By Shannon Phillips.
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.
In order to inspire such different portrayals, all around the same time period, it seems there must have been multiple antecedents for the character. Yet tracing the Fairy Queen back farther than the sixteenth century is difficult. In Welsh and Irish myth we find various queens of the otherworld who are associated with stolen children or warriors: Fand, Rhiannon, Medb. It's often speculated that the Irish Queen Medb (or Maeve), Queen of Connaught, may be the original Queen Mab. And Medb's daughter, Findabair, is a direct analogue of the Welsh Gwenhwyfar: we know her better as Queen Guinevere.
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.
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