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The Fairy Supernatural of Sir Orfeo


In the fourteenth-century Middle English romance Sir Orfeo, Orfeo’s wife Heurodis is kidnapped and whisked off to Fairyland by a sinister figure known simply as the Fairy King. In this medievalisation of the classical legend of Orpheus, the abductor is transformed from the pagan god of the Underworld to a fairy captor of indeterminate ontological status and inscrutable motivations. As a distinct subset of the supernatural, fairies occupied an interstitial conceptual and hermeneutic category, signalling multiple ontological registers while at the same time being incapable of being neatly retrofitted within any available interpretative frameworks. Indeed, the only unifying factor in the literary representation of medieval fairies was their unassimilable nature. As a fairy monarch, Orfeo’s Fairy King is similarly poised between multiple modes of representation, containing echoes not only of his pagan progenitor but also of comparable supernatural beings found in the mythographic corpus of insular folklore as well as the Devil of the Christian imagination. Fairyland in this romance is also fashioned as a realm of alterity, an amalgam of the dread portals of the Underworld of classical legend, the intermittently-accessible Otherworlds of Celtic myth, and the infernal topography of Biblical Hell.
This paper will attempt to situate the Orfeo-poet’s deployment of supernatural machinery within the context of medieval beliefs about the supernatural as a distinct ontological category as well as a device of narrative structuring. In particular, this paper will assess the role and function of fairylore within the broader field of custom, practice, and belief in the supernatural in the cultural imagination of the Middle Ages, arguing that the romance's presentation of the Fairy King and Fairyland as discrete and singular entities constitutes a unique achievement, a testament not only to the protean nature of ideas about the supernatural that existed in medieval society but also to the creative potential of the romance poet.

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