Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’
In my forthcoming fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awake, one of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies. She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).
Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy. She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale. The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell. This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.
Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance. Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.” She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.
Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.” She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.
This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting. Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.” To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams. For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.” This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.
Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king. These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.
Queen Mab by Fuseli