Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was an English poet whose work varied from political to mythical. His poem "Nymphidia" was published in 1627, at the height of a new fad for tiny fairies started by his contemporary William Shakespeare. "Nymphidia" is also known by the title “The Court of Fairy” or in some later editions “The History of Queen Mab”. It has remained a classic of fairy literature ever since.
Drayton explains that he heard the story from a fairy named Nymphidia. He introduces Pigwiggen, a fairy knight who begins wooing Queen Mab - sending her a bracelet of ant's eyes and arranging to meet secretly with her inside a cowslip flower. However, Mab's husband King Oberon grows suspicious. He begins searching for Mab, attacking a wasp at one point when he mistakes it for Pigwiggen, and then generally just bumbling around until he meets Puck. Nymphidia overhears the king and Puck planning to catch Mab, and warns the queen in time for her to hide. Pigwiggen challenges Oberon to a duel for Mab's honor, donning a beetle-head helmet and riding on a mighty earwig. As the duel begins, Mab goes for help to the goddess Proserpina. Proserpina gives all of the men water from the river Lethe to drink, erasing their memory, so that the women are the only ones in the know. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The poem begins with references, each of which parallel "Nymphidia" in some way.
Old Chaucer doth of Topas tell,
Mad Rabelais of Pantagruel,
A later third of Dowsabel...
Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas,” from the Canterbury Tales (1387), is a parodic tale of a knight who woos a fairy queen - just like Pigwiggen with Mab.
Rabelais' novels, written in the 16th century, focus on the fantastical size of giant characters Gargantua and Pantagruel, often for humorous effect. For instance, a baby giant requires thousands of cows for milk. "Nymphidia" reverses this by going microscopic, but still plays with size by using familiar objects in unexpected ways.
Finally, the "later third" is Drayton himself. He wrote a poem called “The Ballad of Dowsabel” in The Shepherd’s Garland, published in 1593. He compared his hero to Sir Thopas there, too. Dowsabel (a variant of Dulcibella, from the Latin “dulcis” or “sweet”) became a generic name in English poetry for an ideal lady-love personifying beauty and purity.
Mab, Oberon and Puck/Hobgoblin
Here are some instantly recognizable characters. Oberon was a familiar fairy king, and comes with Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, although they appear as much more ridiculous figures here. However, Titania does not accompany them. Instead, Oberon is at odds with a different wife.
For Oberon's queen, Drayton used a different Shakespearean fairy - Mab, from Romeo and Juliet. Mab is a much tinier character than Titania, and more suited to the themes of Drayton's poem. Drayton was the first known author to pair Oberon and Mab as spouses, kicking off a tradition of using the two fairy queens interchangeably.
The fairytale character Tom Thumb makes an appearance as a page boy, and serves as Pigwiggen's squire. This was not the only occasion where Tom Thumb showed up in stories about fairies. In fact, it seems the character was instantly recognizable as a fairy name in 16th-and 17th-century England.
One that a valiant knight had been,
And to King Oberon of kin...
This was a surprising one. Drayton's fairy knight Tomalin shows up over a century before the traditional ballad of Tam Lin was recorded in the 1790s. Is there a connection?
Numerous ballads from this era featured characters with a name similar to Tam Lin. From 1549, The Complaynt of Scotland mentioned an unknown story titled "the tayl of the zong tamlene, and of the bald braband." Another song told of "Tom a lin and his wife, and his wiue's mother" falling into a river, and still another began "Tomy Linn is a Scotchman born."
Some authors have tried to group them all with the ballad of Tam Lin (see, for example, Burns 1903). However, all of the surviving works are so different that a connection seems faint. Tam Lin/Tommy Lin/Tomalin may have simply been a common male name. A shepherd named "Thomalin" appeared in Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579), and no one seems to have attempted to tie this character to the fairy Tam Lin. In some cases, such as the "zong tamlene," (young Tamlene? song Tamlene??), it's possible it's simply a similar-sounding word with no real connection.
Drayton’s Tomalin, however, stands out. This is the only work before the Tam Lin ballad where a Tomalin is described as a fairy knight.
Proserpina, the classical goddess, appears along with the River Lethe. Drayton imitates Chaucer again in associating the classical gods of the underworld, Pluto and Proserpine, with the fairies.
Fly Cranion is Mab’s charioteer. Shakespeare gave a famous description of Mab’s coach, made of a hazelnut and driven by a "gray-coated gnat," with atomies (tiny mites) for horses. The wagon spokes are made of spiders' legs, with the wagon's cover made of grasshopper wings, the harness of spiderwebs, the collars or moonbeams, and her whip is made from a cricket's bone.
Drayton gives his own spin on this passage. Some elements are the same, but swapped around, and the coach has a more colorful effect. His Mab rides in a snailshell, decorated with bee fuzz and butterfly-wings, with wheels made of cricket bones. The horses are gnats harnessed with gossamer. Mab’s maids, left behind in the rush, wrap themselves in a cobweb veil and ride after her on a grasshopper.
The coachman is probably an insect rather than a fairy if Drayton is following Shakespeare’s lead. Cranion has been translated as "spider," but also - based on the Nymphidia passage - as “fly.” A writer for the Folk-Lore Journal in 1885 suggested that the character was meant to be the Daddy Longlegs or Crane fly, which makes perfect sense to me, although the writer also thought this might be too big for Mab’s coach. Flies were sometimes known as witches’ familiars.
Hop, and Mop, and Drop so cleare,
Pip, and Trip, and Skip that were,
To Mab their Soveraigne ever deare:
Her speciall Maydes of Honour;
Fib, and Tib, and Pinck, and Pin,
Tick, and Quick, and Jill, and Jin,
Tit, and Nit, and Wap, and Win,
The Trayne that wayte upon her.
Jabez Allies, writing in 1846, tried to connect some of these nonsensical fairy names to old English location names, such as a "Pin's Hill" - the idea being that these were traditional characters who had inspired the names of local land formations. Samuel Lysons in 1865 tried to do something similar, tying the names to ancient myth - Nit must be connected to Gwyn ap Nudd, Tit is Teutates, and Pip is the Phrygian supreme god Attis-Papas. (Our British Ancestors, p. 156) I am not entirely sure whether either of these writers were joking. These are apparently examples of an antiquarian/folkloric movement for a while in the 1800s which drew connections based on how names sounded, rather than function or background.
It's more likely that Drayton's litany of fairies was simply a little light creative fun. The eighteen monosyllabic nonsense names echo Mab in their style. There are some generic nouns. Hop, Trip, Skip, and Quick’s names all suggest playful movement. In the play The Maid's Metamorphosis from 1600, the fairies repeatedly sing of tripping or skipping ("When a dew-drop falleth down, And doth light upon my crown. Then I shake my head and skip, And about I trip."). The fae were frequently described in Drayton’s work and elsewhere as “tripping” or dancing - see the blog British Fairies’ post here.
“Pink and Pin” might suggest the fairy act of pinching humans. Tib, Jill and Jin could be real girls’ names. Tit might be the same word meaning “small” that appears in the bird name tomtit - see also the fairy name “Tom Tit Tot.” A nit is a louse's egg. Katharine Briggs suggested in An Encyclopedia of Fairies that Wap and Win's names might have a sexual meaning, comparing them to Dekker's O Per Se O - "If she won’t wap for a winne, let her trine for a make" ("If she will not lie with a man for a penny, let her hang for a halfpenny.")
Overall, the list of names isn’t really meant to be taken seriously, but there are some interesting connections.
This rhyming style was popular, and similar lists showed up in other works of the time. One was a booklet printed in 1628 - "Robin Goodfellow: his mad prankes, and merry Jests, full of honest mirth, and is a fit medicine for melancholy." Here, Oberon's courtiers are "Patch and Pinch, Grim and Gull," "Tib and Sib, Licke and Lull." 1628 is the date of printing and it's been suggested that the poem is actually older, but there's no way to know for sure. (Take note of Tib - and also note that this is another work where Oberon, Puck and Tom Thumb all feature in the fairy court.)
Drayton's contemporary, Robert Herrick, produced "The Fairy Temple or Oberon's Chapel". Here, the names are designed not just for rhythm but for some contorted rhymes.
Saint Tit, Saint Nit, Saint Is, Saint Itis,
Who 'gainst Mab's-state placed here right is...
Saint Frip, Saint Trip, Saint Fill, Saint Fillie,
Neither those other saintships will I...
It's even been suggested that the Nymphidia fairies influenced Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with its list of Santa's reindeer.
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! (Jones 1954)
As Drayton explains in his framing device, Nymphidia is the narrator of the poem. She is a powerful sorceress in her own right, and takes a quick and capable hand in the doings of the fairy monarchy. Oberon has Puck to be his right-hand man, and Mab has Nymphidia.
According to Plutarch and some other writers, a woman named Nymphidia was the mother of a prefect named Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus who served under Emperor Nero. This Nymphidia, according to some sources, was a courtesan. The name derives from "nymph," which comes originally from the Greek word for "bride" and came to refer to beautiful female nature spirits.
Nymphs frequently played a role in Drayton’s poetry. Nymphidia was not his only unique spin on the word, as he described “nymphets sporting” in Poly-Olbion (1612), and divided his poem "The Muses' Elysium" (1630) into ten sections labeled "Nymphalls."
In modern science, the name “nymph” is also associated with insects. The larvae of some species, such as dragonflies, are called nymphs. One family of butterflies is known as Nymphalidae (a name introduced in the 19th century), and one Asian butterfly is known as the Stiboges nymphidia. It seems possible that the poem influenced that last one. Although the butterfly associations came later, they are very appropriate to Drayton's poem.
Pigwiggen, our Sir Thopas figure, is also a new one. (Or Pigwiggin, depending on edition and spelling.) The name suggests pygmy - originally from a Greek word referring to the measure of length from wrist to elbow. There's also pixie, pronounced pigsie in some dialects, although I don't think pixies had truly gained popularity in fairy literature at that point. This poem remains the most famous use of the name - but Drayton wasn't the first to use it.
A 1594 play featured the line "Now will I be as stately to them as if I were maister Pigwiggen our constable." So the name was around before "Nymphidia," although it really picked up afterwards, referring to anything tiny and contemptible. (Mysteriously, pigwiggan or peggy wiggan is also supposed to be a word for a somersault.)
As time went on, the variant "pigwidgeon" became popular. George Powell's play "A Very Good Wife" (1693) uses the word "Pigwidgeon" to refer to someone's lady-love. More often, the word referred to a small, petty creature. As a fantasy race of little gnomes, pigwidgeons featured in some 19th- and early 20th-century literature. For instance, they were gruesome goblins in the 1912 children's book Trystie's Quest, or, Kit, King of the Pigwidgeons.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's unclear how the split happened and whether the word initially sounded like widgin or wiggin. However, the OED leans towards wiggin.
A form of the word appeared in Nashe's Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596), in a reference to a man's "Piggen de wiggen or gentlewoman."
According to the English Dialect Dictionary, piggin-riggin is an Irish term for "a half-grown boy or girl." However, the quote given in the Dictionary is "The eight or ten childer were what we call 'piggin riggins', too old for a dumly and too young for bacon." Searching out the source, Barrington's Personal Sketches of His Own Times, this description is referring to piglets, not to human children.
18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke was criticized for referring to lower-class people as a "swinish multitude." Burke later tried to defend himself, saying that he was talking about the French revolutionaries - "I never dreamt of our poor little English piggen-riggen, who go about squeaking and grunting quite innocently; my thoughts were on the wild boar of the Gallic forest."
Very similar is a Cornish term, piggy-whidden or piggy-wiggy for the runt of a litter of piglets, which was also known as a term of endearment (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). It has been interpreted as meaning "white pig," from "gwyn" or white, but this may be a false etymology.
Both "piggin-riggin" and "piggy-whidden" are probably just variants on the rhyming baby-talk "piggy-wiggy." This term for a piglet was common throughout the 19th century.
Pigsney is a term for a sweetheart meaning literally "pig's eye." It appeared as "piggesnye" in The Canterbury Tales (1380s-1390s). The word could apply to men, but was generally feminine.
Emma Wilby suggested that Pigwiggen could be connected to the name of one 16th-century witch familiar, Piggin ("The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England"). "Piggin" is actually a word for a small wooden pail.
I learned recently that Drayton may not have been the first person to mention a fairy Pigwiggen after all. "The Masque of the Twelve Months" was a fragmented script printed by John Payne Collier in 1848, with no author's name. Although some critics suggested that it was a forgery, others have argued for it being genuine. The play begins with a dialogue between an owl, "Madge Howlet," and a fairy lady, Piggwiggin.
"Lady Piggwiggin, th' only snoutfaire of the fairies. A my word, hadst thou not spoken like a maid, I had snatcht thee up for a mouse."
In the 1950s, it was suggested that the author was George Chapman. Critics such as E. K. Chambers in 1923, Kenneth Muir in 1950, Margaret Dean-Smith in 1951, and Martin Butler in 2007 have dated the masque in a range of years from 1608 to 1619. Most lean earlier, around 1611-1613. Any of these prospective dates would mean that Pigwiggen was a fairy name before the writing of "Nymphidia," and Drayton did not originate it. Not only that, but it was a feminine name! This would fit with "Piggen de wiggen," "Pigwidgeon," and "pigsnye" being used for a female sweetheart. This may have been an additional layer of satire to the poem. For his parody of courtly love and royal affairs, Drayton gave the Lancelot-like knight a unisex/feminine name meaning "sweetheart," possibly a pet name based on piglets.
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Where did we get the idea of faeries in Summer and Winter Courts - or courts themed around all four seasons? Why does this appear so much in current fantasy novels? And what do they have to do with the Seelie and Unseelie Courts?
There are many legends of weather or seasonal spirits. Winter in particular has plenty of personifications. But these beings weren't necessarily fairies, and fairies weren't divided by seasons. If you go back to Shakespeare, Titania and Oberon were rulers over all the seasons. When did it get split up?
This may have been a product of the Victorian era. Toned down for children, fairies became toothless things made primarily for education and edification. They were closely associated with nature and thus the seasons. There was some blurring of lines; this wasn't actually meant to promote genuine fairy belief, and often the "fairies" were poetic representations of insects, birds or plants. This was, after all, a way to educate kids on nature.
In Victorian children's literature, fairies were responsible for painting the flowers, decorating the autumn leaves, or bringing snowflakes - and unlike Shakespeare, there were separate kingdoms. Fairies of spring, summer, autumn and winter worked in exclusive groups. In some books, they had their own monarchs, or there might be rivalries between groups.
The Grand Christmas Pantomime Entitled Gosling the Great (1860) featured a fairy queen of spring named Azurina.
"The Fairies of the Earth, and Their Hiding Places," by Lizzie Beach (1870) explained all of nature in fairy terms; Jack Frost was the king of the autumn and winter fairies.
In the Libretto of the Fairy Operetta of the Naiad Queen (1872), the queens of each season are mentioned alongside queens of the fairies, sprites and flowers.
Margaret T. Canby, in Birdie and his Fairie Friends (1873), included a story called "The Frost Fairies" in which Jack Frost is king over the fairies of winter.
The trope of the seasonal fairy continued strong into the 20th century and continues to be popular. Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series (beginning 2010) for one, features courts of Summer and Winter, while Disney's Tinker Bell animated movies (beginning 2008) put major emphasis on the fairies causing the seasons. But there's another factor that I believe is important here:
The Oak King and the Holly King
As mentioned, there are many myths to explain seasonal changes. Persephone is a classic seasonal myth. In Orcadian legend there is a constant struggle between the benevolent Sea Mither (Mother) and the evil storm spirit Teran who fight every spring and autumn. In Germany, Mother Holle was an legendary figure who created snow by shaking out her pillows.
There were also holiday traditions where a person dressed as Summer defeated another dressed as Winter. In other cases, effigies were torn apart or thrown into the stream to celebrate the end of Winter.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (1948), took influence from these rituals when he defined the Oak and Holly Kings. These were two gods who battled every year over a maiden representing Spring or fertility. The Oak King ruled during summer, but the Holly King defeated him and took over every winter. The yearly cycle goes on forever. Graves held that this was an actual myth that survived in multiple legends, and he had plenty of examples (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, for instance). In any story, if there are two men who fight (and particularly if there is a lady involved who can be connected to the Spring season), then there's your Oak and Holly King. It's very convenient.
In fact, the Oak and Holly Kings are Graves' original creation, extrapolating from many different myths and the work of James Frazer. However, his work had a huge influence on modern paganism. For instance, Edain McCoy's popular 1994 book A Witch's Guide to Faery Folk is packed full of seasonal fairies as well as Gravesian mythology.
Conclusion: Modern Times
So in the twentieth century, you have a strong literary tradition of pretty little fairies being responsible for every change in season. And in addition to old myths of seasonal changes, you also have a newly popular neopagan theme of an unending power struggle between kings of Summer and Winter.
However, what really tipped the scales was Jim Butcher's bestselling fantasy series: The Dresden Files. The 2002 novel Summer Knight introduced the fairy rulers. Butcher had the idea of conflating the seasons with the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts - a concept from late Scottish folklore, which I examined recently on this blog. Thus, his fairies are split into two factions: the Seelie (or Summer) fae, ruled by Titania, and the Unseelie (or Winter) fae, ruled by Mab.
Since the publication of this book, Butcher's system has grown huge in fairy fantasy - Titania and Mab as opposing seasonal queens, the seasons divided into Seelie and Unseelie, etc. Many authors seem to have lifted it wholesale straight from Butcher.
And if Summer and Winter are courts, it seems reasonable enough that Spring and Autumn might also be courts, or that there might be other themed groups. Sarah J. Maas' series Court of Thorns and Roses has seven themed fairy courts (all four seasons, plus dawn, day and night).
It is true that the Seelie Court is an old idea, as are good and evil fae, and fairies or other beings who influence the seasons. But originally, Seelie and Unseelie had nothing to do with the seasons. Thanks to popular literature, Jim Butcher's worldbuilding has grown popular enough to sometimes be confused for an old tradition.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.