Moral Challenge and Narrative Structure: Fairy Chaos in Middle English Romance
Medieval fairies are chaotic and perplexing narrative agents—neither humans nor monsters—and their actions are defined only by a characteristic unpredictability. My dissertation investigates this fairy chaos, focusing on those moments in a premodern romance when a fairy or group of fairies intrudes on a human community and, to be blunt, makes a mess. I argue that fairy disruption of human ways of thinking and being—everything from human corporeality to the definition of chivalry—is often productive or generative. Each chapter examines how narrative fairies upset medieval English culture’s operations and rules (including, frequently, the rules of the narrative itself) in order to question those conventions in the extra-narrative world of the tale’s audience. Fairy romances, I contend, puzzle and engage their audiences, encouraging readers and hearers to think about and even challenge the processes of their own society. In this way, my research explores the interaction between a text and its audience—between fiction and reality—illuminating the ways in which premodern narratives of chaos and disruption encourage readers and headers to engage in a sustained, ethical consideration of the world.