Nathan (vovat) wrote,

Gettin' My Oberon

Continuing the fairy theme from last week, I'm sure you know that the rulers of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream are Oberon and Titania. But what was Shakespeare's own source for these characters? Well, "Oberon" is a French variation on the Germanic name "Alberich," which translates as "king of the elves." Alberich was a dwarf (the difference between elves and dwarves wasn't as distinct as it would become in Tolkien's work) who showed up in the Niebelungenlied, which told the story of the legendary hero Siegfried, and would eventually provide the basis for Wagner's Ring Cycle. The first known literary appearance of the French version of the dwarf's name was in the thirteenth-century epic of Huon de Bordeaux, in which the elf is the diminutive son of Morgan le Fay and Julius Caesar. So the name had a significant history by the time Shakespeare used it for his own fairy king.

The name of Shakespeare's elvish queen, on the other hand, does not have the same literary background as her husband's. In fact, it was almost certainly the first time the name had been used for a fairy. Spencer's Faerie Queene (who, from what I've read, was an allegorical version of Queen Elizabeth I) was named Gloriana, and the Bard himself had made brief mention of a fairy queen named Mab in Romeo and Juliet (in the form of a speech by Mercutio). Shakespeare actually took the name "Titania" from Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which it referred to the descendants of Titans. Kind of an odd choice for a fairy queen, but some think that it was because of the similarity between the monarch and Diana, identified by Ovid as one of the Titania. Incidentally, because Saturn's moons are named after figures from classical Greco-Roman mythology and Uranus' after characters from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, our solar system ended up with moons named both Titan and Titania.

From this picture by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, we can tell that Oberon was known to don a party hat on occasion, while Titania regularly walked around topless. And I assume that dark-skinned kid with the pageboy haircut is Puck?
Tags: fairies, mythology, shakespeare
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