Note: this post was triggered by a book, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity (Anglo-Saxon Studies) by Alaric Hall (Boydell Press, 2007). It’s a very dense text stuffed with erudition and teeny tiny footnotes. But this is not an academic blog; long, footnoted discussion of etymology, of gloss and lemma and long -i, would be intrusive and tiresome. So just take it that all the good stuff about history in this post come from the book, and all the mistakes are mine. Hey, you try condensing 200 pages of academespeak into a few pithy paragraphs. Errors are inevitable. If you want the real deal, go read the book. And watch for a post on Gemæcce where I’ll discuss how this book is influencing my novel-in-progress.
A few weeks ago I wrote a short ‘position paper’ on sex and SF (yes, ha ha, very funny) for an academic journal. It turned into a bit of a rant. (I’ll post it here at some point once it’s in print—late autumn perhaps?)
As regular readers know, my novel-in-progress is a huge historical about Hild of Whitby, a Northumbrian royal born in the early seventh century. For the last year or two I’ve been immersed in all things Anglo-Saxon and, to a lesser degree, early medieval—that is, pagan, pre-Christian—Scandinavian.
In the course of my research (some heavily academic, some of it random but entertaining reading of Old English poetry and Old Norse sagas in translation—with the occasional exciting dip into the originals1) I began to understand that, for the pre-Christian Northwest Europeans, gender wasn’t tied as tightly to biological sex as it was a couple of hundred years after their conversion.
The early Scandinavians divided the people of their sagas into hvatr, meaning bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive, and blauðr, which covered characteristics such as weak, soft, powerless, dull, yielding, and moist. Guess which quality was most esteemed. (Guess which category warriors belonged to; guess which slaves.) Guess which kind of SF is the Norm/good and which is the Other/less good…
In those early days, the elves (ælfe) in A-S poetry were supernatural not-entirely-human males—though their masculinity was suspect, somewhat effeminate. There were no girl ælfe. Instead, to balance the otherworldly gender-suspect male ælfe we had hægtessan, martially-inclined supernatural females.
Things went on this way for some time: male ælfe prancing about in the woods, female hægtessan killing people who got in their way. (Good times, good times…) Then the A-S got themselves converted. The categories of hvatr and blauðr began to seem less important than those of male and female. Gender became more tightly tied to biological sex.2
By the ninth and tenth centuries, elves could be male or female. Gradually the male elves became more manly—though still inhumanly good looking—and the female elves were the epitome of (inhuman) womanhood: blindingly beautiful, irresistibly seductive, wise but, y’know, young looking. It was at this point that hægtessan disappear from the literature. They no longer fit in the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Elves carried the entire gendered supernatural load.
So how do more recent depictions of elves/fairies reflect this history of cultural change? For one thing, in today’s fantasy the queen of the elves/fairies is the boss. The boy elves might be manly, but the queen is more powerful/beautiful/dreaded. For another, there’s changelings.
I don’t think the notion of changelings existed in pre-Christian Europe. (But I’m not a folklore expert. So, hey, if I’m wrong, just please say so.) Pagan Anglo-Saxons apparently didn’t have a moral problem with abandoning sickly infants. Emotional problems certainly; they were people, after all. They loved their kids—just read any archaeology report about grave goods from that time. When circumstances permitted, they didn’t abandon the babies; they did their best to take care of them. My point is that there was no legal or moral stricture. However, the Church taught that abandonment was wrong, immoral, tantamount to murder; it was most definitely unChristian to leave a child to die, no matter how terrible the circumstances. But some families in medieval times lived marginal lives (again, look at archaeological evidence) and simply couldn’t afford to spend resources on an infant who would die anyway. So they abandoned them, and came up with a rationale to make themselves feel better: they had not imperilled a mortal soul but discarded an inhuman monster. They were protecting their community from evil.
Without the Church there would be no Tam Lin—and all those wonderful modern retellings of same. Without the Church, the girls wouldn’t be in charge of elfland (no Midsummer Night’s Dream, no Galadriel). Without the Church, though, maybe we’d have a few more hægtessan bestriding the land. Now that would be cool.
1 Want to know what this stuff sounds like? Go listen to Anglo-Saxon Aloud, Michael Drout’s astonishing collection of readings. (Note that ‘Old English’ is mostly what came down to us from the West Saxons. My NIP about Hild is mostly concerned with the Angles of Northumbria—who used a pretty different dialect. Drout has a couple of Northumbrian readings, e.g. Bede’s Death Song.)
2 A result of the Conversion (and the importation of Greek-via-the-Romans dualist crap) or a necessary pre-condition of the adoption of Christianity? I’m not sure anyone knows.