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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The once and future fairie king : reading Sir Orfeo as a political allegory Tastad, Anne Victoria


In this thesis I analyze the depiction of fairies in Sir Orfeo, an anonymously composed Middle English Breton lay. In previous scholarly analyses of Sir Orfeo, the wider historical context of the lay’s composition is rarely treated as a source of interpretive insight. This failure to consider the relationship between text and context represents a gap in current scholarship on the lay. My thesis addresses this gap, pairing a close reading of Sir Orfeo’s narrative, with a careful examination of the lay’s historical circumstances. My close reading focuses on the lay’s unique representation of fairies, and their function within the narrative as hostile, politically destabilizing figures engaged in conflict with Orfeo, an English king. While this conflict seems to revolve around the fairies’ abduction of Orfeo’s wife, Queen Heurodis, I argue that human-fairie conflict is, in fact, the result of spatial transgressions that constitute infringements on sovereignty. I then highlight and analyze numerous parallels between the human-fairie conflict depicted in Sir Orfeo, and the drawn-out geopolitical conflict between medieval England and Wales. Anglo-Welsh conflict was a result of English efforts to conquer and colonize Wales, with English claims to dominion over Wales being met with Welsh counter-assertions of sovereignty. I demonstrate that this real-world conflict constitutes part of Sir Orfeo’s wider historical circumstances and argue that, in view of the parallels between text and context, we may read Sir Orfeo as a political allegory in which conflict between medieval England and Wales is fictionalized as a fantastical conflict between humans and fairies. According to such a reading, the lay’s threatening representation of fairies reflects English colonial anxieties about the colonized Welsh and their potentially more legitimate claims to territorial authority within Britain. My thesis thus demonstrates that, by looking to the wider historical context in which Sir Orfeo was composed, we gain valuable insight into the lay’s unique depiction of fairies, and a more robust understanding of the lay as a whole.

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