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.
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.
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.