Elf Queens and Holy Friars

Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church

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Richard Firth Green
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , August
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812248432.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Richard Green’s Elf Queens and Holy Friars seeks to engage religion at that strange intersection between popular pieties or folk superstitions and institutional religion. Green seeks to understand the relationship between what he calls the small tradition and the great tradition (after Robert Redfield) and how belief in fairies (and all fay-folk) interacted with and was changed or interrogated by the great tradition of the medieval church. Green’s work is an excellent resource for anyone interested in either fairy beliefs or some aspects of Christian response to them. The primary sources Green brings to our attention alone makes this work worthwhile. However, there are several troubling or at least problematic aspects of Green’s book.

Perhaps primary amongst these is a tendency to overgeneralize. In the introduction alone, we are exposed to an excerpt from a fifteenth century homily against fairy belief. The quotation is interesting as an expression of theological treatments of fairies. However, Green seems to treat instances such as this one as indicative of the whole. He writes, “As this quotation implies, the default position of the clerical elite when it came to fairyland was one of unrelieved antagonism…” (2). He goes on to admit that not all churchmen would be of this shared opinion, but nevertheless treats this passage as indicative of the official position. One can also see Green kowtowing to a rather strict division between the “elite” and the vulgar. Green does admit that this divide is not necessarily one of class. That is, aristocrats as well as peasants could be found who believed that the Wee Folk exist. Rather, it is a divide between the cleric and the layperson. Again, Green notes the caveats, but it leaves one wondering that, if there are as many caveats as Green admits, is there really such a strict dichotomy?

This reviewer also finds problematic the treatment of certain aspects of fairy stories—that is stories about fairies, not necessarily what we would call fairytales. Green often describes stories of male fairies stealing or raping human women as examples of male wish fulfillment, a reading this reviewer finds problematic: more likely, Green’s reading is a way of simply putting the narratives away without properly treating what they might tell us about actual belief in fairies or the Church’s response to such stories. Equally problematic, Green notes some strong reactions against Arthurian legends, since, according to Green, the Church took umbrage at the idea that Arthur could live forever without Christ. This, of course, seems to forget both the idea that Arthur’s repose is temporary—usually until England has need of him—and that Christianity has a return of Christ in which Arthur clearly participates as an analogy. But even if we choose not to take the story of Arthur’s continued existence in Avalon until his return as an analogy or allegory for the return of Christ, there is still the fact that a man continuing to live prior to the return of Christ is not inherently antithetical to Christian theology, since it is not the same kind of eternal life promised by Christ.

Or again, there is what this reviewer considers to be a rather important question about names. Specifically, how is it that names such as Alfred (elf-counsel), Alvin/Elwin (elf-friend), or even Siofra (sprite, fairy) make it into common usage? This would seem to be rather pertinent to Green’s investigation into medieval fairy belief: whether the names were meant as positive or negative in their origins. This is even more significant when we consider that the ninth century West Saxon king—Alfred the Great—bears a name directly tied to fairy belief which predates the primary period studied by Green (thus serving as some kind of foundation), and was a great champion of the Christian faith. Sadly, such questions are completely ignored by Green.

This reviewer also cannot help but wonder about other aspects intentionally bracketed out by Green. For instance, while he deals with fairy belief, he refuses to attempt a taxonomic investigation into it. In other words, Green notes the fact that people may have distinguished between fairies, kobolds, dwarves, and goblins, but refuses to do so himself. Admittedly, this is quite understandable, as this would enmesh him in questions contrary to the purpose of his book.

Ultimately, however, these problems do not make the book unreadable or unimportant. Green’s work has brought together aspects of fairy belief, poetry, and stories about fairies that have not been brought together in this way previously. Green’s treatment of medieval plays where Christ’s birth is considered suspect by Caiaphas and Anna by suggesting that he is a changeling—a fairy child switched out for a human child—is particularly interesting (see chapter 4). Also, it cannot be underestimated nor understated how important this work is simply for the sources it brings together in one volume to aid the neophyte who desires to research more deeply into the question of fairy belief and its reception by Christianity. The research is well done and well presented. This is precisely the kind of book we need—even if I am correct and some of its conclusions are wrong—in an age so interested in re-enchantment. Books such as Green’s will serve as a good reminder that not all fairies are good, and that they have often been conflated with demons.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dr. David Russell Mosley is Adjunct Lecturer in Theology at Johnson University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Firth Green is Humanities Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English, The Ohio State University. He is author of several books, including A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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