Sir Orfeo Essay - Critical Essays

Sir Orfeo


Sir Orfeo

Middle English poem.

c. 13th century.

Sir Orfeo, a romance composed by an unknown Celtic author, was loosely adapted from the classic Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The earliest Middle English version is found among other tales in the Auchinleck manuscript, which dates from about 1330-1340 and may have been owned by Geoffrey Chaucer. On the basis of linguistic studies, Sir Orfeo appears to have been written sometime during the second half of the 13th century. The tale, its chief version consisting of 602 short lines of rhyming couplets, tells the tale of King Orfeo, a harp player without equal. His wife, Heurodis, is abducted by the fairy King but Orfeo, through his harp playing, manages to bring her back to the land of mortals. Among the many notable differences between the Celtic and the Greek renditions are the setting and the ending: in Sir Orfeo the main resolution occurs in Fairyland instead of Hades, and the ending is a happy one. Sir Orfeo is regarded by critics as one of the finest examples of the Breton lay.

Plot and Major Characters

At the beginning of May, King Orfeo's wife falls into a deep sleep under an imp, or grafted, tree and dreams she is abducted by the King of the fairies, shown his fantastic kingdom, and told that, come tomorrow, she will be kept there forever. She awakes distraught, tears her robes to shreds and claws at her face, making it bleed profusely. To thwart the realization of the dream, Orfeo has hundreds of knights guard Heurodis, but they prove ineffective as the fairy King uses enchantment to take her away effortlessly. Orfeo is beyond consoling and abandons his kingdom to the charge of his steward. Having lost the fairest lady who ever lived, Orfeo swears he will never look upon another woman and takes to the woods barefoot, totally without material possessions except for his cloak and his harp. Living off nuts, roots, and bark for more than ten years, Orfeo wanders aimlessly. His only respite from grief comes from playing his harp, which soothes him and enchants both bird and beast. One day, he chances upon his wife among a group of ladies from the fairy kingdom. Although Orfeo's appearance shows the effect of a decade in the wilderness, and his hair is rough and hangs to his waist, Heurodis recognizes him instantly. Overcome with emotion, neither can speak to the other. Orfeo follows her through a rock and below ground to the fairy kingdom. He gains permission from the porter to enter the castle made of gold and dazzling jewels, by virtue of being a minstrel. Inside the castle Orfeo plays his harp for the fairy King, who is so impressed that he offers Orfeo whatever he cares to request. Orfeo demands Heurodis and, although the fairy King hesitates to give her to him because the couple seem so mismatched, he honors his word and relinquishes her. Orfeo returns to his kingdom but does not reveal his identity until he tests his steward's loyalty. The steward passes the test, Orfeo makes his true identity known, and Orfeo and Heurodis are newly crowned. They live and rule in peace until their deaths, upon which, the steward becomes king.

Major Themes

Ultimately, Sir Orfeo is a tale of loyalty and devotion. Set in a scene rich with Celtic folklore, the poem involves magic and enchantment, a King who loses everything only to regain it after years of suffering, fidelity to spouse and to lord, love, and music. The music of the harp was considered sacred by the Celts and represents harmony; its power is such that it can restore order, even overcoming the fairy King. Notable is the fact that Orfeo does not have to search for his wife, as is the case in similar tales; scholar K. R. R. Gros Louis interprets Orfeo's suffering as representing Christian penance and the return of Heurodis through the grace of God.

Critical Reception

Sir Orfeo is unanimously and highly praised by critics. Laura A. Hibbard calls its grace and beauty exceptional and states, “Brief, yet vivid, the little tale is inimitably fresh in style and content.” Dorena Allen calls its author a genius at adaptation. Other critics echo these statements. Much effort has been made to trace the roots of Sir Orfeo; most scholars presume that the Middle English version comes from an adaptation of a now-lost Old French version. Several texts have been demonstrated to contain similarities but no proposal of a single source for all the non-Classical elements has been satisfactory; Allen argues that such a search must be fruitless because it is a hunt for something that probably never existed. Critics have pointed out that Sir Orfeo's Greek, Christian, Celtic, and French elements are divergences from the typical poetry of its time. To cite one example, this tale is the only one known in which the action of mortals in Fairyland takes place in the land of the living and not of the dead. Some scholars are fascinated by the nature of Heurodis's state, which has similarities with mythical death but is distinctly different. Critics continue to disagree about interpretations of Sir Orfeo, many asserting that the poem contains multiple levels of allegory. In addition, scholars have devoted themselves to the study of manuscript variations, errors, and omissions. A. J. Bliss has gone so far as to reconstruct the missing beginning of the Auchinleck manuscript in a faithful style. The timeless themes of Sir Orfeo and its ability to accomodate new interpretations continue to attract readers and scholars alike.

Principal Works

“Havelok” and “Sir Orfeo” (translated by Robert Montagu) (poetry) 1954

Sir Orfeo (edited by A. J. Bliss) (poetry) 1966

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “Pearl,” and “Sir Orfeo” (translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) (poetry) 1975


George Lyman Kittredge (essay date 1886)

SOURCE: “Sir Orfeo,” American Journal of Philology, Vol. VII, No. 25, 1886, pp. 176-202.

[In the following essay, Kittredge examines several Breton lays and explains how French, Celtic, and Irish influences made Sir Orfeo different from the others.]

Dating from the end of the thirteenth century, when imitation, not originality, was the rule in English writing, the Romance or Lay of Sir Orfeo is not more remarkable for its grace and beauty than for the freedom with which it handles the classic mythology. The ultimate source of the poem is evidently the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as told by Virgil and Ovid, but so different is the romance from any...

(The entire section is 12026 words.)

Lucian Foulet (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: “The Prologue of Sir Orfeo,” Modern Language Notes, Vol. XXI, No. 2, February, 1906, pp. 46-50.

[In the following essay, Foulet examines the prologue to Sir Orfeo, suggests its probable origin, and attempts to explain inconsistencies in the use of the word “lay” and “adventure.”]

Sir Orfeo,1 one of the most charming among the middle English romances, has received a good deal of attention at the hands of scholars: it has been conclusively shown that it is a translation from a now lost French original, and its points of contact with varied Celtic legends have been made the subject of careful study.2 Its...

(The entire section is 3358 words.)

Gabrielle Guillaume (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: “The Prologues of the Lay le Freine and Sir Orfeo,” Modern Language Notes, Vol. XXXVI, No. 8, December, 1921, pp. 458-64.

[In the following essay, Guillaume explains why she doubts Lucien Foulet's assertions (see excerpt above) concerning the prologue to Sir Orfeo, and advances her own: the prologue was written not by a French, but by an English author; the prologue's author also wrote the Lay le Freine; and the prologue was borrowed by Sir Orfeo's author.]

The only known copy of the Middle-English Breton Lay le Freine, preserved in the famous Auchinleck Manuscript, has a prologue which differs but slightly from the...

(The entire section is 2621 words.)

Laura A. Hibbard (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: “Sir Orfeo” in Mediaeval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cyclic Metrical Romances, Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 195-99.

[In the following essay, Hibbard briefly describes the known versions of Sir Orfeo and traces the work's sources and development through the centuries.]

versions. The earliest extant version in Middle English of the Lay of Sir Orfeo is found in the early fourteenth-century Auchinleck manuscript. The poem contains 602 lines in short riming couplets and is to be ascribed to the South-Midland district (Zielke, p. 55). The two fifteenth-century manuscripts, Harleian 3810 and...

(The entire section is 2037 words.)

Roger Sherman Loomis (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: “Sir Orfeo and Walter Map's De Nugis,” Modern Language Notes, Vol. LI, No. 1, January, 1936, pp. 28-30.

[In the following essay, Loomis advances the idea that a story included by Walter Map in his collection of court tales served as one of the elements of the French original of Sir Orfeo.]

The Middle English lai of Sir Orfeo has been reprinted several times in recent years, the last edition being found in Middle English Metrical Romances, edited by W. H. French and C. B. Hale (N. Y., 1930). Allusions in French literature to a “lai d'Orfey” render certain the existence of a French original, now lost.1 The authentic...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

A. J. Bliss (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Introduction to Sir Orfeo, Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. ixxlviii.

[In the following excerpt, Bliss describes the three extant manuscripts of Sir Orfeo and briefly analyzes its literary qualities.]


1. Sir Orfeo is extant in three manuscripts, the Auchinleck MS. (Advocates’ 19. 2. 1), here designated A, MS. Harley 3810, here designated H, and MS. Ashmole 61 (Bodleian 6922*), here designated B.


2. The Auchinleck MS.1 is a stout folio volume containing 332 vellum leaves measuring 19 × 25 cm.; they must once have been larger, since in...

(The entire section is 2503 words.)

Dorena Allen (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken,” Mediem Aevum, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, 1964, pp. 102-11.

[In the following essay, Allen argues that fairy tradition is central to Sir Orfeo and that, because the tale originated from the substitution of fairy elements in place of Greek myths, the search for its “elusive Celtic source” should be abandoned.]

The genius of the poet of Sir Orfeo lies not in creation but in adaptation, in refashioning for his own purposes material which he shares with countless generations of popular story-tellers. In its chivalric splendour and in its concern with love, honour and loyalty, the poem mirrors his...

(The entire section is 5117 words.)

Bruce Mitchell (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “The Faery World of Sir Orfeo,” Neophilologus Vol. 48, 1964, pp. 155-59.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell argues that the sinister elements of Sir Orfeo constitute an inappropriate addition made to the original work.]

Writing of Sir Orfeo, Kane observes that

no other romance conveys so strong an impression of contact with another existence older, colder and less happy than our own, sinister in the chill of its beauty. … The mortal characters in the romance are made good and loyal while a boundless suggestion of unexplored evil is ascribed to the other world and its inhabitants.1


(The entire section is 1908 words.)

Further Reading


Bliss, A. J. “Sir Orfeo, Lines 1-46.” English and Germanic Studies V (1952-53): 7-14.

Offers an examination of Sir Orfeomanuscript variations, and a reconstruction of the missing first forty-six lines from the Auchinleck manuscript.

———. “Classical Threads in Orfeo.Modern Language Review LVI, No. 2 (April 1961): 161-66.

Exploration of the parallels between Sir Orfeo and classical legends.

Davies, Constance. “Notes on the Sources of Sir Orfeo.Modern Language Review XXXI (1936): 354-57.

Assessment of the...

(The entire section is 210 words.)