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A Survival Guide to Medieval Fairy Tales

By Marta Cobb

We are familiar with fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White and Bluebeard, many of which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. However, there were also much older stories that fit the definition of a fairy tale. These were stories where the marvellous can and does happen – otherworldly ladies can make proposals of love to young knights, queens can be stolen by fairies, and unattractive old women can transform themselves into beautiful maidens. These are tales from the Middle Ages, and if your hero was going to survive in these stories, they had to follow seven rules.

Although ‘fairy tale’ is not a genre that most medieval audiences would recognise, they would recognise the sort of stories fairy tales tell. They would describe these stories as being romances.

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We tend to think of romance as a genre largely marketed to women involving stories about women finding love. Medieval romances are a bit different. Firstly, in terms of the audience, these are stories that were enjoyed by both men and women. Also, unlike modern romances, these are typically stories that feature a male protagonist (usually a knight) trying to prove himself through an adventure (or series of adventures) that can often bring him into contact with the unknown (and may also involve him falling in love). So a medieval audience’s expectations of romance are less Harlequin or Mills and Boon, more Harry Potter. Although these are stories where the unexpected can and often does happen, there are guidelines that one can follow to help ensure a happy ending. First, however, let me introduce the tales.

Sir Lanval (Marie de France, Late 12th century)

Sir Lanval is one of several lais, or short romances, written by the poet Marie de France. Little is known for certain about Marie: she was born in France (and wrote in French) but may have lived in England. Her work was known at the court of Henry II. Marie writes that her lais are stories from Brittany (in the north of France) that she heard performed and chose to write down. Many of these stories involve supernatural elements – hawk knights, magical boats, and werewolves.

Sir Lanval tells the story of a knight (Lanval) who is neglected by King Arthur and finds himself in poverty. He is saved by the appearance of a beautiful and magical lady who promises to love him and look after him financially. Her love, however, comes at a price; he must never tell anyone about her. Inevitably, Lanval breaks his promise and brags about his love to Queen Guinevere, who takes offense at his claim that she is not pretty enough to interest him. Lanval is tried for his offense. Luckily, his lady forgives him and rides to his rescue. They escape to Avalon and are never heard from again.

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Sir Orfeo (anonymous, late 13th, early 14th)

Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Orpheus myth. In classical mythology, Orpheus is an extraordinarily talented musician. When his wife, Eurydice, dies on their wedding day, Orpheus sings his way into the underworld to bring her back. His music is so powerful and so persuasive that Hades, the god of the Underworld, agrees to release her, but one condition: Orpheus must not look back at her until they reach the world above. As is almost always the case in a story involving a taboo, Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice forever.

Medieval audiences knew the Orpheus story, although it was usually given a Christian moral. For example, Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy argues that the story should teach us not to focus too much on earthly things.

Sir Orfeo takes a different approach to the story, incorporating Celtic motifs and folklore and transferring the story from Thrace to Winchester. Orfeo is the king and Queen Heurodis is his wife. After she is kidnapped by fairies and he abandons his kingdom and goes into the wilderness to mourn and play his harp. Years pass, and he eventually sees her, follows her, and persuades the fairy king with his musical ability to give her back. Then her returns to Winchester, tests the loyalty of his steward (who is looking after the kingdom in his absence), and they all live happily ever after.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (anonymous, 14th century)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins with a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court. Suddenly a Green Knight (on a green horse) bursts into the hall and challenges Arthur’s court to a Christmas ‘game’. If one of them strikes a blow at him with an axe, then, in a year and a day, he will strike a returning blow. Gawain accepts this challenge and cuts off his head, but the Green Knight merely picks up his decapitated head and departs, promising to see Gawain in a year. The rest of the story concerns Gawain’s attempt to keep this promise (as well as other promises he makes along the way).

The Wife of Bath’s Tale (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, late 14th century)

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s story collection The Canterbury Tales. Other similar versions of this story were in circulation when Chaucer was writing, but he puts his own distinctive spin on the tale. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a knight of King Arthur’s court rapes a maiden. King Arthur sentences him to death, but the queen intervenes and gives him a chance to save his life, but only if he can find the answer to the question ‘what do women most desire?’.

After much searching, the knight meets an ugly old woman who can help him but only if he promises to do whatever she asks. The answer she provides, which satisfies the queen, is that women most desire mastery over their husbands. This answer saves the knight’s life, but the old woman demands, much to his horror, that he marry her. On their wedding night, she gives him a choice: she can be an ugly but faithful wife, or she can be beautiful, but he will never have a moment’s peace. He asks her to decide for herself, and, as a result, she announces that he has passed the test and so she will be both beautiful and good.

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Now that you know a little about these stories, here were the rules a hero had to follow if they wanted to survive:

Rule 1: Know the signs

The border between the supernatural world and our own can be extremely permeable. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when the supernatural has intruded upon more normal life, such as when the Green Knight barges into a holiday feast (it is not that the Green Knight wears green clothing but that his skin and hair and even his horse are completely green). Sometimes, however, the signs are more subtle, such as a deer that leads a knight away from his friends and into the unknown or a boat that sails away in the absence of sailors. In the case of Sir Lanval, it can be a mysterious woman in an opulent tent.

Rule 2: Be careful where you fall asleep

Characters in these stories are vulnerable when they fall asleep, especially when they fall asleep in new or unusual places. In Sir Orfeo, Queen Heurodis walks with her ladies at ‘unden-tide’ (morning) in the month of May. She takes a nap under an ‘ympe’, or grafted, tree and has a terrible dream. When she awakes, she reveals that, in her dream, another king appeared to her and threatened to take her away to his kingdom. But this is more than a dream: she is taken the next day, even though Orfeo tries to protect her with his soldiers.

Rule 3: Don’t engage in a physical fight. (You won’t win.)

Most of the protagonists of these stories are knights, which implies that they are skilled fighters. Moreover, they tend to have friends and allies (or in the case of King Orfeo, an army) who are not lacking in military prowess either. Yet, when the supernatural is involved, it often doesn’t help. Orfeo’s army is unable to protect the queen from fairy kidnapping. She simply disappears from their midst without a fight. Likewise, Gawain’s blow with the axe severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders, but his opponent simply picks his head off the floor.

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Rule 4: Don’t disregard loathly old ladies

In The Wife of Bath Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both protagonists encounter old women whom they fail to take seriously. On his way to find the Green Knight, Gawain stays at the castle of a man named Bertilak. There he meets a young beautiful woman, Bertilak’s wife, who is accompanied by a much older (and much less attractive) woman. Perhaps understandably, Gawain focuses his attention on the young woman, but at the narrative’s conclusion, the older woman turns out to be Morgan, King Arthur’s sister and Gawain’s aunt. Moreover, Gawain discovers that the Green Knight’s visit to Camelot was part of Morgan’s scheme to kill Guinevere. The woman he ignored without a thought has been pulling the strings all along.

An image from the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Kelmscott Chauceer

The Knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale only sees the old woman as a solution to a problem. It doesn’t occur to him that she might want more from him than he is prepared to give. When she announces her intention to marry him, he is first horrified and then, on their wedding night, he is rude and disdainful, calling her old, ugly, and poor. She is, however, no normal mortal woman, having the power to transform herself.

Rule 5: Don’t be distracted by beautiful women

Medieval romances are populated with beautiful women, but often their motivations are mysterious. In the Wife of Bath’s tale, the knight’s new wife is not simply a beautiful young woman; she never explains what she is (in other versions of the story, she explains that she was under a curse so now is revealing her true form, but this is not the case in Chaucer’s version).

Lanval’s lover is also more than a beautiful lady in an exquisite tent. She has the power to appear to Lanval when he desires to see her, and she also puts unlimited financial resources at his disposal. When Lanval breaks his promise, she completely disappears; if she did not take pity on him, he would have suffered death or banishment.

The wife of the Green Knight secretly visits Sir Gawain in his bedchamber – British Library Cotton Nero A. X, art.3, f.129

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain meets Bertilak’s beautiful wife. While Gawain stays in her castle, she sneaks into his bedroom (see Rule 2) while her husband is hunting. Gawain finds himself in a difficult situation: he does not want to offend her by rejecting her, but he also doesn’t want to betray her husband. He mostly manages these encounters effectively, receiving nothing more than a few kisses, until she offers him a green girdle, which she says will protect him from harm. This he cannot resist, and so he accepts her gift. In the final confrontation with the Green Knight, however, he discovers that this was all part of the plot. Not only is Bertilak actually the Green Knight, but his wife was sent to tempt Gawain at his (or Morgan le Fay’s) command.

With all of these beautiful women, we don’t know who they are or what they really want. They are desirable, but they remain ciphers that the narrative never fully explains.

Rule 6: Don’t try to outdo supernatural beings

Medieval romances filled with superlatives (the most beautiful lady, the most noble knight, and so on), but supernatural characters are even more so. We are told that Lanval’s beloved has a tent of such opulence that Emperor Augustus could not afford even half of it. Everything about her is described in extravagant terms. Her coverlet costs as much as a castle. Her least maid is more beautiful than Queen Guinevere. When Orfeo rescues Heurodis, he arrives at a castle that is so stunning that we are assured that it cannot be described or comprehended – anyone looking at it would think they were in Paradise.

Rule 7: A promise (no matter how rash) must be kept.

All of these stories are about keeping promises. Sir Gawain must fulfill his promise to show up and let his head be cut off. After breaking his oath to treat women well, the Knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale must stick to his promise of giving the loathly lady whatever she wants, even when he is horrified at her demands. Everything goes wrong for Lanval when he breaks his promise to his lady.

Orfeo wins his queen by playing music. The King is so moved by his performance that he offers Orfeo anything he wants. When Orfeo asks for Heurodis, the King protests this is not a suitable gift (she is very beautiful, and Orfeo is looking quite grubby after his time in the woods). Orfeo answers that it would be even worse for the King not to keep his promise, and the King has no choice but let Orfeo take Heurodis back home.

Happily ever after?

All of these stories, on some level, have a happy ending. Lanval is proven innocent and regains the love of his lady (we hope). Orfeo regains his queen and his kingdom, Sir Gawain returns home with his head still attached, and the knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale has (hopefully) learned his lesson and gained a beautiful wife.

None of these happy endings, however, withstand much scrutiny. Lanval has effectively been abducted by his lover; we don’t know what happens to him after he disappears. Sir Orfeo and Heurodis return to their kingdom, but the steward becomes king after Orfeo’s death, which means that they have no children, possibly a side effect of her time away. The knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale gets a beautiful wife, but his rape victim simply disappears from the narrative.

The beginning of The Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Ellesmere manuscript

Sir Gawain survives the Green Knight’s ‘Christmas game’, but he is angry that he has been tricked and feels that he has failed. He returns to Arthur’s court determined to wear the green girdle as a sign of his shame, but all of Arthur’s court decide to wear it too in his honour. So Gawain must spend the rest of his life haunted by this sign of what he perceives as his failure.

Why supernatural interventions?

The presence of the supernatural not only adds to the narrative’s appeal but can also serve as a catalyst for events. Moreover, it warns audiences to adjust their expectations, that the usual rules of reality may not apply. These supernatural interventions also create additional levels of challenge for the protagonists. These are not stories about being good fighters; the protagonists are tested for other qualities, such as their ability to keep their promises and remain loyal. Finally, these are narratives that allow for multiple levels of interpretation, but perhaps this is in the minds of the audience (medieval or modern) as much as it is in the intention of the teller.

If there is a moral, it is that these are more than just innocent stories for children – something which is true of more familiar fairy tales as well. These are stories that have a great deal to offer us, no matter how many times we revisit them.

Marta Cobb completed a PhD in Medieval English Literature. She is currently the Senior Congress Officer for the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, where she helps to coordinate the academic programme, as well as the events, workshops, and excursions. She is also a teaching fellow in the School of History, where she contributes to several medieval modules.

Top Image – Sir Lancelot and the Witch Hellawes, by Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) – from: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (1894)

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