Mischief and Magic: The Fairy King Oberon and Otherworld Encounters

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Image: ‘Oberon and Puck’, Kenny Meadows (1846), from the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

Take heed the Queen come not within his sight,
For Oberon is passing fell and wroth

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.19-20)

The King of the Fairies features in late medieval and early modern literature as a figure of mischief and mayhem, most often going by the name of Oberon. He is a commanding figure throughout his textual history, and one that Helen Cooper describes as a ‘judge or arbiter, though his arbitration may show more of arbitrariness than of justice’.[1] Romances explore his magical influence, and the ways in which his otherworldly fairly kingdom interacts with, and is encountered by, the more mundane world. This month, we are reading a selection of poetry, prose and drama from the fourteenth century to the late sixteenth, in which the King of the Fairies can be found meddling in mortal lives, for better or for worse: the anonymous Sir Orfeo, Lord Berners’ Duke Huon of Burdeux, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We begin with the fourteenth-century Auchinleck Manuscript, which holds the earliest-known Middle English version of Sir Orfeo. At only 604 lines long, this brief verse romance is a retelling of the Orpheus myth, best known in the Middle Ages through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this version, the death of Orpheus’s wife is reimagined as a kidnapping, in which the Fairy King approaches Orfeo’s wife, Herodis, while she sleeps beneath a tree and demands she return the next day to ‘live with ous evermo’ (l. 168). Though Orfeo tries to prevent this organised kidnapping, Herodis is snatched from him and taken to the fairy otherworld. This otherworld is a space of great wonder, with precious stones, intricate and impossible palace buildings, and spaces of unrivalled natural beauty.[2]

The Fairy King in Sir Orfeo is never named, and he receives only limited textual attention at the expense of Orfeo’s own quest:

The king o fairy with his rout
Com to hunt him al about.

(‘Sir Orfeo’, ll. 283-4)

Despite his kidnapping of Herodis, the Fairy King is arguably no grand villain; Orfeo persuades him to return Herodis with little protestation. This version of the story places no constraints upon Orfeo or Herodis upon their journey out of the otherworld, and the pair are able to return to their kingdom. It is a remarkably happy ending that follows the original Greek version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, in which there is no second fall upon the return from the underworld.[3] Orfeo’s quest, however, takes a full ten years, and his return requires a full re-coronation from a society that moved on during Orfeo’s absence.

The other two texts we are reading grant the King of the Fairies a greater narrative role and a name, Oberon, which first appeared in the thirteenth-century Old French chason de geste, ‘Huon de Bordeaux’. In this text, which provides the source for a later (and longer) prose version, Huon undertakes a penitential journey to Babylon and along the way encounters Oberon, who foregrounds his historical and mythical family connections.[4] In particular, he describes himself as the child of Julius Caesar and Morgan le Fay:

Jules Cesar me nori bien soué;
Morge li fée, qui tant ot de biauté,
Che fu ma mère, si me puist Dix salver.
De ces II fui concus et engerrés.

(‘Huon de Bordeaux’, p. 104)[5]

Oberon’s story was offered to an English audience when a later French prose version of the chanson was translated by Lord Berners as The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux and printed first in 1515 and again in four further printings throughout the sixteenth-century.[6] In this English text, Morgan le Fay is not named as Oberon’s mother, but she (referred to only as Arthur’s sister) does appear at his court.[7] Oberon in Duke Huon of Burdeux is grounded in realism, and in the crusading nature of the Eastern journey narrative, through his steadfast Christian faith. He is at once the image of a powerful Christian king and of an unknowable and unpredictable fairy ‘other’.

‘yf ye speke to hym ye are lost for euer / and ye shall euer fynde hym before you.’

(Huon of Burdeux, p. 63)

Huon of Burdeux was printed in England until 1601 and dramatized in 1590, and both Shakespeare and Spenser—along with their respective audiences—would have been familiar with the character of Oberon.[9] Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in 1595/6, shortly after Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was published and reprinted. Shakespeare offers the conflicts of the Fairy kingdom as a counterpart to the ongoing romantic struggles of the ‘real’ world, presenting an Oberon who is aloof, magisterial, and wronged. Shakespeare’s Oberon rules over the enchanted fairy world of the forest and any mortals that stray within it, and is embroiled in a dispute with his queen, Titania, that stems from his desire for possession of a human boy. However, his influence extends beyond his own realm, as he interferes in the lives and fates of those humans that he encounters throughout the play. In all three of our texts, the King of the Fairies interacts and interferes with the mortal, ‘real’ world, and these texts raise a variety of issues, and intersect with discourses of gender, race, and otherness.

Texts and Extracts

  • Sir Orfeo – Whole text
  • Huon of Burdeux
    • Extract 1: When Huon first encounters Oberon
    • Extract 2: At the court of Babylon, when Huon calls upon Oberon for help
    • Extract 3: At the journey’s end, when Oberon resolves the corruption of Charlemagne’s court
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • Extract 1: (2.1, ll. 18-187) Introduction to Oberon and Titania’s conflict
    • Extract 2: (4.1, ll.1-99) Resolution of Oberon and Titania’s conflict

 

Questions for Discussion

 

  1. Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Orpheus myth with a happy ending. To what extent can we see the influence of this myth, or others, in the later texts?
  2. Is magic mischievous, malevolent, or something else entirely?
  3. How do the representations of magic in these texts differ? What do these representations suggest about respective audiences?
  4. How can we read the geography of the otherworld in each of these texts? To what extent is the otherworld a tangible place?
  5. To what extent do these encounters with the Fairy King share enough context and commonality to read them as a single, evolving meme?
  6. How do the connections between Oberon and Morgan le Fay in Huon influence our reading of his magic? To what extent are these connections visible in the other texts?
  7. How do each of these texts portray the King of the Fairies as an outsider or an ‘other’, and to what extent is this pejorative?
  8. What intersections do we find with anxieties about race and religion?
  9. Are these texts consistent in their portrayal of the power that the Fairy King has over the ‘real’ world?
  10. How does the natural and pastoral setting of MSND impact our understanding of magic as a ‘supernatural’ force?
  11. Does the name ‘Oberon’ in Huon and MSND presume a prior literary knowledge of the Fairy King?
  12. What are the roles of queens in these texts, fairy or otherwise?

References

 

[1] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 176.

[2] Aisling Byrne, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 1-9.

[3] James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 174, n. 22.

[4] S. L. Lee, ‘Introduction’ in The English Charlemagne Romances, Parts VII and VIII, EETS ES 40 & 41 (London: Trubner, 1882)

[5] F. M. Guessard (ed.), Huon de Bordeaux: chanson de geste (Paris: F. Viewig, 1860), p. 104.

[6] Joyce Boro, ‘The Textual History of Huon of Burdeux: A Reassessment of the Facts’, Notes and Queries, 48:3 (2001), 233-7, p. 233.

[7] Martha Driver, ‘Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream Through Romance’, in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, ed. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray (London: MacFarland & co., 2009), p. 154, n. 31.

[8] James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 20-1.

[9] Helen Cooper, ‘Malory and the Early Prose Romances’, in A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, ed. Corinne Saunders (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).

[10] Kenny Meadows, ‘Oberon and Puck’, in Michael John Goodman, The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive [21 November 2017].

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