Sex, Politics and Religion: The Transformation of the Figure of the Fairy Queen from Thomas off Ersseldoune to ‘‘Thomas Rymer’’

Erin Madeleine Sebo

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Our earliest version of the Thomas Rymer story is the medieval romance Thomas off Ersseldoune (c.1430). There is a four hundred year lacuna before the ballad “Thomas Rymer”, our next surviving version, is recorded in the early 1800s. In the intervening time the narrative changed very little but the dynamic of the piece, radically. The romance transformed into the highly subversive ballad, “Thomas Rymer”. Central to this transformation is the reconceptualization of the romance's heroine. Referred to simply as the “lufly lady” and caught between her husband, the fay King, and a mere mortal, Thomas, she becomes in the ballad the powerful Queen of the Fairies. The ballad is structured around a series of revelations in which the enigmatic Queen assumes the roles of Eve and Mary, and finally Christ Himself. I will explore the implications of this extraordinary ballad. Moreover, I suggest that it is Queen Elizabeth herself who, ironically, enables the heroine's transformation. “Ironically” because it appears that it was Elizabeth's own restrictions, designed to suppress heretical, seditious or radical literature, which forced Thomas off Ersseldoune (and many other romances which employed religious imagery or figures) out of the written domain and into the oral tradition. And yet, it is Elizabeth who, in creating the image of herself as a female prince, as the Faerie Queen, inspires a new literary vocabulary designed to describe female executive power, without which it would have been impossible to imagine a figure such as the ballad's Queen of the Fairies.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)11-26
    Number of pages16
    JournalEnglish Studies
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Linguistics and Language
    • Literature and Literary Theory


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