeo, and Eurydice becomes Erodys, Heurodis, or Meroudys; in the last the initial letter may be due to the m in "dame," the word preceding it.

The story is told as follows.

In all the world there was no better harper than King Orfeo [Sir Orpheo], and no fairer lady than dame Meroudys. On a morning in the beginning of May, the queen went forth with her ladies to an orchard, and fell asleep under an "ympe"[40] tree till it was long past noon. When her ladies woke her, she cried aloud, tore her clothes, and disfigured herself with her nails. They sought assistance and put her to bed in her chamber, whither the king came to visit her, and ask her what might help her. She told him how in her sleep she had been bidden by a knight to come and speak with his lord the king; she refused, but the king came to her, with a hundred knights and a hundred ladies in white on white steeds, and his crown was all of precious stones. He bore her away to a fair palace, and showed her his possessions. Then he took her back, but bade her be beneath the tree on the morrow, when she should go with them and stay with them for ever.

King Orfeo was greatly distressed, and none could advise him. On the morrow he took his queen and ten hundred knights to guard her beneath the ympe tree; but in vain, she was away with the fairy, and they knew not whither. King Orfeo in grief called together his barons and knights and squires, and bade them obey his high steward as regent; he himself went forth barefoot and in poor attire into the wilderness, with naught but his harp.

So for ten winters he abode in the forest and on the heath, in a hollow tree, or under leaves and grass, till his frame shrank and his beard grew long; and ever and anon, when the day was fair, he would play his harp, and the beasts of the forest and the birds on bush and briar would come about him to hearken.

Then on a hot day he saw the king of fairy and his retinue riding with hounds and blowing horns; and again he saw a great host of knights with drawn swords; and again he saw sixty ladies, gentle and gay, riding on palfreys and bearing hawks on their wrists. Their falcons had good sport, and Orfeo drew nigh to watch; and looking on the face of one of the ladies, he recognised Meroudys. They gazed at each other speechless, and tears ran from her eyes; but the other ladies bore her away. The king followed them to a fair country where there was neither hill nor dale, and into a castle, gaining entrance as a minstrel. Then he saw many men and women sleeping on every side, seemingly dead; among them he again beheld his wife. And he came before the king and queen of that realm, and harped so sweetly that the king promised him whatever he might ask. He asked for the fair dame Meroudys; and he took her by the hand, and they fared homewards.

In his own city he lodged awhile in poor quarters, and then went forth to play his harp; and meeting his steward, who knew the harp but not his master, told him he had found the harp ten winters ago, by the side of a man eaten by lions. This evil news caused the steward to swoon, whereupon King Orfeo revealed himself, and sent for dame Meroudys. She came in a triumphant procession; there was mirth and melody; and they were new-crowned king and queen. Harpers of Bretayne heard this tale and made the lay and called it after the king

"That Orfeo hight, as men well wote; Good is the lay, sweet is the note!"

The ballad which represents the débris of this romance has only been recovered in a single text, from the memory of an old man in Unst, Shetland, and it is incomplete in verse-form, though the reciter remembered the gist of the story. This version of the ballad is further complicated by the fact that the old man sang it to a refrain which appears to be Unst pronunciation of Danish—a startling instance of phonetic tradition.

It is not, however, to be understood from this that it was impossible for Shakespeare to have heard this ballad; English versions may have been current in his time. But even so, the ballad would add nothing to the knowledge he might gain elsewhere; it is simply a short form of the romance altered by tradition.[41]

There are half-a-dozen other English and Scottish ballads concerning fairies, none of much importance touching our present theme. They may be best studied in Child's collection, Nos. 35-41, where under Tam Lin he has put together the main features of fairy-lore revealed in traditional ballads.[42] One or two such points may be noted here.

We have seen that Ogier saw the supernatural lady after plucking and eating an apple from a tree. Thomas of Erceldoune, Launfal, and Meroudys, are sleeping or lying beneath a tree when they see their various visitors. Tam Lin in the ballad was taken by the fairies while sleeping under an apple tree. Malory[43] tells us that Lancelot went to sleep about noon (traditionally the dangerous hour) beneath an apple tree, and was bewitched by Morgan le Fay. In modern Greek folk-lore, certain trees are said to be dangerous to lie under at noon, as the sleeper may be taken by the nereids, who correspond to our fairies.

At certain intervals—every seven years, the ballads say—the fiend of hell takes a tithe from the fairies, usually preferring one who is fair and of good flesh and blood. Hence in Thomas of Erceldoune,[44] the elf queen is anxious that he should leave her realm, because she thinks the foul fiend would choose him (ll. 219-224).

The notion of the fairies' demand of a tithe of produce, agricultural or domestic, is parallel to this sacrifice.[45]

A third point on which fairy-lore usually insists is that the steeds of the fairies shall be white; here Thomas of Erceldoune is at variance with the other poems, the elf-queen's palfrey being a dapple-grey. It is curious to learn that this superstition still survives. "At that time there was a gentleman who had been taken by the fairies, and made an officer among them, and it was often people would see him and her riding on a white horse at dawn and in the evening."[46]

It will have been observed that the tale of Orfeo varies considerably from the classical tale of Orpheus; but this is not surprising; no one can imagine that it comes direct from the classics. A French original is presumed; indeed, there are references in early "lais" to a "Lai d'Orphey," indicating the existence of a poem which was probably the original of our King Orfeo. This original is presumed to have been a Breton lay, one of the many that were popular in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the English version may have been taken from the supposed source through a French form.

Now, these Breton lays were chiefly on Celtic subjects, and placed their scenes in the Celtic realms of Great Britain, Little Britain, Ireland, or Scotland. The bards of Armorica doubtless picked up a good story wherever they could find it; and the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice would appeal strongly to Celts, who have always been famous for harping. But why should these early Celtic singers have made such changes in the story, unless they had a similar story of their own which was confused with it? The parallel story has been adduced by Professor Kittredge[47] from an Irish epic tale, The Wooing (or Courtship) of Etain. The portions of the story which concern us here follow.

Eochaid Airemm, king of Ireland, found him a wife in Etain daughter of Etar in the Bay of Cichmany, and with her Mider of Bri Leith (a fairy chief) was in love. On a summer's day, as the king sat on the heights of Tara beholding the plain of Breg, a strange young warrior appeared, gave his name as Mider, and challenged Eochaid to a game of chess for a wager. Many were the games they played, and at first Eochaid won, and bade Mider carry out certain tasks. But at last Eochaid was defeated, and Mider for his reward asked to be allowed to hold Etain in his arms and kiss her. Eochaid put him off for a month; at the end of which time he called together the armies of Ireland, and took Etain into the palace, and shut and locked the doors, and ringed the house with guards. Yet at the appointed hour Mider stood in their midst, fairer than ever; and he sang to Etain:—

"O fair-haired woman, will you come with me into a marvellous land wherein is music, where heads are covered with primrose hair and bodies are white as snow? There is no "mine" or "thine" there; white are teeth, and black are eyebrows, and cheeks are the hue of the foxglove, and eyes the hue of blackbirds' eggs.... We see everything on every side, yet no man seeth us. Though pleasant the plains of Ireland, yet are they a wilderness for him who has known the great plain."

But Etain would not go to him, before Eochaid was willing to resign her. And the king would not, yet allowed Mider to embrace her before him. Mider took his weapons into his left hand, and Etain with his right, and bore her away through the skylight. The guards outside beheld two swans flying, and they flew towards the elf-mound of Femun, which is called the Mound of the Fair-haired Women.

For nine years Eochaid waged war against Mider, digging into the elf-mounds, until he hit upon the fairy-mansion; whereupon Mider sent to the side of the palace sixty women, all exactly like Etain. And first the king carried away the wrong woman, but when he returned to sack Bri Leith, Etain made herself known to him, and he bore her back to the palace at Tara.

It is reasonable to suppose, then, that some Armorican bard, hearing the classical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, remembered the Celtic legend of Eochaid and Etain, and grafted the one on the other. Hades became Bri Leith, or the vaguely-defined beautiful unknown country; but the classical names displaced the Celtic. The confusion, however, did not at once cease. In one of the MSS. of Sir Orfeo it is said that Orfeo's father

"Was comen of king Pluto,
And his moder of king Juno"

—confusion worse confounded. Moreover, as we have already seen, even Chaucer called the fairy-king Pluto and the queen Proserpina.

Again, to hark back to the other romances, we have found the word fay attached to the name of King Arthur's sister Morgan. Nothing is more remarkably certain than the close and constant association in mediaeval lore of the fairies and the fairy-world with the Arthurian cycle of romance;[48] King Arthur's sister was Morgan le Fay, whose son by Ogier was Merlin; and the romance of Huon of Bordeaux, which relates these facts, though strictly belonging to the Charlemagne cycle, contains the account of Oberon's bequest of his realm to King Arthur. Chaucer, whatever other doubts he may have had, was convinced on this point:—[49]

"In th' olde daiès of the King Arthoure,
Of which that Bretons speken gret honoure,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye;
The elfqueen with hir joly companye
Dauncèd ful ofte in many a grenè mede;
This was the olde opinion as I rede."

Now the Arthurian legends ultimately derive from Celtic tales, which must be supposed to have travelled from Wales into France by way of Brittany—Little Britain, or Armorica—in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; for there are Welsh versions independent of the Breton forms, though closely akin. Students of early Celtic literature have not as yet agreed about the historical relations between Welsh and Irish stories—whether the Welsh imposed their mythology and heroic legends on the Irish, or vice versa; but the general similarity between them is undeniable, and easily explicable by a common Celtic source.

Everything, then, points to the Celtic legends as the chief origin of the mediaeval fairy-lore; and the early Celtic literature, although its study, complicated by an unfamiliar language, has only recently been undertaken scientifically, has already revealed an extremely rich and complete store of romance that extends over a thousand years. From manuscripts which are attributed to the twelfth century (and even so contain matter rightly belonging to the ninth or tenth), we can trace the development of a creed concerning supernatural beings through the succeeding centuries, down to a time at which the written account is displaced by recorded oral tradition. A race of beings, who must originally have fallen from the Celtic Olympus, continue to appear, with characteristics that remain the same in essence, and under a designation that may be heard in Ireland today, through ten centuries of Irish tradition and literature.[50]

These people are called in Irish mythology the Tuatha Dé Danann, described from at latest 1100 A.D. as aes sidhe, "the folk of the [fairy-] hillock;" the name for fairies in Ireland now is "the Sidhe."[51] Originally, it may be, the aes sidhe were not identified with the Tuatha Dé Danann; and before the twelfth century the Sidhe were not associated with the Celtic belief in "a beautiful country beyond the sea," a happy land called by various names—Tir-nan-Og (the land of youth), Tir Tairngire (the land of promise)—which has now become "fairy-land." In the earliest heroic legends the Tuatha Dé Danann assist or protect mortal champions, and fall in love with mortal men and maids; but with the spread of Christianity (as might be expected) they lost many of their previous characteristics.[52]

To look back for a moment, we must note that so far we have touched no belief later than the fifteenth century, and already we have seen enough blending of various superstitions and legends to give our fairies a very mixed ancestry. Classical mythology, Celtic heroic sagas and northern Eddas in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, Saxo the Danish historian in the twelfth, and a series of romances, running through Celtic-Breton-French-English languages from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries—all combine to alter or add to the popular conception of fairies. Celtic Mider is of human stature, beautiful, powerful, dwelling beneath the earth; he attempts to carry off a mortal bride. Teutonic Alberich is a dwarf, presumably not handsome, but well disposed to mortals. But when we come to Huon of Bordeaux we find Oberon's characteristics are derived from varying sources. He himself describes[53] to Huon, in a fantastic romance-style, which attempts to associate him with as many classic heroes as possible, his parentage and birth:—

"I shall show thee true, it is Julius Caesar engendered me on a lady of the Privy Isle ... the which is now named Chifalonny [Cephalonia] ... after a seven year Caesar passed by the sea as he went into Thessaly whereas he fought with Pompey; in his way he passed by Chifalonny, where my mother fetched him, and he fell in love with her because she showed him that he should discomfit Pompey, as he did." We are almost supplied with the date of Oberon's birth.

He proceeds to narrate how all the fairies but one were invited to his birth, and that one, in anger, said that when he was three years old he should cease to grow; however, she repented immediately and added that he should be "the fairest creature that nature ever formed." Another fairy endowed him with the power of seeing into the minds of all men; and a third enabled him to go whither he would at a wish. "Moreover, if I will have a castle or a palace at my own device, incontinent it shall be made, and as soon gone again if I list; and what meat or wine that I will wish for, I shall have it incontinent."

Elsewhere[54] in the romance his handsome equipment and dress are described; his gown, his bow, and above all his horn, "made by four ladies of the fairy," who endowed it with four gifts; it cured all diseases by its blast, it banished hunger and thirst, it brought joy to the heavy-hearted, and forced any one who heard to come at the wish of its owner.

Horns, in English folk-lore, appear to belong rather to elves than to fairies[55]—the elves that haunt hills, and are known all over Europe; dwarfs, trolls, kobolds, pixies, and so forth. Teutonic witches are called horn-blowers. Again, the fairy-train or fairy-hunt is supposed to carry horns; we have seen it already in Sir Orfeo,[56] and in Thomas of Erceldoune,[57] the fairy-queen bears a horn about her neck.

But this Oberon of Huon of Bordeaux is mortal, and is not pictured as being abnormal in stature, any more than Mider. Shakespeare's Oberon and Mider are invisible (or can make themselves so), both have supernatural powers, and both are immortal.

The question of the size conventionally attributed to the fairies is of importance, because it shows that a confusion existed between the fays of romance with the elves of folk-superstition. Elves and their numerous counterparts in all European countries and elsewhere—we have just given a list of names which can easily be extended—are above all things small; they also are earth-dwellers, living in hills or underground chambers, and originally, perhaps, were supposed to be mischievous by nature. But even in Shakespeare's day, it would be impossible to say that fairies were benevolent and elves malevolent; the two kinds and their respective characteristics were already confused.

Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, or Hobgoblin, is however essentially mischievous. In a book contemporary with our play we find:—

"Think me to be one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed than endued with any hurtful influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellow, and suchlike spirits, as they term them, of the buttery, famoused in every old wives' chronicle for their mad merry pranks."[58]

But four years later, as we have seen,[59] Nashe confounds elves with fairies in deriving all alike from fauns and dryads. Robin is "mad-merry," "jocund and facetious," "a cozening idle friar or some such rogue" [in origin], and so forth—simply described by Shakespeare as a "shrewd and knavish sprite." The forms of mischief in which he delights are described in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, II. i. 33-57, and all these "gests" may be found in the contemporary Robin Goodfellow literature;[60] though we have observed that some of the functions attributed to Queen Mab in Mercutio's famous speech[61] belong rightly to Robin.[62]

Thus we see—to take into consideration but a few points of the myth—that the fairy-superstition and the elf-superstition were melted together in the popular pre-Shakespearean mind, and that Shakespeare himself, making a new division of the characteristics of the two, yet re-welded the whole into one realm by putting the Puck in subjection under the fairy king.

The main characteristics of Shakespeare's fairies, then, may be summarised shortly:—[63]

They are a community under a king and queen, who hold a court; they are very small, light, swift, elemental; they share in the life of nature; they are fond of dancing and singing; they are invisible and immortal; they prefer night, and midnight is their favourite hour; they fall in love with mortals, steal babies and leave changelings, and usurp the function of Hymen in blessing the marriage-bed. Oberon, "king of shadows," can apparently see things hidden from Puck.[64]

Titania, "a spirit of no common rate," is yet subject to passion and jealousy, and had a mortal friend, "a votaress of my order."[65]

The fairy of folk-lore in Shakespeare's day is nearly everything that the fairies of A Midsummer-Night's Dream are; we may possibly except their exiguity, their relations in love with mortals, and their hymeneal functions. His conception of their size as infinitesimal at least differs from that of the popular stories, where (as far as can be ascertained) they are shown to be about the size of mortal children.

We may conclude these remarks with the modern Irish-Catholic theory of the origin of the fairies:—

"When Lucifer saw himself in the glass, he thought himself equal with God. Then the Lord threw him out of Heaven, and all the angels that belonged to him. While He was 'chucking them out,' an archangel asked Him to spare some of them, and those that were falling are in the air still, and have power to wreck ships, and to work evil in the world."[66]


1 ^  Faerie Queen, II. i. 6, II. x. 75.

2 ^  See A.W. Ward's English Dramatic Literature, i. 400, ii. 85.

3 ^  The Marchantes Tale, 983 (Skeat, E. 2227).

4 ^  A.H. Bullen's edition of Campion (1903), p. 20.

5 ^  Metamorphoses, iii. 173. Ovid, in the same work, uses "Titania" also as an epithet of Latona (vi. 346), Pyrrha (i. 395), and Circe (xiv. 382, 438). The fact that Golding gives "Phebe" as the translation of "Titania" in iii. 173, is a strong piece of evidence that Shakespeare sometimes at least read his Ovid in the Latin.

6 ^  Ed. Brinsley Nicholson, p. 32. Book III, chap. ii. (See p. 135.)

7 ^  Romeo and Juliet, I. iv, 53, sqq.

8 ^  In II. i. 40, "sweet puck" is no more a proper name than "Hobgoblin"; so also in l. 148 of the same scene. In neither case should the name be printed with a capital P.

9 ^  II. i. 34.

10 ^  V. i. 418, 421.

11 ^  Wright, English Dialect Dictionary, s.v. Puck, gives Scotland, Ireland, Derby, Worcester, Shropshire, Gloucester, Sussex and Hampshire as localities where the name is recorded.

12 ^  Text H in Child's Ballads, I. 352.

13 ^  Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1890), vol. ii, tales xxv, xxvi, etc.

14 ^  Ballads, I. 314, and note.

15 ^  M.N.D., II. i. 40. (See note on p. 37.)

16 ^  The Wyf of Bathe's Tale, at the beginning; and elsewhere.

17 ^  The Faerie Queene, chiefly in Book II, where in Canto X, stanzas 70-76, he gives a fictitious list of the generations of fairies; the first "Elfe" was the image made by Prometheus, to animate which he stole fire from heaven; the list ends with Oberon, and Tanaquil the Faerie Queen.

18 ^  See below, Robin Good-fellow

19 ^  Mr. Chambers, in his edition of the play, Appendix A, § 18, gives (i) Tarlton's News out of Purgatory (1590) (see p. 63), (ii) Churchyard's Handfull of Gladsome Verses (1592) (see p. 141), (iii) Nashe's Terrors of the Night (1594).

20 ^  The word folk-lore has only been in existence sixty years, and the science is very little older; it was vaguely referred to as "popular antiquities" before that time.

21 ^  Alfred Nutt, The Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare (1900), p. 24. This little book is instructive and valuable.

22 ^  Nashe's Works, ed. R.B. McKerrow, i. 347.

23 ^  Gower, however, does so, as early as the fourteenth century; Confessio Amantis, ii. 371.

24 ^  The opening of the beautiful Helgi and Sigrun Lay as translated by Vigfusson and York Powell in Corpus Poeticum Boreale (1883), i. 131; see also the editors' Introduction, i. lxi, lxiv.

25 ^  Danish History, iii. 70, 77; vi. 181; cf. O. Elton's translation (1894), pp. 84, 93, 223, and York Powell's introduction thereto, lxiv.

26 ^  "It is worth noting that the Romance of Olger the Dane contains several late echoes of the old Helgi myth. a. The visit of the fairies by night to the new-born child ... e. His return to earth after death or disappearance ... Mark that Holgi is the true old form ... The old hero Holgi and the Carling peer Otgeir (Eadgar) are distinct persons confused by later tradition."—Corpus Poeticum Boreale, i. cxxx.

"The Fates ... bestow endowments on the new-born child, as in the beautiful Helge Lay ... a point of the story which survives in the Ogier of the Chansons de Geste, wherein Eadgar (Otkerus or Otgerus) gets what belonged to Holger (Holge), the Helga til of Beowulf's Lay."—Saxo, Danish History, lxiv.

27 ^  Cf. Child's Ballads, i. 319.

28 ^  In Huon of Bordeaux Merlin comes with King Arthur to Oberon's death-bed; Arthur introduces him as his nephew, the son of Ogier the Dane and "my sister Morgan."

29 ^  The mere mention of these subterranean explorations opens up an immense field of discussion and speculation that can here be only relegated to a note; we can treat at greater length none but those legends which bear directly on our subject. Odysseus visited Hades, Aeneas descended to Orcus or Tartarus, and they have their counterparts in every land and every mythology. Human aetiological tendencies supply explanations of any cavern or natural chasm—even a volcano must be the mouth of the entrance to hell or purgatory—from Taenarus, where Pluto carried off Proserpine, and the Sibyl's cavern, whence Aeneas sought the lower regions, to the famous Lough Dearg in Donegal, the entrance to "St. Patrick's Purgatory," and the Peak cavern in Derbyshire. The student may begin his researches with T. Wright's St. Patrick's Purgatory (1844). A very common tale in Celtic literature is that of the visit of some hero to the underworld and his seizure of some gift of civilisation—just as Prometheus stole fire from heaven.

30 ^  Ballads, loc. cit.

31 ^  A version of Fytte I will be found in this book, pp. 122-132.

32 ^  See Child's Ballads, No. 37, Thomas Rymer, i. 317-329; also the romance, Thomas of Erceldoune (E.E.T.S., 1875), where Prof. J.A.H. Murray prints all texts parallel, and adds a valuable introduction.

33 ^  A similar episode survives in a Breton folk-tale, cited by Professor Kittredge in Child's Ballads, iii. 504. In Huon of Bordeaux (E.E.T.S. edition, p. 265), Charlemagne mistakes Oberon for God.

34 ^  See Gummere, The Popular Ballad (1907), pp. 66-7.

35 ^  Cottonian, Caligula A. II. A later version is at the Bodleian, MS. Rawlinson C. 86, and a Scottish version in Cambridge University Library, MS. Kk. 5. 30.

36 ^  It was licensed to John Kynge the printer between 19 July 1557 and 9 July 1558. See Arber, Stationers' Registers, i. 79. Two fragments are in the Bodleian; see Hales and Furnivall, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript (1867), i. 521-535.

37 ^  In this year it is mentioned, as having been amongst Captain Cox's books, in Laneham's famous Letter. See Shakespeare Library reprint, p. xxx.

38 ^  Brit. Mus. MS. Addl. 27,879; see Hales and Furnivall, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript, i. 142.

39 ^  Harl. 3810 (British Museum), printed by Ritson in Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802) ii. 248; the Auchinleck MS. (W. 4. 1, in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh), printed by D. Laing in Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland, iii; and Ashmolean 61 (Bodleian Library, Oxford), printed by Halliwell in his Fairy Mythology, p. 36. The three are collated by O. Zielke, Sir Orfeo (Breslau 1880), a fully annotated edition. The last is used here.

40 ^  A grafted fruit tree; here probably an apple.

41 ^  It may be seen in Child's Ballads, i. 215, with a full analysis of the romance, and in the present editor's Popular Ballads of the Olden Time, Second Series, p. 208.

42 ^  Ballads, i. 338-340; see also various "Additions and Corrections" in the later volumes, and s.v. Elf, Elves, etc. in the Index of Matters and Literature.

43 ^  Morte Darthur (ed. Sommer), vi. l. 3.

44 ^  See below, Thomas of Erceldoune

45 ^  See J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands (1907), p. 48, and A. Nutt, Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare, p. 22.

46 ^  See Synge, op. cit., p. 47.

47 ^  See his admirable article on Sir Orfeo in the American Journal of Philology, vii. 176-202. The Courtship of Etain may be seen in English, translated from the two versions in Egerton MS. 1782. and the "Leabhar na h-Uidhri"—an eleventh century Irish MS.—in Heroic Romances of Ireland, by A. H, Leahy, i. 7-32.

48 ^  A. Nutt, Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare, p. 12.

49 ^  Wyf of Bathe's Tale, 1-6.

50 ^  See A. Nutt, op. cit., pp. 16-17; and various authorities given by G.L. Kittredge, op. cit., p. 196 notes.

51 ^  Pronounced shee.

52 ^  Mr. Alfred Nutt (op. cit., pp. 19-23) is at pains to show the close association of the Tuatha Dé Danann with ritual of an agricultural-sacrificial kind, in the aspect they have assumed—"fairies"—to the modern Irish peasant. The Sidhe have fallen from the high estate of the romantic and courtly wooers and warriors, as they must once have fallen from the Celtic pantheon.

53 ^  Chap, xxv. (E.E.T.S. edition, 72). Oberon recites his history again in chap. lxxxiv. (p. 264).

54 ^  Chap. xxii. (E.E.T.S. edition, p. 65, sqq.).

55 ^  Cf. Child's Ballads, Nos. 2 (The Elfin Knight), 4 (Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight), 41 (Hina Etin), and perhaps 35 (Allison Gross), with his note on the last, l. 314, referring to No. 36 (The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea).

56 ^  See above.

57 ^  See below, Thomas of Erceldoune.

58 ^  Tarlton's News out of Purgatory, published by Robin Goodfellow (1590), Shakespeare Society reprint, p. 55.

59 ^  See above.

60 ^  See the extracts from Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft and the Robin Goodfellow tract, pp. 133-140 and 81-121.

61 ^  Romeo and Juliet, I. iv. 33-94. See above, p. 37.

62 ^  Had I been able to find a book, Veridica relatio de daemonio Puck, referred to in the article Diable in the Dictionnaire des Sciences Occultes (in Migne, tome 48, vol. i., p. 475), it might be that it would prove of great interest. In any case this allusion (pointed out to me by Mr. R.B. McKerrow) is an early instance of Puck used as a proper name.

63 ^  Abbreviated from E.K. Chambers' full analysis with references, Warwick Shakespeare edition of M.N.D. pp. 142-4.

64 ^  See II. i. 155.

65 ^  How far Shakespeare associated his fairy queen Titania with her nominal parent Diana, is a question that would make matter for an elaborate study in mythology and mysticism, and might yet lead to no result. Diana is Luna in the heavens; Lucina (the goddess of child-birth) and the Huntress on earth; and Hecate in the underworld, goddess of enchantments and nocturnal incantations, often also identified with Proserpina. Titania is a votaress of the moon; we have seen that fairies are intimately concerned with mortal babies, and that there is a fairy-hunt (see the quotation from James I's Demonology, p. 37 above); and we have also noted the confusion of Proserpina with the fairy-queen.—The Tuatha Dé Danann are said to be "the folk of Danu"—who is Danu? Hecate was called Trivia, on account of the above tripartition of Diana; her statues were set up where three roads met, and the fairy-queen in Thomas the Rhymer points out to him the three roads that lead to heaven, hell, and elf-land. Speculation is easily led astray.

66 ^  J.M. Synge, Aran Islands, p. 10.