Bird People, Fairies and Others

Bird People, Fairies and Others

With the focus on (post)colonialism we often encounter strategies of Othering in the Scandinavian context throughout different eras. Some of these examples being directly from (or referring back to) medieval times. This makes one wonder if these strategies function according to somewhat reoccurring patterns. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to throw a glance at if and how some European literature outside of Scandinavia does similar things to create Others. It seems that medieval storytelling can function in a manner which paves the way for Othering, starting with how characters are built and work. Because medieval character-building is somewhat different than what we are used to nowadays. 

We tend to consider a character to have a complex psychological profile, maybe show some development throughout the story – basically, to be somewhat of a person who has, as the name suggests, a character of their own, if you will. Now, for medieval narratives we may not have to focus too much on this inner complexity that we’re used to and maybe rather dive into what a character stands for. What is it they do? To serve which purpose? How are they situated amongst the social relations within the narrative?  We have to remind ourselves that these characters may not simply be characters but figures of certain attributes and that they, before pretty much anything else, fulfil functions within a story.[1] So, when we then engage with a narrative as a whole, we can find relations among the functions of the characters; that they may for example complement or contrast each other. And these relations then can offer an insight into the norm and value system the story tries to manifest. 

So, what does this have to do with Othering in medieval literature? If we consider that a character (or a group of characters for that matter) serves a particular function, which again is part of a norm and value system, an antagonist may not simply be an antagonist. Meaning, that they are not just juxtaposed to the hero by, say, pursuing other goals or performing a harmful action, but that they embody whatever it is the value system dismisses as simply not good, punishable or even unworthy of existing. And this embodiment of the undesirable can in turn even help to sprinkle some more functional glamour on whatever protagonist. Who, from the perspective of the reader or listener, is inevitably the centre of the story.  The antagonist(s) help define the protagonist(s) more clearly by offering bullet points such as: What not to be, what not to do, and what not to desire to become. Furthermore, these bullet points could be reversed, when addressing the antagonist: What to be, what to do and what to desire to become. Basically, an assimilation of the Other.  Thus, what we find, is a norm being established throughout the story – one specific perspective which is superior and representative within a narrative.

For examples of Othering in Scandinavian medieval literature check out these blog posts about Literary Otherness in Nordic National Epics.

But certain strategies of Othering are not unique to one particular region, such as the Scandinavian one. Throughout various medieval narratives we can find striking similarities in what makes an Other. Unsurprisingly, gender- and/or ethnicity-based Othering were as much in style as they, well, still are. But also not-quite-as-en-vogue-today features, like non-human appearances and supernatural abilities, seem to have been major international Othering-hits in medieval literature across Europe. 

Let’s think back to the beginning of this blog post, to the reading-characters-in-terms-of-their-function-approach. If characters are to be read and judged based on their function – and their function is again located on the hot-or-not-chart of a value system – that can lead to pretty horrible results in terms of how one character treats another. And within this system of Who to Be and Who Not to Be, these actions present themselves as self-righteously legitimate, or, well, legitimised at least. 

Now, on to a German example of that Othering-and-slaughtering-chic. In the story of Herzog Ernst, the protagonist embarks on a journey – geographically following a traditional route of crusades no less – on which he encounters different peoples, very very much prominently defined through their supernatural and non-human characteristics. The Otherness mostly is already made blatantly evident by their appearance alone. The most violent of these encounters is with the inhabitants of Grippia, who kiiiiind of look like humans, except for the tiiiiiiiny detail of having bird heads with long beaks. This in itself not only manifests their Otherness, but also disables any kind of verbal communication, which might have served as a means of bridging and connecting. While in fact, it is the duke and his companion, count Wetzel, who initially enter the city uninvited and are on the brink of stealing and feasting in the absence of the Grippians (with basically no second thought whatsoever) they quite conveniently manage to neatly twist any victim-offender relations. First and foremost, they identify the arriving Grippians as monstrosities. And, for reasons not entirely elaborate, just assume them to be heathens, of course. This leads them to the conclusion that the only considerate thing to do is – duh, obviously – slaughter the Others. Oh, and of course, this is very much supported by the fact that with the Grippians is a princess they apparently have kidnapped. Spoiler: the princess dies in Ernst’s and Wetzel’s attempt to save her. Bummer. But don’t worry, the two are not too upset about that. This whole episode can be considered as a kind of negotiation of both position and function of the narrated self and the narrated Other. The fact that it escalates into mayhem does apparently not suffice to denounce the protagonists’ heroism and the Others’ villainy. Because these seem to be a given in how the characters are designed. Not in how they develop.  

Another prominent motif or character type of Otherness in medieval European literature are “fairies” or at least fairy-like characters. As Katrin Bernard[2] puts it, a fairy can be considered a figure in which structures of mythic thinking are processed. While over time, this motif evolves and is shaped through other narrative forms such as (as the term already suggests) fairy tales, the term itself derives from the vulgar Latin word “fata”[3]; goddesses of fate or diviner. This in itself already establishes a connection to the supernatural. A very well-known example is the character Morgain la fee in the Arthurian cycles, who is mentioned by name in Geoffrey’s of Monmouth Historia Regum Britanniae and Hartmann’s of Aue Erec and Iwein

The popular characteristics (varying from a little supernatural to super supernatural) of fairy-figures throughout different European narrative traditions include: a special connection to nature (a little supernatural), controlling the weather (pretty supernatural), communicating with (fairly supernatural) or even transforming into (super supernatural) animals and healing (somewhat supernatural). These characteristics are located more on the ability- than the appearance-side of non-human Otherness. At least on first sight, when compared with the Grippians for example. But either way, they position characters with such supernatural abilities on the outside of, or at least liminal to, the cultural norm (in which the protagonist operates and which he is in turn representative of). And, as mentioned above, another reoccurring way to deal with these Others is the attempt of assimilating them to this cultural norm. This can be achieved by imposing religious or cultural beliefs onto the Other, or even a marriage between two characters: one from inside the norm and one of the Others.

[1] Schulz, 2015, p. 9-11

[2] Bertrand, 2012, p. 15



Aalto, Sirpa: Alienness in Heimskringla. Special Emphasis on the Finnar, in: Rudolf Simek/Judith Meurer (Hg.): Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages.  Bonn: Universität Bonn, 2003, 1–7.

Bernard, Katrin: Mythologische Strukturen in den Artusepen: “Morgain, la fee”, Laudine und Lunete, in: Jürgen Rauter/Jasmin El-Assin (Hg.): Totgeschrieben – Mythologische Aspekte und intepretatorische Konflikte am Beispiel (ent-)dämonologisierter Literatur oder von ideologischen Mustern die wissenschaft warden. Roma: Aracne, 2012, 13–44.

Sowinksi, Bernhard (Übers., Hrsg. & Komm.): Herzog Ernst. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2015.

Schulz, Armin (Hg.): Erzähltheorie in mediävistischer Perspektive. Berlin Boston: De Gruyter, 2015.

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