Fairies and the Fairy World in Middle English Literature: the Orpheus Tradition from the Classical Era to the Middle Ages
By Beatrice Berti
Master’s Thesis, Università degli Studi di Padova, 2016
Introduction: Having grown up with Disney classics such as Cinderella and Pinocchio (and many others, of course), I have always imagined fairies to look like Fairy Godmother and Blue Fairy. One day, while flipping through Burrow’s and Turville-Petre’s A Book of Middle English, my attention was caught by a relatively short poem called Sir Orfeo. I read the introduction to it and thumbed through most of the poem, which made me realise that Disney fairies were likely to have nothing to do with those of that poem.
I decided I wanted to know more about those “medieval fairies”: were there other Middle English poems where I could find them? And how far in history were the origins of fairy creatures to be found? So, when I discovered that Middle English literature is such a reservoir of fairy world material, I decided to devote my master thesis to it.
The aim of this dissertation is thus to analyse and try to understand what is the role of fairies in Middle English literature, by focusing in particular on the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Orfeo. In order to do so, one chapter focusses on the classical side of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, whereas one other chapter focusses on the core of this thesis, Sir Orfeo, and on Orpheus and Eurydice by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson. Fairies and the fairy world in Middle English literature, however, are not limited to these two poems, which is why I do also take into consideration another three Middle English poems where fairy princesses, fairy queens and incubi come up.
Top Image: Text of Sir Orfeo from British Library MS Harley 3810 f. 1