On the Antiquity of Oberon

There’s been some talk lately about Oberon with regard to his origins.  As you might be aware, the first mentions of Oberon appear in the 13th century epic Huon of Bordeaux, in which he is the supernatural protector of the somewhat-dim knight Huon on his adventures.  The question has been raised as to whether working magic to call such a spirit is dealing with a fictional creature, perhaps such as those in the Cthulhu Mythos.

I don’t think we can say definitively whether Oberon originates in literature or in folklore.  I did find an interesting article yesterday by Ronald Hutton entitled “The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition.”  Hutton examines the historical reports of fairies in England and Scotland, eschewing regional differences and attempting to see how the patterns change over time.

What Hutton discovers is that the concept of the “fairy” was not a coherent one until relatively late in history.  Instead, high medieval culture recognized a wide range of phenomena that were later classified under that heading.  There were beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon “elves” who could bless or curse; tales of mysterious supernatural women who could be captured and wed, but only with great danger; contemporary accounts of human-like beings who lived alongside us in hiding; the myth of the changeling; and epics detailing how brave knights are helped by creatures, both human and human-like, in possession of strange powers.  None of these were considered to be different accounts of the same class of supernatural being, however.

As time went on, these supernatural beings began to be assembled under the heading of “faierie,” a word derived from the French that was originally used to describe bizarre occurrences.  By the time of the mid-sixteenth century, fairies had become an important part of the cultural landscape, with aspects in folklore, cunning practice, learned lore, ritual magic, and popular fiction and drama.  What is especially interesting about fairies was the deep connections between all of these phenomena, with elements appearing in one rapidly turning up in the others.  Oddly enough, fairies became immensely popular just before the Enlightenment took away the foundation in their belief.

So, where does Oberon fit into this?  I think he clearly occupies a position among the literary assistants to brave heroes that populate the epics.  On the other hand, Hutton also stresses how little we know about popular fairy beliefs of the high Middle Ages, with the written traditions seeming to be only small portions of a much more vast set of oral narratives.  If so, it might be that Oberon’s origin lies here.  Without more data, it’s impossible to be sure.

Published in: on February 26, 2015 at 9:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Auberon is probably a French version of German Alberich, a gnome in Nibelungenlied 96-99. and you haven’t answered my e-mail about the subject.


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