Category Archives: mythology

Shakespeare’s Fairies as Dreams

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare - 1781

We see them only at the edge of sight, in dreams, so it’s no wonder that we are often confused by them. But the Bard did a turn with dreams of various sorts, and in his sight was keener than most others. See how he did his research:

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

Henry Fuseli - Fairy Mab - c1815-20

“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s Speech

But Mab, she seems to have been plucked out of that nowhere we visit each night (which is her realm). But it was good enough for at least one other poet with a gothic tale.

Turner - Queen Mab's Cave

J. M. W. Turner, Queen Mab's Cave, 1846

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1906

Perhaps even the Bard was confused for there is another with that title named Titania. Or perhaps Faerie is broad enough for multiple monarchs. At any rate, more celebrated than Mab, and older than any modern literature, is Oberon’s consort, whose dreams are made from fairies’ lullabies:

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Henry Fuseli - Titania Awakening - 1785-90

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
— William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it’s well she were asleep, for in other forms that goddess is also the huntress we dare not bother as she bathes:

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

Hendrick van Balen -- Diana and Actaeon

While Titania is bathing there, in her accustomed place, Cadmus’s grandson, free of his share of the labour, strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove. So the fates would have it. As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness.
— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3

The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, by Arthur Rackham (1905)

Since Theseus is also referenced later in tale, it seems Ovid and Shakespeare had the same dream (or perhaps Shakespeare read rather widely, but that’s between us). At any rate, sweet dreams.

Image Links: Arthur Rackham at ArtsyCraftsy, Henry Fuselli at Art History Archive, Hendrick van Balen at Hellenica

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Damsels In Distress: Launcelot and Guenevere

Guinevere A'Maying by John Collier

Guinevere A'Maying by John Collier

Bulfinch returned; now he was wearing medieval jousting armor instead of his banker’s wools. He explained to me the story of how Sir Launcelot remained the queen’s lover, his forswearing after his failed quest for the Sangreal notwithstanding.

Guinevere (or La Belle Iseult) by William Morris:

Guinevere (or La Belle Iseult) by William Morris:

He intimated that there had been a plot instigated against him by the rumors of Mordred and his half-brother Sir Agrivaine, to entrap Launcelot while he was with the queen.

Their last hour, Florence Harrison

It was their last hour - Emma Florence Harrison, illustration to Guinevere by Tennyson

Launcelot escaped but the queen was caught and put to trial and then sentenced to burn for her crime. He then told of how Guenever was rescued. Placing one leg upon a stone he declaimed:

Then when Sir Launcelot had thus done, and slain and put to flight all that would withstand him, then he rode straight unto Dame Guenever, and made a kirtle and a gown to be cast upon her; and then he made her to be set behind him, and prayed her to be of good cheer. Wit you well the queen was glad that she was escaped from the death. And then she thanked God and Sir Launcelot; and so he rode his way with the queen, as the French book saith, unto Joyous Gard, and there he kept her as a noble knight should do; and many great lords and some kings sent Sir Launcelot many good knights, and many noble knights drew unto Sir Launcelot.

Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lancelot in the Queen's Chamber by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This was not, of course, the end of the story. But that was all Bulfinch had for me that day. I spun around three times to find myself back in my own time. So putting on my running shoes with dove wings, I began to write this report.


Image Credits: Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Emma Florence Harrison

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Damsels in Distress: How to Slay a Monster

Being part II of our series on….

Damsels in Distress: The Myth of Perseus and Andromeda

Rapunzel Singing in the Tower by Frank Cadogan Cowper

Rapunzel Singing in the Tower by Frank Cadogan Cowper

And by “agreed,” I meant he walked around a tree, returning immediately wearing a pair of steampunk running shoes with pigeon wings glued on them. Staring at me in confused bemusement, he tossed what appeared to be a stone carving of Godzilla, which landed with a “thunk” at my feet. The creature stared at me as if I were Tokyo.

“Perseus, continuing his flight, arrived at the country of the Etheopians” Bulfinch began, apparently from the middle of the story. He went on to relate how Perseus, looking down while returning from his battle with the Gorgon Medusa, saw far below the small and frail figure of Andromeda chained to a rock.

Perseus and Andromeda

The Rock of Doom by Edward Burne-Jones

Flying down, he asked her why she had been chained there. Out of modesty, she said nothing to the hero at first, but for fear that he would judge her wrongly, she related the tale of how her mother Queen Cassiopeia had, in her pride, boastfully compared her beauty to that of the Sea-Nymphs. In their anger, the nymphs sent a great serpent to ravage the coast of her country. To free themselves from terror, King Cepheus was directed by the Oracle to chain Andromeda, his virgin daughter, to the rock in sacrifice to that monster.

Perseus Slays Medusa by Aubrey Beardsley

Perseus Slays Medusa by Aubrey Beardsley

Just as she was finishing her story, the serpent raised its head out of the water and with great haste moved near to claim his prize. As luck would have it, Perseus was no stranger to great deeds, having defeated the Gorgon Medusa by beheading her. The hero sprang into the air with Mercury’s winged sandals, and landing on the monster’s back plunged his sword again and again into its neck. The monster retreated into the depths of the sea, then broke through the surface and appeared to soar in the air. Springing off the monster’s back, but with his wings now wet he had to wait for it upon a rock. Perseus nimbly evaded its attacks. Weakened by the failure of its repeated attacks, the monster lay still, floating on the waves, its breathing labored. As it passed, Perseus delivered a final death stroke, thus liberating the Etheopeans from the menace they had so long endured. Gratefully, the king and queen granted Perseus’ request to marry Andromeda.

“What about the Sea-nymphs?” I asked Bulfinch, “Weren’t they still angry?”

“Don’t know” he said wandering back into the forest.

Chapel of the Lists by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Chapel of the Lists by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I suppose I should have left then, as there seemed little point to any of this, but something told me I was dressed in Victorian attire for a reason. I fumbled for my pocket watch just in case this strange place had any appointments to get to–perhaps a tea party–a Jane Austen scenario–even a Gothic novel. As it turned out, it was a medieval one.

To be continued….


Image credits:  Victorian and Preraphaelite Art, Aubrey Beardsley

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Arabian Nights: Curious Coincidences and Obscenities

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

The Sultan and Scheherazade, Arabian Nights - Kay Nielsen

Of Fairy Tales and Folklore

We should not be surprised that the transliterator of Cinderella and Snow White, and the transliterator of Aladin and Ali Baba, were friends. Working for the same boss in separate cultural offices, Charles Perrault and Antoine Galland carved out different facets of a literary niche that has endured across centuries, not unlike the stories they retold. Both profoundly influenced later authors.

In 1695, at the age of 67, Charles Perrault lost his job as Secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres. With plenty of time on his hands, he embarked on a project to bring the stories he had heard since childhood into printed form, and published his Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals in the same year.

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

Arabian Nights : Fisherman and the Genie, Maxfield Parrish

When Scheherazade Met Sinbad

The Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres where Perrault had worked was under the administrative control of Loius XIV’s finance minster, Jean Baptise Colbert. During that period, another of Colbert’s employees, Antoine Galland, was occupied with preparations for a compendium of Middle Eastern Literature, the Bibliothèque Oriental. In this library was a manuscript of a cycle of stories that Galland translated and published with the name The Tale of Sinbad the Sailor. Partly due to the popularity of his friend’s work on fairy tales, Sinbad became immediately popular as well. Perrault himself then encouraged him to complete a more ambitious project, a translation of a manuscript that Galland had collected in Instanbul called “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” or The Thousand and One Nights.

Curiously, of all the most popular stories in that collection, only the framing tale of Scheherazade was part of that manuscript. The Sinbad tales came from a separate source, but those stories that came to be called in English “Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were drawn directly from oral tradition: A Maronite Christian from Allepo in Syria visited Galland in Paris and narrated those stories to him from memory.

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

Aladdin and the Genie of the Ring - Virginia Frances Sterrett

The Arabian Nights in England

Of the two contemporary authors, Gallard had traveled more extensively than Perrault, though less so than another well-traveled translator of the Thousand and One Nights, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton’s biography is a tale on its own; Burton began his travels as an officer in the army of the British East India Company, spending time in Afghanistan and India and becoming familiar with the local cultures. He then took leave to work for the Royal Geographic Society, disguising himself as an Arab and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the few non-Muslims who ever managed to do so. Returning to India to rejoin his regiment, he joined instead the political department of the India Company and was again engaged by the Geographic Society to explore the coasts of Arabia and East Africa. He eventually explored inland as far as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria while seeking the true source of the Nile River. His notes became important sources of information for later central African expeditions.

Upon his return to England in 1861 (at the age of 40), Burton entered the British Foreign Service for whom he served as ambassador in various locations in India and the Middle East. Even while doing that, he also made time to co-found the Anthropological Society of London. He was eventually granted a knighthood by Queen Victoria in 1886.

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Layla - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Racy Racism in Victorian England

It was during this latter period of his life that Burton turned to the translation of Oriental classics, most notably the first English translation of the Kama Sutra and the unexpurgated version of our topic, The Thousand Nights and One Night. Burton’s unashamedly sexual version was shocking to his Victorian contemporaries:

They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain middlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, “Here to me, O my lord Saeed!” and then sprang with a drop leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

Asenath - from Edmund Dulac's Picture Book for the Red Cross

This version did not receive the acclaim in Victorian England that Burton might have wished. Criticized as pornography by some critics while admired by others, it was never as popular as Galland’s original translation. But it did represent the most complete version of the stories in English up to that point, and captured to the fullest extent the exotic Orientalism that he encountered in his travels.

Despite later retellings and translations, it’s interesting to see the durability of the original Arabian Nights concept of Galland’s translation. The intertwining of the frame tale and stories within stories matches the mood of exotic orientalism that the tales provide us. These are not all fairy tales. Many of the stories are simple romances while the Sinbad voyages are too epic in scope to simply be called a fairy tale, but they all maintain the same sense of the exotic.  But underneath the exoticism is a realization of the truest spirit of the folktale; that popular stories can be adapted to any generation of readers with the right storyteller.

Image credits: Arabian Nights

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