Thursday, August 14, 2014

Oberon - the Faery King

We hear a lot about faery queens and in a number of popular illustrated books and meditational cards scantily clad maidens with wings feature widely. And I have to say that my own experience of the faery worlds has largely been dominated by the female of the species, witness my recent work The Book of the Faery Melusine of Lusignan in Legend, History and Romance (Skylight Press 2013). There seems on the other hand to have been little attention paid to gentlemen faeries, of whom the most prominent is likely to be Oberon, the faery king, who features in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, creating quite a bit of mayhem amongst the human and faery lovers. However, William Shakespeare is a bit of a “Johnny come lately” in terms of Oberon as we find lore about the faery king featuring some three hundred years before in a 13th century romance in Old French, Huon de Bordeaux and its prologue Le Roman d’Auberon.

            Huon of Bordeaux was a very engaging adventurous knight who got the wrong side of the Emperor Charlemagne and was sent off on an almost impossible quest to the Saracen world in which he would almost certainly have come to grief had it not been for the intervention of Oberon and his magical powers. These powers were connected to a number of magical objects that the faery king possessed that included a horn, a hanap (a kind of large goblet with handles), and a hauberk (a suit of chain mail).

            The magic horn, of ivory bound with strips of gold, made by some mysterious faeries who lived on an island, had previously been the property of Morgan le Fay. Its main power was that it could be heard all round the world by followers of its owner, who could thus summon them instantly to his aid. But it also had other powers such as restoring to health or to grace any sick or sinful who heard it;  bringing food or drink to its owner if he was in dire need of them, and could sound so joyful that it compelled those who heard it to sing or dance. On the other hand,  by touching it with his finger Oberon could call up an almighty storm.

            The hanap or goblet, which had belonged to Brunehaut, Oberon’s faery grandmother, was the source of an infinite supply of wine. It was thus very handy at feasts, as a source of entertainment as well as drink, but also had the power to reveal whether whoever drank from it was in a state of innocence or guilt – a power that one or two of Morgan le Fay’s artefacts also had.

            The marvellous hauberk or suit of chain mail, was pure white in colour, extremely light, would fit perfectly whoever wore it, and was impervious to blows or to fire. Thus it made its wearer virtually invincible, very useful for fighting giants and which also had the power to frighten off a particularly venomous serpent that dwelt in a fountain.

            These objects and powers feature appropriately in the adventures of Huon of Bordeaux but it is also possible to see hints within them that point to more than magical weapons for errant knights. They share mystical elements that are not far off association with the Grail legends. All of which leads to interesting speculation about the faery element in these as suggested by Wendy Berg in Red Tree, White Tree (Skylight Press, 2010). It is also implied by the high moral tone of the faery king in his dealings with Huon of Bordeaux, and the severity with which he meets any falling short by his rather blundering human friend. Indeed he threatens, and later actually does, withdraw help and contact from him when Huon  disobeys his instructions.

The first instance is when Huon, having been lent the horn with instructions only to use it in time of great need, blows it to find out if it works. Oberon, who instantly responds to the call with a mighty army of faery warriors is not best pleased to find that he has been called in vain.

And later, when Huon has made off with the fair Saracen maiden Esclarmond in order to marry her, Oberon forbids carnal intercourse before the ceremony. Needless to say Huon anticipates the event and as a result the couple are shipwrecked and parted in quite distressing circumstances, and although all comes right in the end, it is a salutary lesson that when faeries lay down conditions they really mean them, and can be particularly unforgiving when it comes to human duplicity.

            However, forgiveness for human errors is not beyond the faery king, and in a final scene where Huon is beset by traitors and about to be hanged Oberon intervenes and sets everything to rights at the last minute.

            So much for the romance of Huon of Bordeaux. We learn more about Oberon in its prequel Le Roman d’Auberon that seems to have been written soon after by a trouvère who sought to give more information about what had proved to be a very popular character in the main tale.

            Here we need to make a necessary adjustment in terms of what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken symbolically – for in giving details of Oberon’s family, historical characters and events are introduced that are widely anachronistic. The first being that Oberon’s father was Julius Caesar and his mother Morgan le Fay, and that he had a twin brother known to us as St. George!

It should be obvious that what the trouvère is trying to tell us is that the character of Oberon is based upon the combination of the most successful of Roman warriors and statesmen, and the most magically powerful of characters in Arthurian legend, and is on a par with a most popular warrior saint in the Christian and indeed Muslim calendar.

            With this in mind we are taken back yet further into faery mythology which sees Oberon’s great grandfather as the late Old Testament hero Judas Maccabeus. In an event that is not recorded in the Bible Judas Maccabeus is forced to defend himself against a rival king, Bandifort, whom he defeats, slays and whose daughter he marries, from which union a daughter is born, called Brunehaut. As was the custom, to be found in much folk lore, the cradle of the new born child was attended by faeries who bestowed gifts or sometimes curses on the child, (parallels of the three Norns or Fates of ancient Greece who ruled over human destinies).

            On this occasion one of the faeries predicted that at seven years of age Brunehaut would be taken to live in the kingdom of Faery. And so it happens that on Christmas Day seven years later, when the court is at table, a great deer enters, seizes Brunehaut and carries her off.  And Brunehaut rules in Faeryland until such time as the Roman emperor Césaire, (obviously fictional at a time when Rome was still a republic – but intended to represent the most powerful man in the world), comes to Faeryland to seek the hand of Brunehaut. From their marriage Julius Caesar is born, who when he grows up (having been trained and educated by his grandfather Judas Maccabeus) is given the marvellous hauberk by Brunehaut to help him fight a giant that is devastating middle Europe. Julius Caesar wins and at a great ceremony in the faery stronghold of Dunostre, to which the court of King Arthur is invited, Julius is married to Morgan le Fay. And in turn from this marriage, the twins George, the future Christian saint, and Oberon, the future faery king, are born.

            This farrago of miscellaneous fact, fiction and legend may well tempt us to dismiss the whole thing as the ramblings of an overheated imagination on the part of some medieval story teller. However, as we have said before, these are but images upon a painted curtain that, going beyond, may reveal a very potent inner reality, particularly if we think in terms of forces rather than forms. In a way it might well be compared with modern approaches to and speculations about “the Masters”. Are the forms they assume to be taken at face value – or are they channels for inner (be it mystical or magical) centres of power and intelligence?

            If the latter, then may we take the figure of Oberon, the King of Faery, as a form constructed for our convenience and understanding to act as a channel for much needed understanding of some of the inner dynamics of the world in which we live?  This seems to be the case with a number of faery figures, and a number of others that  seem to cross the boundary between the human and faery worlds. Such as Lancelot, Guenevere, Morgan, Melusine, Fiona Macleod, Tam Lin, Robert Kirk, and so on and so forth. The boundaries between the worlds are not short of guides or suggested pathways.