Why is Faerie ruled by Queens?

By popular request, my keynote from Sirens. The actual speech I delivered was a little different — for one thing, this version doesn’t have the comments about Helen Mirren as Prospera in Julie Taymor’s upcoming film of The Tempest — but the gist of it followed this pretty closely. I’m debating whether to post it to my website as-is, or update it based on the comments and feedback I got at the con; thoughts?

Why Is Faerie Ruled by Queens?

As we all know, we’ve gathered here this weekend to discuss a race of inhuman, incomprehensible creatures.

Their characteristics are well-known. They’re beautiful — when they’re not astoundingly ugly. They’re both goddesses for men to worship, and demons for them to flee. They adore children, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession. They have a strong association with nature, from which they’re often assumed to draw magical power. Their anger is a terrible thing to behold, and all the more fearsome because anything can spark it; the rules by which these creatures operate are not those of rational men. They are creatures of fanciful whim, and they never, ever, can be understood.

I’m talking, of course, about women.

And faeries, too. The association between women and faeries goes back a long, long way. I didn’t think consciously about it, though, until a college professor of mine, Kate Chadbourne, presented a symposium paper titled “Seeking Seed-Wheat I Have Come: Desire Between the Worlds in Early Irish and Welsh Tales.” In that paper, she made an eye-opening comparison between Celtic mythology and H. Rider Haggard’s novel She. Kate was kind enough to send me a copy of that paper to use as a reference-point for this address, so my next few points, I owe to her.

In Celtic mythology, you have the motif of the Sovereignty Goddess, who, in granting her favor to a mortal man, elevates him to kingship. Pwyll and Rhiannon — I apologize for my imperfect Welsh pronunciation. Niall of the Nine Hostages and the hag he meets at a well. Becfhola in the Yellow Book of Lecan. This woman is the personification of the land, in an explicitly mystical fashion, and it is by his bond with her that a man claims sovereignty. The fairy-tale motif of the hero marrying the princess and becoming king is similar, though without the mythical underpinning — and the princess in those stories isn’t necessarily an active agent like the Celtic sovereignty figures, bestowing her favor with the intent of creating a king.

Looking to more recent examples, I know at least some of you here today are familiar with the ballads of the Scottish border, specifically “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Tam Lin.” These share a common base conceit, which is that a human man encounters the Queen of Elfland, and she carries him away. In the case of Thomas the Rhymer, he returns to the human world after seven years in her company. In the case of Tam Lin, he’s rescued from being tithed to Hell by the heroine, Janet; she becomes pregnant by him, and rather than surrendering her man to the Faerie Queen and Hell, she steals him back, in the face of any number of supernatural threats. The mortal-man-faerie-woman pairing possibly achieves its most ridiculous form in the case of Bottom and Titania, from Shakespeare’s fairy play A Midsummer Night’s Dream; thanks to the scheming of Oberon and Puck, the fairy queen becomes enamored of a man with the head of an ass.

Examples of this motif in modern fiction aren’t hard to find, either. Aside from the many wonderful novels based on an existing piece of folklore — I had a great conversation last night about different “Tam Lin” adaptations — we have new stories that follow the same pattern. Lord Dunsany’s classic novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a favorite of mine, as the people of the town of Erl decide they want a “magic lord,” and send Alveric out to get himself a faerie bride. More recently, we have Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, wherein two successive ordinary men, Dunstan and Tristan, fall in love with women from beyond the Wall. One is the captive princess of a fantastical kingdom, and the other is a fallen star: they may not be called faeries, but that’s more or less what they are. And, of course, I’ve already mentioned H. Rider Haggard’s She, which is the novel that, via Kate Chadbourne’s paper, made me aware of the motif. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the story concerns a man named Leo Vincey who journeys to the lost African realm of Kor, which is ruled over by a white sorceress. Her name is Ayesha, but she’s more commonly called She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is immortal, and the very sight of her entrances men, compelling them to worship her out of desire and fear. Haggard may not call her a faerie queen, but we can certainly think of her as one.

Why is Faerie ruled by Queens?

To be fair, “human man meets, or falls in love with, or is stolen away by a faerie woman” isn’t the only pattern out there. Sometimes a human woman meets or falls in love with or is stolen away by a faerie man. Turning back to the Scottish border, we can match “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” with “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” — though admittedly, when the elf-knight rides away with Isabel, she doesn’t spend seven years in his company; she drowns him in a river. My fellow Guest of Honor Holly Black tells the story of a human girl and her faerie boyfriend in Valiant, the second novel of the Modern Faerie Tale series. I’m sure some of you in the audience could name other examples for me; in fact, when we get to the question-and-answer part of this show, I welcome it. The intersection of two worlds can certainly go the other way.

But an interesting thing happened when I sat down to write this address, and reached for examples of the human female/faerie male pattern. I was first going to reference Melissa Marr’s novel Wicked Lovely — but then I remembered that Aislinn, the heroine, starts off the book already tinged by the supernatural. Her mother was taken by the faeries before she was born, and so Aislinn can see what most people can’t: the magical face of the world around her. She has one foot in the Otherworld before she ever meets Keenan, the faerie man who becomes the other half of her story. Then I was going to cite Holly’s first Modern Faerie Tale novel, Tithe — before I remembered that (spoiler alert; my apologies) Kaye is a changeling. Again, not quite properly human. At that point my brain went into a sulk, so I asked a friend who was with me at the time, and her suggestions were illuminating: her first thought was Mercedes Lackey’s The Fire Rose, which is an adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” Which, admittedly, is a fairy tale — but a lot of those don’t actually have faeries in them. Is a beast the same thing as a faerie? Not really; he’s a man — a wizard, in Lackey’s adaptation, but a man nonetheless — rather than an otherworldly creature. Then my friend offered up Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, where the lover in question is a robot. Her final attempt was Sharon Shinn’s Samaria novels, which have a common motif of ordinary women taken away by genetically engineered “angels.”

Ordinary women with supernatural men for lovers aren’t hard to find; throw a rock at the fantasy shelves these days and your odds of hitting one are good. But the supernatural men usually aren’t faeries. Mostly they’re vampires — a trope that goes back at least a far as Dracula; the academics in the audience can probably tell me if its roots are older than that. Sometimes they’re werewolves, or demons, or something else that isn’t quite a faerie. (Of course, that begs the question of what constitutes a faerie, which was almost my topic for this keynote speech. We’ll touch on that a bit later.)

Why is it that most of the faerie fiction has ordinary men and magical women, while most of the vampire stories go the other way?

It might just be the models we have in front of us. As I said before, Celtic mythology made extensive use of mortal men and Otherworldly women, and so it isn’t surprising that the fiction we write now often follows the pattern. Vampire fiction, on the other hand, has its roots in Dracula, whose title character seduces the mortal Mina Murray. If the breakout vampire story back in the day had been Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, maybe I’d be up here talking about the recurrence of lesbianism in vampire fiction.

I could try asking myself why I’ve done it. After all, my own Onyx Court series is a fairly orthodox repetition of the pattern. When I sat down to write Midnight Never Come, I knew I wanted two protagonists, one faerie, one mortal. I made the first one a woman and the second one a man. Why?

The immediate answer is that I was writing historical fiction, set in the late Elizabethan period, and that imposed certain constraints on my story. A mortal gentleman would have more freedom to move about and get things done than his sister would; women back then weren’t necessarily mewed up to the extent that became true among, say, the Victorian upper classes, but a well-born woman couldn’t just hop on her horse and go somewhere like a man could. Down in the Onyx Hall, on the other hand, I could make the gender roles whatever I pleased — though I tried not to be too aggressively modern even there.

Plus, there was a certain dynamic already implanted in my head, before I ever thought about writing the book, and that was the relationship of Elizabeth I with her courtiers. She had a whole series of male favorites, and her court was based very much around her: she was the sun, Gloriana, and the rest of them orbited her in a highly stylized kind of relationship. I didn’t know until later about the thorny interactions between Elizabeth and her ladies — she could be profoundly jealous, and flat-out hated it when they tried to meddle in politics, which would have made for difficulties in my plot — but I did know that a gentleman in Elizabeth’s court would automatically be entangled in the myth of the Virgin Queen, in a way that a woman wouldn’t.

Which points directly at the less-immediate answer to the question of why the genders fell out as they did. To get at that one, let me step back a moment and explain where this book came from.

As some of you already know, it was inspired by, and at a few select points based on, a role-playing game I ran in 2006. The system we used was Changeling: The Dreaming, one of the World of Darkness games put out by White Wolf, a company best known for Vampire: The Masquerade, the granddaddy of all vampire role-playing. My game was set in London, at different points in the city’s history, so when I decided to run it, one of the first things I did was pick up the Changeling sourcebook White Wolf had published for the island of Great Britain.

My apologies to anybody in the audience who may be associated with White Wolf, but Isle of the Mighty is a terrible, terrible book. At least the England section is — I didn’t pay much attention to Wales or Scotland. Maybe it’s better if you’re running a Mage game; I know the book was published as something of a crossover between the two systems, and God knows the material is weighted toward the latter. As a Changeling book, though, it was a complete disappointment. The fictional history of England contained almost nothing of faeries in it, and what was there made no sense to me. England was ruled for five hundred years by a nocker named Albion? Really? And the only thing of significance during his entire reign was a jumping contest between a boggan and a pooka?

I read through it once — blinked — read it a second time, shook my head, and tossed it aside. I would just have to write my own faerie history of England. And the first thing I thought up was Invidiana.

I wanted something iconic, you see, something resonant with English history; my brain went straight to Elizabeth the First and offered up her dark mirror. Invidiana, the shadow cast by Gloriana. She was, quite literally, the first piece of actual content I created for the game — I think before I even knew for sure what the game’s plot would be (though I knew its structure before anything else). And the fact that Invidiana came first — in a faerie game — isn’t an accident.

Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. Elizabeth was a woman, and unlike her sister and immediate predecessor Mary, she didn’t have a husband. To legitimize her rule, she and her advisors deliberately made her out to be something more than human. They mythologized her, created an iconography, built her up through literature and art to be this wondrous symbol of England. And, thanks to her remarkable longevity — helped along by that lack of a husband; she didn’t have to worry about dying in childbirth — her mythology imprinted itself on history, to the point where even your average American schoolchild may well have heard of her.

Bear in mind, this isn’t what they wanted to do. Elizabeth’s advisers begged her to marry and beget an heir; the notion of an unmarried woman on the throne was hair-raising enough, but the murkiness of the succession after her was nothing short of terrifying. The mythology was a stopgap, a way to stave off chaos, not a goal in its own right. But it worked. And maybe it breathed new life into an old trope.

Elizabeth was a faerie queen. (Just one who happened to be, y’know, human.) She was beautiful — well, she had been when she was young, and leveraged everything sixteenth-century clothing and makeup and wigs could do to preserve that image as she grew to be forty, fifty, very nearly sixty years of age. She held men in thrall both with desire and fear; she was witty and a tremendous flirt, but also inherited her father’s legendary rages. And she cultivated a degree of unpredictability, because she couldn’t afford to let the men around her grow complacent; she knew very well how easy it would be for them to shunt her out of the way. In order to maintain her position, she had to be something other than human. I’ve heard that Lewis Carroll meant his Queen of Hearts to be a caricature of Victoria, but thanks to the way that later adaptations tend to conflate her with the Red Queen, I’ve always viewed her more as a caricature of Elizabeth — where by “always,” I mean “ever since I learned Elizabeth frequently threatened to cut people’s heads off.” Either way, I don’t think it’s an accident that we have so much faerie fiction set during her reign, featuring faerie queens and mortal men. The pairing suggested itself to William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; note that Oberon, while present, doesn’t get a romance of his own. And, of course, Edmund Spenser wrote a very lengthy allegorical poem called The Faerie Queene, which you may have heard of. Small wonder if modern authors follow in their footsteps.

I could have made a faerie king, I suppose — somebody like Oberon — and told a story about how that’s why Elizabeth never married, because she’d fallen in love with an Otherworldly man. But the truth is, I didn’t even think of that possibility until I was writing this address. No, it had to be a woman: immortal and unaging, as Elizabeth herself was not. A true faerie queen for the age. Before I ever conceived of the novel, I had laid the foundation in my own mind, that the Otherworld — at least in that period — belonged to the women. And so when I set out to rework the story, Elizabeth’s courtier was a man, and Invidiana’s was a woman.

Once you set a pattern, you tend to stick with it. Midnight Never Come was originally intended to be a stand-alone, but I later decided to continue the series through history, and found myself carrying on as I’d begun. By the start of In Ashes Lie, my original mortal was long dead, but Lune was still around; I therefore needed to create a new man — two men, actually — to be her counterpart. Structural reasons meant I couldn’t keep her as my protagonist forever, so A Star Shall Fall shifts focus to some new characters, but the pattern still holds; Galen, the hero, is mortal, and Irrith, the heroine, is a faerie.

After a while, though, you notice your patterns, and start thinking it might be refreshing to break them. Which is why for the Victorian book of the series, With Fate Conspire, I’ve turned my own structure on its head: the book centers on a skriker named Dead Rick and a Whitechapel girl named Eliza. A faerie man and a mortal woman; it changes the dynamic. They see different faces of their respective worlds. And I think it affected the way I have the two of them relate, though how much that has to do with gender, and how much to do with this being the fourth book of the series, I don’t know. I’m trying to do fresh things with each installment, on more than just one front, to keep both me and my readers interested.

So that’s my answer for why I originally followed the common pattern. What about all the other writers out there, though, from the ballad-singers to modern novelists? How come they did it this way? What do you get by associating Faerie with women, and vice versa?

I can only speculate. Which is, I admit, a dangerous thing to do; I know how often reviewers are wrong about my reasons for the choices I make while writing. So I’ll play it safe, and speculate about a guy who’s been dead for nearly a century. Let’s go back to H. Rider Haggard’s novel, She.

I don’t know enough about Haggard to guess whether he had any notion of Faerie in mind when he created the character of Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed. My guess is that he probably didn’t, since his novel is firmly in the pulp adventure tradition, and uses the conceits of that genre. What he had in his mind instead may have been a more fundamental concept, and one that is potentially troubling.

Let’s look at the society he set up, the lost African kingdom of Kor. Of course it’s African; in Haggard’s era — the book was first published in serialized form from 1886 to 1887 — if you wanted a lost kingdom, you most likely stuck it in Africa or South America, or maybe on some random Pacific island. Somewhere there’s a handy jungle. It’s a reflection of European colonialism, as white guys from the cold environs of northwestern Europe went around conquering darker-skinned people from the hot parts of the planet. They had their arctic adventures too, of course — but those areas are much more sparsely inhabited, so the narratives of cold-weather colonialism are frequently a story of Man vs. Nature, rather than Man vs. Primitive Man. The latter generally had a strong overtone of strangeness, the exotic — the Other, with a capital O.

You may have guessed by now that I have an academic background. My undergraduate degree is in archaeology and folklore, and I completed the coursework for a Ph.D in cultural anthropology and folklore. This has given me an uncomfortable amount of familiarity with how white intellectuals in Haggard’s day conceived of those aforementioned darker-skinned people from the hot parts of the planet. Late Victorian anthropologists wrote extensively about such people, working from sources such as the reports of Christian missionaries, the complaints of exploitative tradesmen, and their own fertile imaginations. Reliable data, all of it, I’m sure.

Late Victorian anthropology is rife with the binary of Us vs. Them. Us, of course, was white male Protestant upper-middle-class England and America — since I was reading English-language scholarship — which was, of course, the pinnacle of human physical and cultural evolution. Them was, well, everything else, in varying degrees of inferiority. (In current American politics, Us frequently translates to white evangelical lower-middle-class Midwest, since “Us” generally maps to whoever’s busy being afraid of Them.) The finer details can change, but in Western thought at least, there are certain characteristics that tend to be assigned to Them, the Other, who are not like the Self. Dark-skinned. “Savage,” wherever that bar is being placed this week. Heathen in religion, which is to say mystical and irrational. And feminine. Edward Said’s hugely influential work on Orientalism outlined exactly those characteristics, and it applies to more than just the Middle Eastern regions he was focused on.

Some of you here in the audience may be familiar with, or even have attended, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, more efficiently known as ICFA. It’s an academic conference in Florida, with paper presentations and all that good stuff, and each year has a particular theme. A few years ago, when I heard the theme for the next conference was going to be “encountering the Other,” I joked that I would write a paper on the drow — the dark elves from Dungeons & Dragons — and I would title it “Drow: The Black Hole of Otherness.” It wouldn’t have been much of a paper; as I said at the time, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel — dead fish — because the drow are pretty much every characteristic of Otherness rolled up into one appalling package. What I ended up writing instead was a textual history about how subsequent writers, both of the novel and role-playing game varieties, have tried to rehabilitate the concept of the drow into something more nuanced and less offensive. (Short form of my conclusion: their success has been marginal at best, because their starting point is so very, very terrible.) If you’re not sure what I mean by the Other, just go look at the dark elves; they’ll show you everything you need to know.

That, I suspect, is what Haggard had in mind — consciously or unconsciously — when he wrote She. For a pulp adventure story like his, tension and narrative excitement comes out of the collision between the comfortable, familiar Self of the Englishman and the terrifying Other of the tropics. The Amahagger, the people of Kor, are therefore primitives, cut off from anything an Englishman would recognize as “civilization;” in case the reader harbors any doubts as to their degeneracy, they try to eat Mahomed, the Arab porter hired by the protagonist. So far, so good – – they certainly aren’t like Us — but for that extra touch of Otherness, he puts them under the rule of a woman. And not a nice, domestic, married Queen like Victoria, abundantly productive of children and willing to leave much of the work of government to men, but a beautiful, despotic sorceress, whose very existence is an affront to the civilized order of things.

Matriarchy is a time-honored staple for any writer looking to invent an exotic society. It’s instructive to notice that in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the three “exotic” cultures on the fringes of the mainland — the desert Aiel, the seafaring Atha’an Miere, and the conquering Seanchan — all have noticeably different gender dynamics than the more “central” nations. Most of the warrior societies among the Aiel are male only, but one consists solely of women; in the Seanchan military, women rise to high rank; and all of the Sea Folk ships are captained by women. These things are deeply startling to the mainland-born protagonists, when laid against the more cosmetic differences between, say, Andor and Arad Doman. And, of course — can’t resist taking a few potshots at the dead fish — the matriarchal arrangements of the drow are one of their most prominent characteristics.

Haggard refrains from making Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, an African woman; if I had to speculate, I’d say it’s because she’s powerful, and while the canonical Other of the Victorian age is frightening, it’s also no match for the superior intellect and capability of the white man. A white woman, of course, is good enough to subdue the primitives, but still weak enough to be defeated by the superior sex. But she dwells among the Other, and her power is likewise not of Us: she’s mystical and irrational, unlike the scientific and rational men who encounter her. Turn Ayesha into a man, and aside from the weird consequences that would have for the plot — for starters, He Who Must Be Obeyed would also be He Who Is Gay — the tension of his heroes’ encounter with the exotic would be halfway defused. (Gay may also be seen as scary, but it’s a different kind of scary.) The ruler of the Amahagger needs to be a woman, for the story to have its full effect.

By its very nature, Faerie stands in opposition to the characteristics we associate with modern society. It’s magical, not scientific. It’s irrational; why do faeries become confused when a man turns his clothes inside out? Their realm is frequently associated with nature — forest glens, green meadows, toadstool rings, caverns under the hill — though modern fiction has been sticking them in cities at least since Wizard of the Pigeons. Heck, we even talk about the Otherworld, with a capital O. No wonder Faerie is ruled by Queens.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up a point that some of you may have already seen for yourselves. I talk about this pattern, mortal men and faerie women — but how far does it go? Is this universal, or is it very culture-specific?

I don’t actually know. My folkloric knowledge hits a great many parts of the world — Japan, Mesoamerica, India, Scandinavia, Egypt — but I’m a well-read dilettante, not a specialist. The examples I’ve been quoting have been largely confined to the British Isles; I’ve talked about Celtic mythology and Scottish ballads, novels set in Britain or — in Haggard’s case — written by British authors.

This isn’t an accident. I mentioned before that I thought about writing my keynote address on the topic of what constitutes a faerie. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these last few years, ever since I started writing the Onyx Court series. You see, when I began planning my own foray into Elizabethan faerie fiction, one of the first questions I asked was myself was how I wanted to handle the fantasy side. I briefly toyed with the notion of filing off more of the Changeling serial numbers by making the Onyx Court pan-supernatural, with vampires and werewolves and the like, but I dropped that idea when I realized sixteenth-century England had very little in the way of stories about vampires and werewolves. Which, aside from being the right choice, got me thinking about the importance of the time period to the fantasy, as well as to the real-world history.

A lot of urban faerie fantasy is syncretic: it grabs mystical things from all around the world and tosses them into the salad bowl together. You have not just elves but also kitsune driving sports cars around L.A. Neighboring houses might have domovoi and brownies keeping things tidy. That’s a perfectly valid way of approaching the matter; like comparative studies, syncretism can highlight interesting similarities and differences, so that you find yourself pondering the variations between the Swan Lake story, the swan connections of the Norse valkyries, and the swan transformation of the Children of Lir. But in sixteenth century London, you wouldn’t likely see a kitsune running around. So I decided to stick closer to home — in fact, as close to home as I could. Not just British faeries, but English.

And boy, was that decision eye-opening. Very little of the faerie folklore we have comes from the midlands and southern parts of England, the areas around London. A lot of the folklore is Irish: I cut that away. Lots of Scottish and Welsh, too: okay, we’re on the right island now, but still a bit far afield, since those areas are much more heavily Celtic. Cut those away, and you’re looking at Cornwall and Yorkshire. Closer, but still pretty far from London, and the things I had left — galley-beggars, lubberkins, and so on — aren’t nearly so well-known as your brownies and sidhe.

What I got from this process was a real awareness of the extent to which”faeries,” as we tend to think of them, are a regional phenomenon. Most of the characteristics and images that leap to mind are Celtic in origin, with a healthy dose of Germanic for leavening. In other words, faeries are basically a north-western European idea.

Without a doubt, other parts of the world have their own supernatural creatures — but they don’t necessarily map to the categories and expectations formed by European folklore. Kitsune are like pookas, in certain respects . . . but treating them as types of the same thing obscures the differences — usually to the detriment of the non-European example, as its specificity gets erased. Apsaras do not sort themselves into Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Nunnehi do not offer the same kinds of help as dryads. Genies don’t fear iron, and some of them are practicing Muslims, totally unafraid of holy things.

So when I say that Faerie is ruled by Queens, I’m talking about a very specific region of it, because I don’t really know what’s beyond those borders. Is the pattern of mortal men paired with faerie women as common in other parts of the world? I only have scattered bits of data, which might more properly be called “anecdotes.” Japan has any number of tales concerning Buddhist monks who run afoul of seductive kitsune; that fits the trope. On the other hand, Zeus pursues more human lovers than all the Greek goddesses combined. Do deities count as faeries? Where’s the line between myths and other kinds of folklore? (Don’t answer that one, please. Folklorists have been arguing that question for over a hundred years now, and still haven’t found an answer everybody likes.) Do Polynesian cultures tell stories about something like selkie brides? Who rules the faerie societies of sub-Saharan Africa, kings or queens? Do they even have rulers of that sort? Do they have faeries, as we would conceive of them?

I don’t have a good answer for what a faerie is. I have an answer that works for me — immortal and magical creatures, not necessarily trustworthy, who were never human — but that’s an Onyx Court answer, crafted so as to help me draw a dividing line between what might show up in the books, and what won’t. If I were still in academia, I wouldn’t try to use it in a paper; it needs a lot more thinking through. Your own definition may be different, especially if you’re familiar with the folklore of a different part of the world.

But when we’re talking about things on the northwestern European model, it’s frequently a matter of queens and ladies, nymphs and hags, enchantresses and fallen stars. This can be a thing of power — but it can also be problematic, when the faeries are women because women are unpredictable and incomprehensible. We don’t want to Other ourselves all the time, even if the costumes are purty.

(And I say that as somebody who hopes to be wearing a very purty costume tomorrow night.)

Maybe the answer is to follow the Carmilla model — or, more precisely, the Christina Rossetti model. Give me a faerie woman plus a mortal woman — with or without lesbianism — so that femininity doesn’t get exiled to either side of the fence. I like imagining myself as a faerie, but I also like being rational, compassionate, and everything else mortals are known for. I don’t want to choose between being Self and Other.

0 Responses to “Why is Faerie ruled by Queens?”

  1. oneminutemonkey

    Wow. You raise some good points. I think I’d love to see this essay updated with the comments and feedback you got, just to see where that takes the overall message.

    This really resonates with me, because I have a work in progress in which multiple Queens of Faerie are involved. Why Queens? Because I’m playing with the Tam Lin set of elements, and it’s necessary to have multiple queens, each ruling over their own particular region of Faerie. (Which, of course, is actually quite large, encompassing many different regions and variations, and home to all sorts of governmental structures and forms of leadership. Because this is Tam Lin, the Fae involved come from European backgrounds, and they have Queens because that’s how it works. And some of those have Kings. And one has a Jack. And there’s Puck, and so on….) But I digress.

    I have Queens because that’s how it is, but you’ve helped me to stop and really wonder -why- Faerie has Queens. And while someday, I want to explore the parts of my framework that aren’t so tied into Europe, I have to find the right story and approach first. (Of course, I’m not so far into the work in progress that things might not change, and I’ve oversimplified what I’ve done for the sake of brevity, and I like breaking rules, and I really dig the Christina Rossetti suggestion, and I’m off on a tangent again.)

    Thanks for posting this.

    • Marie Brennan

      You’re welcome! I got a number of suggestions for stories that pair mortal women with faerie men, most notably War for the Oaks (which I really ought to have remembered), but I do still think the European pattern tends to skew the other way.

      Glad to have provoked thinky thoughts.

  2. mindstalk

    “Huh” on the faerie woman/goddess who makes one king, and on marrying the princess to become king. Made me wonder if these are echoes of ancient matrilineality. Probably not — the princess has no competing brothers — but still.

    Other major fantasies: Tolkien, where Galadriel has a husband but is clearly superior, and for the geeks Melian, ditto — Thingol makes more decisions, but Melian has the power. Conversely, Elrond and Thranduil don’t have present or mentioned wives, which combined with Dunsany made me wonder if there’s some widespread “woman in charge or absent” pattern.

    Circe, and Lewis’s White and Green witches for non-faerie but dubiously human enchantresses. (Does the wizard clutching a staff in his tower even exist in pre-fantasy publishing folklore?)

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s been a long time since I read the Silmarillion, but if memory serves, all of the human/elf pairings are between mortal men and immortal women. It isn’t just about women being in charge, but the specific way the bridging of the two worlds maps to gender.

      The wizard with his staff in the tower I’m pretty sure owes a lot of its genesis to Renaissance magicians like John Dee.

      • mindstalk

        Hmm, yeah: Beren/Luthien, Tuor/Idril, Aragorn/Arwen, some obscure pair out of pre-Galadriel Lothlorien and maybe connected to Dol Amroth.

        And IIRC the Half-Elven Earendial and Elwing… Earendil preferred Men, but chose to be an Elf for Elwing’s sake, when they got to Valinor and got to be the first Half-Elves forced to make a choice.

        Oh, and Tuor was rumored to become an elf. So the sexes are the same, but the bridging goes the other way a couple of times.

        Dee: really? Huh.

      • shui_long

        Surely the wizard can trace his antecedents back to Merlin (Malory’s version, rather than Myrddin), and very probably to shamanic figures; maybe the Druids get in on the act somewhere (though I think they were noted for sickles rather than staffs).
        Or is that looking at the legend of Merlin through the lens of Gandalf?

        • mindstalk

          Sure, Merlin’s an antecedent. But there’s the staff and tower. Does British folklore put Merlin in a tower? Not that I recall but I’m no expert.

        • Marie Brennan

          What said; the image of the wizard as a recluse surrounded by dusty tomes of magic is very much an outgrowth of alchemists and mystics in later periods.

      • ladyelleth

        Sorry about a total stranger butting in – I came here following links and don’t have anything much to contribute, but there is one thing that further confirms your point.

        all of the human/elf pairings are between mortal men and immortal women

        And the odd one who very nearly wasn’t. This is a level of geekery beyond the Silmarillion (we’re talking the History of Middle-earth now). Andreth, a wise woman (which may be as much of a concession to the Other that can be made for a female mortal protagonist not subscribing to the Gloriana trope?) fell in love – and had that love returned, but without consummation – by Aegnor, an Elven prince and Galadriel’s brother. It is implied fairly clearly in the text that the reversed gender roles make the bridging of the worlds (and differences in nature between Elves and Men) impossible here; Andreth’s aging would have required either abandonment or pity and support, neither of which the text describes as fitting behaviour for an Elven warrior and neither of which are satisfactory conclusions to the romance.
        I’m unsure how much this has to do with your discussion in general and how much with Tolkien’s specific view of gender, but thought it was worth noting… and in the same vein, isn’t it quite eye-opening that in the other romances, that in most cases a change of nature occurs to the protagonists, men are the ones who gain: Thingol, while himself an elf, gains a demi-god wife, Beren and Aragon gain a fairy wife, Tuor and Eärendil gain eternal life, Imrazôr (the obscure Dol Amroth legend mentioned by ) gains a fairy wife for a while and gets to keep the children. The women are the ones who, in some way or other, lose: Melian is ‘bound’ to a corporeal body, Lúthien and Arwen become mortal, Elwing becomes immortal but her husband is for the most part called to a ‘higher’ destiny and sails the sky as a star, Mithrellas (the other half of the Dol Amroth romance) disappears but without her family. Idril is the great exception here, she neither becomes mortal nor loses anything by entering into a romance between herself and the (from her viewpoint) Other.

        But then, looking at Tolkien’s works in general, men (of whatever side) still take center stage, and it wasn’t quite his intention to map Middle-earth in terms of Elizabethan-tradition Fairy Stories…

        • mindstalk

          Oh yeah, Thingol marrying up too.

          Never heard of Andreth but my HoME geekery topped out at Unfinished Tales and Lost Tales.

          Wow, you made Tuor’s life even more obnoxious — not only did he get everything free and easy, but his wife has no regrets about him either, unlike poor semi-widowed Elwing.

          When I say obnoxious, I’m just amused myself, but I imagine Turin somehow getting wind of his cousin’s life and getting very very angry. Plus the others: “I had to get a Silmaril before I could marry her, though we might have already had sex.” “I had to wait until freak events overthrew Sauron.” “I, um, had to ask?” “DIE, LUCKY SCUM.” Tuor’s life stands out like a sore thumb of blessedness. Okay, he sort of had a hard adolescence.

          What did Imrazor have to do? Guess I could go see how geeky the web is… seems like not much, but then she was just a wood-elf, Nandorin.

        • Marie Brennan

          Total strangers are welcome, especially when they have nifty info like this!

          I hadn’t heard of Andreth, but that sounds like a good read on why Tolkien didn’t pattern relationships in the other direction.

          I certainly don’t think he was trying to map onto this pattern — Elizabethan or otherwise — but it does seem that he reproduced it quite a bit.

          • Anonymous

            I dont’t know if Tolkien intended to follow this pattern, but he certainly based his “faeries” on the very Nordic/Celtic/British understanding.

            Fanatastic article; very entertaining and thought-provoking!

          • mindstalk

            I’m not sure “Nordic/Celtic/British” is a sensible unit. Tolkien’s elves seem closest to the Nordic ones — Vanar? Alfar? The Mirkwood elves in the Hobbit might have a touch of Celtic or Germany to them. The elves might have some aesthetics with the Sidhe or Seelie, and a couple of hidden cities with one underground (for military reasons), but personalities seem off.

  3. Anonymous

    The prohibition pixie…! That totally fits. (I thought the glow stick/quellazaire was a nice touch. 😉

  4. genarti

    I don’t have any answers, but these are fascinating questions! Some of which I hadn’t heard laid out so clearly as that — your first line about women really struck me. So did the pattern about faerie women and mortal men, which I can’t think of any exceptions to off the top of my head but will certainly be pondering. And certainly the urban fantasy syncretism of tossing everything under a neo-Celtic-esque umbrella an ongoing — well, problem, though I hate to just put it that way and imply I don’t love some of the works that have resulted, but it absolutely does a disservice to a whole lot of folkloric frameworks that don’t fit in that Seelie/Unseelie etc model. I’d definitely be interested to read a reworked version of this talk.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ll mostly be updating it with some examples of mortal women with faerie men, and a few other such corrections. Anyway, glad to know it inspired good thoughts for you!

  5. Anonymous

    Drag queens?

    I kept mis-reading the subject line of your wonderful post and so am now wondering: has anyone written re-tellings with drag queens in place of straight ones?



    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Drag queens?

      None that leap to mind, nor that I heard mentioned during the roundtable on queerness and fairy tales. Somebody ought to do it, though.

  6. coraa

    This was a fascinating topic, and I hadn’t thought about it before. I’m really glad to get the notes.

    It’s funny: I did think of a counterexample in one of the lais of Marie de France—but it’s not really a counterexample after all. In “Yonec,” a woman (married to an evil and jealous old man who locks her in a tower) is visited by a bird who transforms into a handsome and gentle man, who becomes her lover. He is described both as a fairy and as a fairy knight. But, apart from the shapeshifting and the fact that he comes from a magic silver castle, he doesn’t behave much like a standard fairy: he claims to be a Christian, successfully takes the Eucharist and is blessed by a priest, fathers a son, and dies of wounds inflicted. He is magical but not particularly mysterious. So there is a ‘fairy man, mortal woman’ story… but it’s so little like the ‘fairy woman, mortal man’ stories that it’s almost not a counterexample at all.

    • Marie Brennan

      Somebody else mentioned “Yonec” to me, I think — at least, I have a note jotted down about it, and I don’t think you were the one who sparked that. Thanks for the details.

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