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“They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die”: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives”

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies
Sunday May 11, 2008 Session 558

I am going to talk about speech and silence in three Middle English texts; Sir Orfeo, The Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All three concern interactions between fairies and mortals.

In the Middle English Breton lay Sir Orfeo, Queen Heurodis falls asleep under an ympe-tree, a grafted fruit tree, on a hot May afternoon. She sleeps “til after none, /þat vnder-tide was al y-done” (ll. 75-76). The time of year, the time of day, and Heurodis’ location under an ympe-tree are motifs closely associated with fairy intrusion and subsequent abduction. When Heurodis wakes, she is distraught, and tears her garments and scratches her face, “& was reueyd out of hir witt” (l. 82). Her maidens tell the court “þat her quen awede wold” (l. 87), that Heurodis is mad.
Her husband King Orfeo is summoned and Heurodis tells Orfeo that as she slept she saw “to faire kniȝtes” (l. 135), and that they

. . . bad me comen an heiȝing

And speke wiþ her lord þe king,
And ich answerd at wordes bold,
Y durst nouȝt, no y nold (ll. 137–40).
Heurodis tells Orfeo that the unknown king “Wold ich nold ich, he me nam, / & made me wiþ him ride” (ll. 154–55) (the king made her ride with him, whether or not she wanted to). The king showed her his palace and castles then returned her to the orchard and the ympe-tre. There the strange king told Heurodis
“Loke, dame, to-morwe þatow be
Riȝt here vnder þis ympe-tre,
& þan þou schalt wiþ ous go,
& liue wiþ ous euer-mo (ll. 165–68).

The strange king makes it clear that Heurodis will be compelled to go with them, whether or not she consents, telling her that

& ȝ if þou makest ous y-let,
Whar þou be, þou worst y-fet, Wherever you may be, you will be fetched
& to-tore þine limes al, And all your limbs torn apart

and even with all her limbs torn apart, she will still be compelled to go with them.

Orfeo and his knights are unable to prevent the fairies from taking Heurodis. We are told that the following day at vndertide (l. 181) Þe quen was oway y-tviȝt, / Wiþ fairi forþ y-nome (ll. 192-94). “Wiþ fairi forþ y-nome” is the first overt acknowledgement that the unnamed king is from the fairy otherworld, though the time and place of his confrontation with Heurodis are clear indicators of an otherworld intrusion. In despair after the loss of Heurodis, Orfeo turns his throne over to his steward and exiles himself to the forest with his harp.

In his exile, Orfeo occasionally sees groups of fairies riding to war, or hunting. One day he sees a troop of otherworld women hawking, and draws closer, whereupon he sees Heurodis riding with the women.

Ȝern he biheld hir, & sche him eke,
Ac noiþer to oþer a word no speke,
For messais þat sche on him seiȝe,
Þat had ben so riche & so heiȝe,
Þe teres fel out of her eiȝe (324–28).

Neither Orfeo or Heurodis speak but Heurodis cries because of the “messais” she sees in Orfeo. No explicit reason is given for either of their silences at this point. The other women quickly intercede and lead Heurodis away, as if to prevent speech between the two. The interpretation favored by Bliss in the standard edition of Sir Orfeo, is that they take her away before either Heurodis or Orfeo has time to speak out of pity for her pain because they see “Þe teres fel out of her eiȝe” (l. 327).

As Sisam (1921, 23), Owen, Pearsall, Schmidt and Jacobs have pointed out, Bliss misunderstands the passage. Orfeo and Heurodis cannot mutually pity each other, since only Orfeo is visibly suffering; we can assume that Heurodis misses Orfeo, but she is not in the same decrepit state as Orfeo, who is woefully changed after prolonged wandering and a scant diet.

After the women pass Orfeo remarks upon his silence despite his recognition of Heurodis:

“Allas!” To long last mi liif,
When y no dar nouȝt wiþ mi wiif
(No hye to me) o word speke” (ll. 335–37).

The crucial word here is “dar.” Dar is the same verb used earlier when Heurodis first falls asleep; the maids who accompany her “durst hir nouȝt awake” (l. 73). Once she awakes and becomes frantic and is “reueyd out of hir witt” (l. 82) the two maids “No durst wiþ hir no leng abide” (l. 83), perhaps because they recognize the perils of sleeping under an ympe-tre at noon time even if their mistress does not. Once she awoke, they dare not speak to someone who shows signs of otherworld contact. Even Heurodis, realizing she is confronting an otherworld intruder, tells the fairy knights under the ympe-tre who initially summon her to speak with their king that “Y durst nouȝt, no y nold” (I didn’t dare to and I wouldn’t) go with them to see their king (l.140).

It is my contention that Orfeo does not dare speak to his wife because she is now associated with the fairies. Orfeo never speaks to any of the otherworld inhabitants he sees hunting, dancing or riding to war while he is exiled in the forest. The only time Orfeo directly, verbally confronts an otherworld inhabitant is after he follows the otherworld hawking party “in at a roche” (l. 347) and is admitted to the court.

Orfeo harps for the fairy king, and the king, pleased by Orfeo’s performance, tells him “Now aske of me what it be, / Largelich ichil þe pay. / Now speke, and tow miȝt asay” (ll. 450–52). Orfeo of course immediately requests the return of Heurodis. The fairy king initially refuses Orfeo’s request on the grounds that he and Heurodis would make a sorry couple, since Orfeo is loathsome and Heurodis is lovely. Rather than argue, Orfeo reminds the fairy king that the king gave his word:

“O, Sir!” he seyd, “Gentil King!
Ȝete were it a wele fouler þing
To here a lesing of þi mouþe:
So, Sir, as ȝe seyd nouþe
What ich wold aski, haue y shold,
And nedes þou most þi word hold” (ll. 463-68).

By reminding the fairy king of his fidelity to his spoken word, his “troth,” Orfeo forces the fairy king to restore Heurodis. In part Orfeo’s reminder is effective because it shames the king. Orfeo claims the fairy king must keep his word, and adhere to his agreement as if oath-keeping is incumbent upon the king. Orfeo persuades the king, and, however unwillingly, he allows Orfeo to leave the fairy otherworld, and take Heurodis back with him.

The second text I want to talk about is the Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. The romance itself is really a preface to a set of prophecies, which were the central interest of earlier readers. There are also several versions of a ballad closely related to the romance, edited and collected by Child as Child #37 “Thomas the Rhymer” (Child 1896–98 Vol. I, 317–26).

Much like Sir Orfeo, Thomas of Erceldoune opens with a spring setting, a mortal lying under a tree, and an otherworld intruder. In the midst of this spring setting Thomas tells us that “Allonne in longynge thus als I laye, / Vndyre nethe a semely tree” he saw a woman come riding towards him (ll. 33–34). The text emphasizes the unfamiliarity of the woman “Swylke one ne saghe I neuer none,” her beauty, and the fact that she appears to shine. Thomas, overcome by her beauty, initially thinks she is the Virgin Mary and asks her to have pity on him. The strange woman calls Thomas by his name, denies that she is the Virgin, and tells him “I ame of ane oþer countree” (l. 93).

The participants, the day, the time, and Thomas’ location under a tree all fit the criteria for the pursuit of a mortal by an otherworld intruder. Once Thomas realizes that the strange woman is no heavenly apparition, he pleads for fleshly consolation. She warns Thomas that his attentions will “for doo al my beaute” (l. 104), but Thomas persists in his pleas and offers her a bargain:

“Now, lufly ladye, rewe one mee,
And I will euer more with the duelle;
here my trouthe I will thee plyghte,
Whethir þou will in hevene or hell” (ll. 105-8).

The woman warns Thomas that “Mane of Molde, þou will me marre” (ll. 117), but accedes to his desire. She is indeed “marred” by the sexual activity and is transformed into a loathly lady. She tells Thomas that

This twelmoneth sall þou with me gone,
And medill erthe sall þou none see” (ll. 159–60).

The woman’s sudden transformation (and later reversion to beauty) are additional indications of supernatural origins, though her rich clothing, her grey horse, and the fact that she conveniently appears, dressed for hunting, when a mortal is lying beneath a tree, all point to her origins as a fairy; later we learn she is a queen of faerie.

The fairy queen tells Thomas that she does not want the king to know she and Thomas are lovers, that she “ware leuer be hanged and drawne / Or þat he wyste þou laye me by” (ll. 223–24). She also asks that “And whate so any mane to þe saye, / luke þou answere none bott mee” (ll. 227–28). She adds later that “I sall saye, syttande at the desse, / I tuke thi speche by ȝonde the see” (ll. 231–32). In the ballad, she carefully cautions him:

But Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever you may hear or see,
For gin ae word you should chance to speak,
You will neer get back to your ain countrie” (ll. 57–60).

Presumably because Thomas agrees to her request, the fairy reverts to her previous beauty and rich attire, and they proceed to the fairy otherworld.

Thomas spends three years in the otherworld (l. 286), and leaves when his fairy lover warns him that he must because on the next morning “of helle þe foulle fende / Amange this folke will feche his fee” and she is afraid that Thomas is a likely victim (289–90). Thomas’ fairy lover returns him to the Eldon tree where they first met (l. 295). As a parting gift, the fairy offers Thomas a choice between “harping” or “carping,” that is, the gift of music or of poetry and prophecy. Thomas avows that “harpynge kepe I none, / ffor tonge es chefe of mynstralsye” and the lady rewards him with a vow of her own (ll. 315–16). “If þou will spelle, or tales telle, / Thomas, þou sall neuer lesynge lye” (ll. 317–18).

The fairy’s injunction against speech is reminiscent of Heurodis’ reluctance to speak to the fairy king, and the inability of Orfeo and Heurodis to speak to each other when he recognizes her in the hawking party. Burnham suggests that the reason for the lady’s injunction is her desire for secrecy regarding her liaison with Thomas (1908, 407–8 n. 6). Certainly her injunction is very similar to those of fairy mistresses who forbid their mortal lovers to refer to them publicly in the “Offended Fée” stories (Cross 1915, 4–5) like the anonymous lay of Graelent, or Marie de France’s Lanval. It may also be very much a requirement for Thomas’ survival, in the context of his fairy lover’s subsequent reference to Thomas’ becoming a sacrificial “fee” for the “foul fiend”; speech with anyone but the fairy could well endanger his life.

Like the fairy king of Sir Orfeo, Thomas’ fairy is concerned with spoken truth; the gift of prophecy she gives Thomas is also a gift of speaking truly (ll. 317-18). It is particularly apropos then that she rewards Thomas for his obedience in remaining silent by giving him a gift of true speech, of prophesy.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the Green Knight appears in Arthur’s hall, clothed in green, with green hair and skin, and riding a green horse, the courtiers are understandably stunned. When he demands “”Wher is,” . . . / “Þe gouernour of þis gyng? The observers correctly identify the Green Knights as “fantoum and fayryȝe,” (l. 240. The watchers are so stouned or astonished by the Green Knight that, not only are they silent, the narrator deliberately associates their silence with sleep, pointing out that “As al were slypped vpon slepe so slaked hor loteȝ” (l. 244). The narrator’s statement that their silence is “not al for doute, / Bot sum for cortaysye&ndasg; (I think it was not entirely owing to fear, but partly out of courtesy) is an ironic comment on their al stouned state. With the reference to their lotez or the noise of conversation being stilled, we have an association between a fairy otherworld intruder and silence or speechlessness much like those in in Sir Orfeo and Thomas of Erceldoune.

The roles of speech and silence, who speaks, and when, and who keeps silent, and when, are common threads in all of the texts I’ve been discussing. The effect of an otherworld presence, and the various restrictions and efforts of fairies to control mortal speech imply the presence of taboos regarding speech with residents of the otherworld, like that referred to by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die” (V 5 l. 47). I’ve alluded to similar motifs in “offended fée” tales, like those of Launfal and Lanval where knights are forbidden to speak of their fairy mistresses. Other examples include the medieval Irish Echtra Macha, when Macha tells Crunniuc not to speak of her to the king, or even the silence of the Irish hero Cú Chualainn in the Serglige Con Culainn. There are even more instances of fairy speech-taboos in folklore.

What I find particularly intriguing about fairy speech obsession is that the Modern English word fairy comes from “Middle English fairie, ‘fairyland, enchanted being,’ from Old French faerie, from fae “fairy,” from Vulgar Latin Fāta, ‘goddess of fate,’ from Latin fātum, ‘fate, prophecy, doom'” (AHD fairy). Fatum is the Latin neuter past participle of fāri, ‘to speak,’ (AHD fate), meaning, roughly, [thing] said. Fāri derives from the I.E. root bhā-2, “to speak,” a root that also gives us infant, prophet, banish, confess, blame, boon, fable, proclaim, ban, fame, famous, blaspheme, and number of similar words that deal with spoken words (AHD Appendix I bhā-2).

Noel Williams notes that the etymology of fairy, while generally accepted, is not as complete as we would like. We do not have enough data about the exact causes of change in the orthography, phonology, and semantic range of the ancestors of Early Modern English fairy, even from its first attestation in Middle English, to completely delineate the chronology and causes for the necessary changes to arrive at the early modern English meaning of fairy. However, Williams also observes that

all agree that fata was interpreted as feminine and eventually gave four distinct meanings in Old French which passed into English, namely

(1) enchantment, illusion;
(2) fairyland, land of illusion;
(3) human with special powers;
(4) supernatural beings;

but they differ as to which came first, and which developed from which (Williams 1991, 463).

Williams, in discussing the earlier and much more common association of fairy in Middle English with a place or with illusion and enchantment rather than with supernatural beings, also notes:

it has never been made clear precisely how a word meaning “fate” in an abstract or general sense could come to mean “enchantress,” and thence give a further generic word “enchanted.” It seems more in accord with the evidence, and also more likely, that the notion of fate “degenerated” into that of enchantment, and that this notion of “fatedness” is the central connotation of fairy, with fay being derived from, or developed parallel to this conceptual development (Williams 1991, 464).

Williams adds, as well, that fatedness has associations with death, and even, in the Old English cognate faege, used largely in poetry where it means, roughly, “fated to die,” with implications of “doomed,” and foreknowledge, very much as the Scots descendent fey still means today (Williams 1991, 465). We have, in fairy, a word that is historically associated with speech acts, particularly with the utterance of truths in the forms of prophecy, and with fate, with all of its implications, and we still see those associations in medieval texts concerning fairies.