Monday, February 13, 2006

Glossary: Fairy kingdoms of Europe

In Parzival, the genealogy of the Angevin dynasty and King Arthur traces their lineage back to the land of Feimurgan, aka Morgan le Fay.

Such a peculiar assertion resonates also with some earlier literature. Morgan is called the sister of Arthur in Chretien's Erec et Enide written in the 12th century. Earlier, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the creator of the modern Arthurian legend, calls Arthur's sister Anna, which may be a veiled hint at Morgan (Morgen).

In Vita Merlini, also claimed by Geoffrey of Monmouth he describes Morgan as a ruler of Avalon who comes to take the injured Arthur back to that island. Here she will use her healing powers to mend his wounds, and here he will stay to return to Britain one day.

In Parzival there is more than enough reason to suspect that the land of Feimurgan is the same as that of Prester John. Cundrie, for example, is a sorceress like Morgan le Fay and Alcina, Morgan's sister in the latter Italian romances.

By the mid-14th century, Avalon was often located in the Indies or the far East. Roman d'Ogier le Danois has the hero Ogier the Dane marrying Morgan le Fay in Avalon which is in the extreme Orient near Paradise. The Danish version locates it explicitely in the Indies. In Le Batard de Bouillon (1350 AD), Avalon is said to be beyond the Erythraen Sea (Indian Ocean) where Arthur and Morgan dwell.

Robert de Boron, of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, states that the Holy Grail was taken to Avalon. In latter Arthurian romances, the Holy Grail is often said to reside with Prester John or the Swan Knight on a mountain in the far Indies.

Mysterious genealogies

The fairy descent of the Angevins and Arthur seems strange enough especially when one considers the efforts of the royal dynasties at this time to tidy up their official genealogies.

Benoit de Sainte-Maure and John de Marmoutier's history and genealogy of the Angevins along with literary works like Roman de Brut appear designed to convey a sense of respectability to the newly-installed Angevins of England (Plantagenets).

There is nothing that would lead us to conclude that early Europeans disregarded the histories of Arthur as fiction. Indeed, latter kings like Henry VII even openly claimed descent from the ancient British king.

The discrepancy of the "official" genealogies with those of the romances has suggested to some that suppression of history had taken place.

Also peculiar is how the farthest Indies and the historical incidences regarding Prester John's communications at this time get caught up in the literature in this part of northern Europe.

Legitimization of Norman invasion

One could look at Geoffrey of Monmouth's work as possibly an attempt to use old Celtic legends and apply them to the Norman overlords of England at that time, and specifically to William the Conqueror.

Like Geoffrey's Arthur who crosses the channel from Brittany to free England from Roman domination, William crosses the same channel to free the Celtic peoples from Anglo-Saxon oppression. William himself was a descendant of Judith, Princess of Britanny and could seemingly claim to be a Celtic hero, despite his Viking background.

However, this does not explain the fairy descent which is never imputed on the Normans.

When they invade England, William of Poitiers states that the people of Brittany, Anjou, Le Mans and Poitiers formed the left flank of the Norman force. They were under the command of Count Brian of Brittany.

Among this group were knights with the appellation l'estrange "the foreigner" attached to their names. This is during a period when surnames were practically unknown. Eventually, the appellation did become a surname for people brought across the channel from Brittany and Anjou to settle in England.

Henry I, in order to counter-balance the power of Norman elites in England brought more of these people from the same locations of Brittany and Anjou. Orderic-Vitalis states that the newcomers were 'de infimo genere,' or of shady descent.

That the fairy connection could lie with these "foreigners" makes sense as Brittany and Anjou are the locations connected with Arthur and the Angevins respectively.

Interestingly, Arthur's fabled victories are in some sources said to have led to an empire that encompassed parts of Scandinavia, Britain and France, seemingly an allusion to the real conquests of the Normans.

What is a fairy?

Aside from the fairy as a mythical forest creature, early researchers like David MacRitchie and W.Y. Evans Wentz have suggested that the fairy also indicated an ethnic type at one time.

Fairies were seen as shorter than Celtic people, but at times very short or very tall, or having the magical ability to become very short or tall.

Despite being known as "fair folk," the fairies are mostly described as brown or dark-skinned. The Brownies and Duine Sith are examples of brown fairies. The Corrigan were described as black-skinned fairies. In the Vulgate Merlin, Morgan le Fay is described as 'very brown of face.'

The words duine "brown" and dubh "black" are used commonly in the most ancient Celtic myths to describe the fairies. Cundrie and Malcreatiure of Parzival are also described as having dark skin.

Evans-Wentz with regard to some vitrified forts and ancient houses assigned to the Piskies and Picts states:

In the district in which they are, the fringe of coast from St. Ives round by Zennor, Morvah, Pendeen, and St. Just nearly to Sennen, are found to this day a strange and separate people of Mongol type, like the Bigaudens of Pont l'Abbe and Penmarc'h in the Breton Cornouailles, one of those 'fragments of forgotten peoples' of the 'sunset bound of Lyonesse' of whom Tennyson tells. They are a little 'stuggy' dark folk, and until comparatively modern times were recognized as different from their Celtic neighbours, and were commonly believed to be largely wizards and witches.

From the European perspective, the fairy physical appearance varied from the otherworldly beauty of the fairy nobles to the repulsive appearance ascribed to the Nains. Malcreatiure's appearance in Parzival appears to stupefy the locals and it is explained that in the Indies there was "a great many of these people with distorted faces, and they bore strange, wild marks."

Arthur as Fairy King

Evans-Wentz, following Sir John Rhys, makes Arthur a king of the Fay, without necessarily giving Arthur any historical reality.

Many good reasons are given for Arthur as fairy king but none so explicit as the Parzival genealogy were he descends from Mazadan and the fairy Terdelaschoye in the land of Feimurgân.

No information is given on the paternal ancestor Mazadan other than he was lured to Feimurgân and stayed on there. However, Arthur's father Uther Pendragon is said also to rule at Annwn, the Celtic Underworld, and often synonomous with Avalon.

Of course, Arthur's sister, a full sister according to Chretien and half-sister in latter tradition, is Morgan le Fay, the fairy Morgan. Many of the knights in Arthur's service have powers that are usually associated with fairies in other literature.

Also impressively the near-dead Arthur returns to Avalon, land of the fairies, guided by his fairy sister until his eventual return.

The idea of supernatural descent is not unusual, but really comes as a surprise in this period and location of history, especially in that it involves the "other." In previous centuries, the Merovingian dynasty was said to be fathered by one Quinotaur a 'beast of Neptune' that encountered the Salian queen as she bathed in the sea.

This tale might be related to a series of "swan knight" stories that held sway in the northern Germanic countries in succeeding centuries. In Beowulf, Scild "the son of the skiff" comes over the sea sleeping in a boat without rudder or sail. He is raised by the locals and eventually becomes king. When near death, Scild asks to be placed in a boat that is guided into the sea by swans.

In other forms of this myth, and in particular the Lohengrin cycle, the swan knight appears as a hero who comes by boat guided by a swan to rescue and marry a princess or duchess. However, he makes her promise that she never ask about his origin and descent, which in all versions his wife is unable to do. The swan knight, on the breaking of the oath, then returns to the sea on the same swan-driven boat never to be seen again. However, he leaves descendants who adopt the swan on their standards.

The fairy descent of the house of Anjou and Arthur is of a more serious type not encountered since the Quinotaur incident some seven centuries earlier. Later this reputation stuck mostly to the Plantagenets, although the house of Bouillon also gets attached to the swan knight tale.

The "Melusine" tradition of fairy descent was so instilled in European thought that Richard the Lion-Hearted was stated to have said his family came from the "sons of demons."

A Melusine of fairy descent with bat-like wings and fish/dragon lower body. The husband of the Melusine must not view here when she bathes her children or she flies away, a restriction similar to that in the Swan Knight relationship. (Holzschnitt aus dem frühesten Druck des Romans; Basel, undatiert, ca. 1474,

Prester John, the Indias and northern Europe

What do Prester John and the Indies have to do with royal families in northern France and Britain?

Von Eschenbach is the first to explicitely mention Ind with regard to the Grail cycle. However, it must be said that Arthurian romances start with the introduction of the completely foreign and distant Avalon, not found in previous literature.

And the development of the Grail and Arthurian cycles takes place in the same two centuries that Prester John historically is said to have been making initial contacts with the Pope and the European kings.

Not only do we hear of historical visits of patriarchs and ambassadors from the Indies to Rome and Byzantinum, but in Parzival and other works there is mention of journeys by Europeans to the East. For example, Feirefiz's migration to the kingdom of Tribalibot near the Ganges.

Such new contacts could easily be understood in context of the conquest of Jerusalem by Godefrey of Bouillon, supposed descendant of the Swan Knight and leader of the First Crusade.

Hypothetically, we might assume that contacts with the Indies and back would travel through the Shi'a corridors in connection with the Sayabiga either to Sind or to the Crusader forts of the Holy Land. From Sind, the journey would proceed to South India and from thence to points East. From the Holy Land, one could venture to points throughout Europe and Byzantinum. The pact between the Templars and the Assassins might also explain how both east and west cooperated in allowing such travel to take place, albeit on a limited basis.

Latter Italian romances such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso locate the fairy isles quite clearly in the East Indies. In this tale about the love of Orlando, a knight of the Holy Roman Empire, for Angelica, the daughter of the Great Khan of Cathay, a side story involves the island of Alcina, Morgan le Fay's sister.

Somewhere beyond Cathay (North China) and Mangiana (Manzi, South China) lay the islands ruled by three sisters -- the irresistably beautiful and wicked Alcina and Morgan, and their equally beautiful but virtuous and heroic sister Logistilla. A more specific setting for a tradition that had lasted for centuries.

In analyzing fairy descent, we can say that it was definitely related to the "other" but in both positive and negative ways. The fairies could have either very appealing good looks like the still handsome and youthful-looking thousand-year-old King Mider. Or they could appear with the shocking visage of Malcreatiure.

While the Plantagenets always drew suspicion of conspiracy with the Devil, Godefrey and Baldwin claimed descent from the Swan Knight, while the Tudor kings claimed Arthur as their progenitor.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Ariosto, Ludovico. Orlando Furioso, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Courier Dover Publications, 2003.

Le Strange Records 1100-1310, s.v. "Roland le Strange,", s.v. "Observations on the Le Stranges,"

Maddox, Donald and Sara Sturm-Maddox. Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France, University of Georgia Press, 1996.

MacRitchie, David. Ancient and Modern Britons: A Retrospect, 2 Vols. 1884; rpt. Introduction by William Preston. Los Angeles: Preston, 1985, 1986.

___. The Testimony of Tradition, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Limited, 1890.