Titania, Tanaquill, Gloriana, Mab: who is the Fairy Queen? Is she "in shape no bigger than an agate-stone" (as Shakespeare told us), or is she a "great Queene of glory bright" (as Spenser wrote)? Does she steal children, handsome knights like Tam Lin--or magic swords? Where does this figure come from, and what is her enduring hold on our imaginations?
Interestingly enough, three of the most iconic depictions of the Fairy Queen all date to around the same time period. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was probably written between 1590 and 1596. Edmund Spenser's The Fairy Queene was first published in 1590. And the earliest recorded mention of the Scottish ballad "Tam Lin" was in 1549.
Yet, though all three sources describe a Fairy Queen, the characters depicted don't have much in common. Spenser's Tanaquill (also called Gloriana) is an allegory for Queen Elizabeth. Shakepeare's Titania is mostly drawn from classical Greek sources. And the Queen of the Fairies in "Tam Lin" is an enigmatic adversary, powerful and cruel.
The Arthurian connection is in fact persistent. Spenser linked his Gloriana to King Arthur; Queen Medb is associated with the theft of the sword Caladbolg (Excalibur) in Irish myth; Shakespeare's Titania is consort to Oberon, a figure linked to the Arthurian cycle through French courtly poetry. And of course there's Morgan "le Fey"--of the fairies--who rules Avalon and is both antagonist and advisor/savior to Arthur: is this the Fairy Queen under yet another name?
There is no clear answer. There is no single "original." The Fairy Queen casts long and shifting shadows through many centuries and multiple cycles of myth and legend. Perhaps that is her essence: mutable, unknowable, sometimes benevolent and sometimes perilous--but always powerful, and always alluring. Call her any name you like. Her story is far from done.
Shannon Phillips is a writer and mom living in Oakland where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. she likes old things, wild places, tall tales and the people who tell them. Contributor to the recent World Weaver Press anthology Fae, author of The Millennial Sword, an urban fantasy novel set in San Francisco, and The Big Booger Bubble, a read-aloud picture book for kids. joshannonphillips.com