(image by Brian Froud)
Fairies can be extremely passionate by nature, but the rules of fairy love are, as we might expect from such beings, contradictory and unfair. There is one set of rules for humans and another, laxer set for the fairies.
The rules for human lovers
Fairies demand various virtues and qualities of human beings. True love is the first of these. Lovers are expected to be devoted and honourable and to follow four key rules.
- Respect true love- The fairies punish attempts to interfere in the course of true love between young couples. Hobgoblin Puck declares “I love true lovers” whilst disliking wanton wives and cuckolders. In one story he uses his magic powers to save a young woman from the unwanted advances of her lecherous uncle, allowing her to marry her young suitor whilst at the same time reforming the old man’s morals.
- Love is given, not taken- The use of force is punished. Seventeenth century poet John Fletcher warned that if anyone is found “Forcing of a chastity” a horn will be sounded and the fairies all will run to pinch the violator to the bone until his lustful thoughts are gone.
- Encourage lovers- In aid of true love, the fairy queen chastised women who did not take pity on their pining lovers. Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion told how fairies would be sent to pinch the unkind ladies, whilst to those “that will hold watch with love” the fairy queen would bestow beauty and greater adoration. Conversely, “they that have not fed/ On delight amorous/ She vows that they shall lead/ Apes in Avernus”- in other words, they shall suffer sexual frustration because they lacked devotion.
- Promote wedded bliss- Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream provides the best examples of fairies promoting the virtues of true love. After toying with Titania and Bottom and with the Athenian lovers, fairy king Oberon brings “joy and prosperity” to the triple weddings that crown the play. He blesses the bridal beds, promising true love and constancy to the couples, as well as children who shall “ever be fortunate” and free of deformity.
Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on this reassuring note; there is marital harmony in both middle earth and Faery and the guarantee of a prosperous future for the newlyweds. However, these gifts come from Oberon, a notoriously unfaithful seducer. When we first meet him in the play, he is accused by his wife Titania of stealing away from fairy land and “versing love/ To amorous Phillida,” an accusation he fails to deny. Worse still, he is revealed elsewhere to have fathered Puck after seducing an innocent girl. This is the other side of Faery: high standards are demanded of humans but are not applied to supernaturals.
The rules for fairy lovers
The rules of love for fairies are:
- Have fun- In his description of Oberon’s Palace poet Robert Herrick depicts the fairy king in the worst possible light. After a feast he goes to Queen Mab’s bed ready “For Lust and action.” Their chamber is hung about with pearls made from the tears of “ravished Girles/ Or writhing Brides.” The music is provided by elves who imitate “the cries/ Of fained-lost Virginities” so as to “excite/ A more unconquered appetite.” This is probably the more authentic Faery: it is natural and uninhibited.
- Take what you want- Oberon was not alone in his predatory behaviour. Women were often stolen as brides, a good example being in the story of Sir Orfeo whose wife is enchanted and kidnapped by the king of fairy. Sadly, she was not alone.
- Enjoy love on your own terms- Fairy maidens can be as predatory as the men. They can abduct and seduce hapless youths using their renowned beauty and allures. In an early English poem, Round Table knight Launval encounters fairy lady Tryamour. She is found in a pavilion, nearly naked in the heat and lying on a couch- “white as the lily in May/ or snow that snows on a winter’s day.” Launval is instantly obsessed, and soon they are in bed and “For play, little they slept that night.” There is a sting in the tail though. Fairies demand honesty of humans but fairy lovers almost always insist that they are asked no questions and that their relationship is concealed. Launval- like all such human lovers- breaches this vow of silence by boasting of his partner and “all that he had before won/ Melted away, like snow in the sun.” He loses his lover and all her rich gifts because he is unable to prevent himself blabbing.
- The human pays the price- There is nearly always a price to pay for the pleasure and privilege of loving a fairy. If it is not abandonment, the lover will instead sicken and die for longing, will be trapped in fairy land for ever or, after enjoying great pleasure with the maiden, will return home to find that not hours and days have passed as he imagined, but years and decades; all those he knew are married or dead and the world is changed irrevocably.
These, then, are the fairy rules of love. Humans must be chaste and faithful, whereas fairies may be passionate, cruel, inconstant and selfish.