Sir Orfeo Criticism - Essay

George Lyman Kittredge (essay date 1886)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.)