This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
When I was in high school, I had to read a certain number of books for my final year in each of the language classes that I was taking. For Dutch, French, and English, I included a number of medieval works. One of my favourites was the poem Sir Orfeo, which I read in the original Middle-English.
A translation into modern English by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien, was published by Penguin Books as part of a small collection of poems that also includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps one of the best known Middle-English poems and definitely one that you should read for yourself, especially if you’re interested in Arthurian myth and legend. (A movie adaptation of the poem is currently showing in theatres.)
Sir Orfeo is a short poem of 604 lines. It was probably created in the south of England in the second half of the thirteenth century. The text itself has been preserved in three manuscripts. The Auchinleck manuscript, dated to ca. AD 1330 and currently in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, offers the best version of the text, although it still has some errors. The first leaf is also missing: we have to rely on another manuscript for the poem’s prologue.
A fateful encounter
The poem emphasizes that most stories deal with love (ll. 11-12; transl. Tolkien):
Of all the things that men may heed
‘tis most of love they sing indeed.
Sir Orfeo is a skilled musician. “He played so well,” the poem reads, “beneath the sun a better harper was there none” (ll. 40-41). At this point, you may have realized why I’ve decided to write about this Middle-English poem for Ancient World Magazine: Sir Orfeo is a medieval version of the gifted Greek musician Orpheus.
The poet emphasizes links to the Classical world by saying that Orfeo’s “father from King Pluto came, his mother from Juno, king of fame, who once of old as gods were named for mighty deeds they did and claimed” (ll. 29-32). Juno (Greek: Hera) has here been changed to a man; both Pluto and Juno are said to be mortal kings, who were once regarded as gods because of their “mighty deeds”.
Orfeo’s city of Winchester is also provided with a link to the ancient world. The poet claims that Winchester was originally named “Tracience”, also rendered “Traciens”, that is: Thrace. In the ancient Greek tale, Orpheus was the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace.
Then there is Orfeo’s wife, Lady Heurodis (ll. 51-52), who you would be correct in assuming is the medieval version of Eurydice, the love of Orpheus’ life. In the original Greek tale, Eurydice gets bitten by a snake and dies; distraught, Orpheus heads into the underworld in an attempt to plead with Hades and ask for his wife’s return to the land of the living.
In Sir Orfeo, events unfold in a slightly different way. Lady Heurodis wanders outside with her maidens and eventually falls asleep underneath a “grafted tree”, a motif familiar from Celtic mythology. Her maidens leave, only to hear Heurodis scream several hours later. They find her clawing at her face “till blood there sprung” (l. 80). They hurry back to Orfeo’s castle and tell everyone there that Heurodis seems to have lost her mind.
Knights and ladies rush to where the queen is screaming and raving. They subdue her and carry her back to the castle, but she remains restless and agitated. Sir Orfeo comes to her and suffers “more grief than ever in life he had” (l. 98). He pleads with her to tell him what the problem is (ll. 102-116; transl. Tolkien):
“Dear life,” he said, “what troubles thee,
who ever quiet hast been and sweet,
why dost thou now so shrilly greet?
Thy body that peerless white was born
is now by cruel nails all torn.
Alas ! thy cheeks that were so red
are now as wan as thou wert dead;
thy fingers too, so small and slim,
are strained with blood, their hue is dim.
Alas I thy lovely eyes in woe
now stare on me as on a foe.
A! lady, mercy I implore.
These piteous cries, come, cry no more,
but tell me what thee grieves, and how,
and say what may thee comfort now.”
Heurodis says that it pains her, but she must leave. Orfeo insists on her explaining why. She tells him that as she slept, “two noble knights” had come to her (l. 135). They said that they had come to take her to meet their king. “Then answered I both bold and true,” Heurodis tells Orfeo, “that dared I not, and would not do” (ll. 139-140).
The knights hurried away and before long the king himself appeared, accompanied by more than a hundred knights “and damsels, too, were many a score” (l. 144). They made for a marvellous, supernatural sight, “all riding there on snow-white steeds” (l. 146). Heurodis adds (ll. 147-148; transl. Tolkien):
I saw not ever anywhere
a folk so peerless and so fair.
The king scooped Heurodis up and took her to his palace. He showed her his country, with its castles and towers, streams, flowers, pastures, and forests. Then he returned her to the tree where she had fallen asleep. He told her that she must meet him there again tomorrow, to be borne away to the king’s land forever, regardless of whether she wanted to or not. There would be no place to hide if she didn’t; they would take her regardless.
Orfeo is naturally beyond himself. He seeks counsel from anyone he can find, but none is able to offer a solution. The next day, Orfeo gathers an army of a thousand knights to accompany Heurodis to the tree where she is to meet with the mysterious king (187-190; transl. Tolkien):
A serried rank on every side
they made, and vowed there to abide,
and die there sooner for her sake
than let men thence their lady take.
But despite this formidable defence, the queen is suddenly “snatched away, by magic” (ll. 192-193). This causes distress among all in Orfeo’s domain, and the king himself returns to his castle. There, he often “swooned”, and moaned and lamented, until finally he couldn’t take it anymore. He addressed his barons (ll. 209-218; transl. Tolkien):
For now that I have lost my queen,
the fairest lady men have seen,
I wish not woman more to see.
Into the wilderness I will flee,
and there will live for evermore
with the wild beasts in forests hoar.
But when ye learn my days are spent,
then summon ye a parliament,
and choose ye there a king anew.
With all I have now deal ye true.
The men plead with Orfeo to stay, but his mind is made up. Wearing “a beggars’ cloak” he leaves (l. 228), bringing only his harp with him. The poet makes a point about Orfeo now sleeping on the grass and wrapped in leaves, rather than in his bed with “purple linen” (l. 242); he also has to eat grubs and roots, rather than the fine dishes that he previously enjoyed. Without Heurodis at his side, life has lost all meaning.
The wandering minstrel
Only one thing did Orfeo still enjoy, and that was playing his harp. As is the case with the Greek Orpheus, whenever Orfeo plays his harp, “all the wild beasts that there are, in joy approached him from afar” (ll. 173-174).
Orfeo roamed the forest and would often, around noon, see the king who had taken his wife, either on the hunt or accompanied by his army. Here he is specifically identified as “the king of Faërie” (l. 283), where “Faërie” refers to the realm of the Faes (also: fays), that is, an otherworldly realm. It forms the basis of the word fairy, but has a broad meaning here, not limited to ethereal beings.
One day, Orfeo sees the king of Faërie and his companions hunting with falcons. This reminds him of his old life and he approaches them, only to come face-to-face with Heurodis on horseback. They recognize each other, but keep silent; tears stream down Heurodis’s cheeks. Other ladies quickly lead Heurodis away, leaving Orfeo despondent.
But Orfeo also resolves to do everything he can to get Heurodis back. He follows the ladies as they ride away. He sees them ride “right into a rock” (l. 347). Without hesitation, he goes in, too. When he emerges, after “a good three miles or more” (l. 350), he emerges “into a country fair as bright as sun in summer air” (ll. 351-352).
He spots a marvellous castle, with a wall made of crystal and sporting a hundred towers. He sees that the ladies he pursued enter the castle and he follows as quickly as he can. Once at the gate, he knocks. A porter appears and asks him what he wants. Here, Orfeo decides to play things as smartly as he can. He claims he is a minstrel and wishes to bring the lord of the castle cheer (ll. 382-385). The porter doesn’t think twice before he unlocks the gate and allows Orfeo inside.
Inside, Orfeo finds people who appear to be dead, or by rights ought to be, but are not. It becomes clear here that the “realm of Faërie” or “Fairy” has taken the place of the Greek underworld, perhaps fitting for the Christian context in which the poem was made. In any event, Orfeo looks around (ll. 388-408; transl. Tolkien):
and saw within the walls a rout
of folk that were thither drawn below,
and mourned as dead, but were not so.
For some there stood who had no head,
and some no arms, nor feet; some bled
and through their bodies wounds were set,
and some were strangled as they ate,
and some lay raving, chained and bound,
and some in water had been drowned;
and some were withered in the fire,
and some on horse, in war’s attire,
and wives there lay in their childbed,
and mad were some, and some were dead;
and passing many there lay beside
as though they slept at quiet noon-tide.
Thus in the world was each one caught
and thither by fairy magic brought.
There too he saw his own sweet wife,
Queen Heurodis, his joy and life,
asleep beneath a grafted tree:
by her attire he knew ‘twas she.
Orfeo enters the hall and finds the king sitting on his throne, his wife beside him; there are obvious parallels to Hades and Persephone. Orfeo approaches them and offers to sing. But the king wonders where Orfeo had come from. “What man art thou,” he asks, “that hither darest venture now?” (ll. 421-422). After all, the king explains, this is the first time that a man has voluntarily come into his realm; normally, he always has to bring people here.
Orfeo pretends to be just a simple itinerant minstrel, offering his services to the “Fairy King” as he would any other lord. He then begins the play, and everyone in the castle comes to listen. The music pleases the King of Faërie as well as his wife, and when Orfeo is done, he asks (ll. 449-451; transl. Tolkien):
Minstrel, thy music pleaseth me.
Come, ask of me whate’er it be,
and rich reward I will thee pay.
Orfeo points to Heurodis, who is still asleep “beneath the grafted tree” (l. 456), and asks that the Fairy King give her to him. But the king shakes his head and says that Orfeo and Heurodis would make a terrible pair, as he is but a beggar and she is fair.
Orfeo retorts that the king ought to be ashamed for breaking his word: he had told Orfeo to ask for whatever he desired and so must keep his promise. The king agrees that this is indeed the case. “Take her hand in thine, and go,” he says (l. 470).
The return of the king
Orfeo leads Heurodis back to their old kingdom, but ten years had passed and none recognized him. Orfeo asks people of what had happened in the meantime, and they tell him of the queen who had been taken by the fairies and how her husband, the king, had gone into exile as a beggar.
Orfeo then leaves his wife alone as he goes to explore Winchester, the city where they used to live. Orfeo stalking into the city dressed like a beggar recalls the sequence in Homer’s Odyssey where the hero Odysseus enters Ithaca disguised as a beggar.
In Winchester, none recognize Orfeo (ll. 505-508; transl. Tolkien):
“O look! O what a man!” they said,
“How long the hair hangs from his head!
His beard is dangling to his knee!
He is gnarled and knotted like a tree!”
Orfeo happens across his old steward. He says he is a harper and the steward takes him along, “For my dear lord Sir Orfeo’s sake” (l. 518). In the great hall, Orfeo waits until all are silent before he starts playing his harp, much to the delight of everyone there. The steward recognizes the harp and demands to know how it came to be in the beggar’s possession.
Orfeo claims he found the harp near a body that had been torn to shreds by lions and eaten by wolves – an interesting note when you realize that lions were definitely never native to England. In any event, the steward now believes that the dead man had been Sir Orfeo, “my master true” (l. 543).
The steward is struck by grief. Orfeo, assured of the fact that his steward had stayed loyal to him for all these years, reveals that his story was untrue and that he, in fact, is the long-lost ruler of these lands. The steward and other lords in the hall throw themselves at Orfeo’s feet. “Ye are our lord, sir,” they say, “and our king!’” (l. 582). They then take him to his chambers, wash and shave him, and then lead him back to the hall; Heurodis is also brought there.
Unlike the ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the tale of Orfeo and Heurodis has a happy ending (ll. 593-596; transl. Tolkien):
Now was King Orfeo crowned anew,
and Heurodis his lady too;
and long they lived, till they were dead,
and king was the steward in their stead.
In the Greek myth, Orpheus is allowed to lead Eurydice out of the underworld on one condition: she is to follow him and he is not to look back until they are safely back on the surface. Orpheus agrees to Hades’ conditions, but when he reaches the exit he is no longer able to hear Eurydice behind him and decides to turn around. He sees Eurydice for a moment before she is yanked back into the underworld, gone forever.
With the happy ending in Sir Orfeo, the tale loses much of its original sting. The ancient Greeks loved tragedy. There are few ancient Greek heroes who die peacefully in their beds of old age: most of them die violent deaths. Indeed, Orpheus himself would roam the world much like Orfeo did, before he got on the wrong side of some passing Maenads – female followers of the god Dionysus – who tore him apart for refusing to step aside.
At the same time, it is also refreshing to read a story where the protagonists don’t die in some horrible fashion. Perhaps, sometimes, fictional characters should get to live happily ever after.
This is part of the series: Medieval reception of the ancient world.