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A Spirit of Another Sort: The Evolution and Transformation of the Fairy King from Medieval Romance to Early Modern Prose, Poetry, and Drama

Moitra, Angana (2019) A Spirit of Another Sort: The Evolution and Transformation of the Fairy King from Medieval Romance to Early Modern Prose, Poetry, and Drama. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent, Fachbereich Philosophie und Geisteswissenschaften, Institut für Englische Philologie, Freie Universität Berlin. (KAR id:81474)

Language: English
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This thesis attempts to chart the changing face of the Fairy King between the Middle Ages and the early modern period from a mysterious, sinister, partially diabolical figure of inscrutable motivations to the renowned paterfamilias of illustrious dynastic families. The thesis has been organised into four chapters which are prefaced and concluded by an Introduction and a Conclusion respectively.

The Introduction to the thesis sets out the rationale for undertaking the study and offers a detailed explanation of the theoretical apparatus used to support the overall argument. Building upon Yuri Lotman’s theory of culture as a ‘semiosphere’ and Niklas Luhmann’s neo-Darwinian reformulation of evolution within social systems, this chapter situates the literary metamorphosis of the Fairy King from a pagan god to a creative tool of political legitimation within the wider complex of cultural change, religious reorientation, and socio-economic restructuring.

Chapter 1 traces the provenance of the fairies to the pagan gods of classical Greece and Rome within the specific context of the myth of Orpheus. Focusing particularly on the reformulations of the Orpheus myth, first at the hands of the Augustan poets Virgil (in Book IV of the Georgics) and Ovid (in Book X of the Metamorphoses) and later by Boethius (in the Consolation of Philosophy) in post-Christian Italy, this chapter explores how the representation of the chthonic god of the Underworld transformed over time.

Chapter 2 shifts the focus from continental Europe to the British Isles, examining how treatments of analogous fairy figures in early and late medieval insular literature were influenced by currents of development in indigenous mythography. The chapter argues that the mythological corpora of the classical Graeco-Roman and the Celtic worlds were not really discrete and isolated cultural blocs but participants in a dynamic tradition of cross-cultural interaction mediated by factors both economic (the context of trade) as well as political (Roman imperial ambitions and military conquest). Having explored these interconnections, the chapter proceeds to an analysis of the figure of Midir in the medieval Irish saga Tochmarc Étaíne and the Pygmy King in the tale of Herla in Walter Map’s De nugis curialium.

The first two chapters also trace the revisionary changes worked upon pantheons of pagan deities in the wake of the radical religious transition from paganism to Christianity and establish the foundations for the subsequent recuperation of such heathen figures into indigenous traditions of folk belief in the supernatural, particularly to the class of the fairies, liminal beings who constituted a unique conceptual subset of the ambiguous supernatural. The processes by which such recuperation took place are investigated in Chapter 3 through a detailed discussion of the fourteenth-century Middle English romance Sir Orfeo. The chapter concludes with a brief exploration of two alternative developments of the Fairy King in late medieval poetry, focusing on the figure of Pluto in both Geoffrey Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale and Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice, explicitly identified as a fairy in the former while occupying a more nebulous ontological niche in the latter.

Chapter 4 begins with a survey of the nature of fairy ‘belief’ in England in the sixteenth century before moving to a consideration of how dynastic houses, building upon matrices of associations drawn between fairy founders and genealogy in the Middle Ages (especially the cycle of legends centred on the figures of Mélusine in France and Arthur in the British Isles) exploited fairylore for political purposes. Subsequently, the chapter traces the emergence of the Fairy King in sixteenth-century England under the prototypical name of ‘Oberon,’ first in John Bourchier’s English translation of the medieval French chanson de geste of Huon of Burdeux and then in Robert Greene’s play The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the part played by Oberon in Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene which, together with Bourchier’s prose translation and Greene’s play, constitute the most significant pre-Shakespearean developments of the figure of the Fairy King-as-Oberon.

The Conclusion brings the thesis to a close by offering a brief account of the post-Spensarian trajectories of evolution of the Fairy King figure and highlights the possible avenues still available for further academic exploration. Taken together, the thesis constitutes a unique academic achievement, not only in view of the chronological, geographical, and generic scope of the texts surveyed but also in view of its interdisciplinary nature, melding together a variety of different and distinct theoretical approaches with an examination of contexts that span multiple semantic and ontological fields (literary, cultural, political, historical, socioeconomic, and religious).

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Richardson, Catherine
Thesis advisor: Mahler, Andreas
Uncontrolled keywords: Middle Ages, medieval, medieval literature, medieval England, medieval Europe, early modern, early modern literature, early modern England, fairies, fairy king
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D111 Medieval History
P Language and Literature
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 01 Jun 2020 12:10 UTC
Last Modified: 01 Jan 2023 00:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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Moitra, Angana.

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