Sir Orfeo Criticism

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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 known version of this story that, if the English minstrel had not called his hero and heroine Orfeo and Heurodys, his indebtedness to the ancients would be hard to prove. The present discussion aims to show the direct antecedents of the Orfeo, and to throw some light on the causes that have led the story so far away from its original shape.1

In the first place, the poem professes to be a Breton lay. This claim is made not only in the opening lines—which, as almost identical with the beginning of the English Lay le Fresne, and possibly borrowed from that poem, may be left out of account2—but also very distinctly in the closing verses:

Harpours in Bretaine afterþan
Herd hou þis mervaile bigan,
And made herof a lay of gode likeing
And nempned it after the king:
Þat lay Orfeo is yhote,
Gode is þe lay, swete is þe note.
Þus com Sir Orfeo out of his care.
God graunt ous alle wele to fare.

(vv. 595 ff. Zielke.)

If these lines are to be taken seriously, and not as a literary artifice, they prove that the Orfeo is translated from some French poem3 purporting—like any one of Marie's collection—to give the substance of a Breton lay. Only through the French could a Breton lay get into English; from none but a French poem could verses like these be derived. If, however, the lines are a mere flourish on the part of the English minstrel, intended to gain respect for his piece, of course they prove nothing.4 Comparison may help decide the question.

Besides the Orfeo there are six Middle English poems that profess to be Breton lays. These are: (1) Lay le Fresne, (2) Sir Launfal, (3) Sir Gowther, (4) Emare, (5) Chaucer's Franklin's Tale, and (6) the Erl of Tolous. Of these the Fresne and Launfal are free translations from Marie de France. The others are more doubtful.5

Sir Gowther has long been recognized as an offshoot of the story of Robert the Devil. The anonymous author twice declares it to be a lay of Britain:

A lai of Breyten long y soȝght
And owt þerof a tale have broȝght,
          þat lufly is to tell.

(vv. 28-30, p. 6, ed. Breul.)6

þis is wreton in parchemyn,
A story hoþe gud and fyn,
          Owt off a lai of Breyteyn.

(vv. 751-3, p. 38.)

The French original of Sir Gowther is unknown, but was doubtless a free translation of some Breton lay. Normandy and Brittany were closely associated. It is chiefly through the Normans that the lays of Brittany have come down to us.7 The Breton Lay of the Two Lovers, preserved in Marie's version, is founded on a Norman popular tale.8 Robert the Devil, then, being a Norman story, was within easy reach of any Armorican harper. When the Gowther varies from the Robert, it often approaches Celtic tradition. Robert is devoted to the devil before his birth,9 but Gowther is actually the son of a demon who has deceived the Duchess of Estryke as Uther cheated Igerne,10 by putting on the semblance of her husband. The scene in the orchard and the joy of the duke when he finds himself likely to become a father, may be compared with the Lay de Tydorel.11 There is nothing like them in any version of Robert. Robert repents when he finds himself dreaded and avoided by all. This is after he has murdered the nuns (or hermits). Gowther is brought to his senses rather differently—by a taunt from an old monk, who declares that so wicked a man cannot be of human origin. In like...

(The entire section is 30,544 words.)