Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo
(ca. 1300)
   Sir Orfeo is a short ROMANCE in a southeastern dialect of MIDDLE ENGLISH, composed in the very early 14th century. The poem consists of 603 lines in octosyllabic couplets and survives in three manuscripts, two of which contain a short prologue categorizing the poem as a Breton LAI and defining the genre as a short verse romance characterized by the central element of ferly or the marvelous, and told originally in the Briton language. Since the same prologue begins the LAY LE FREINE in the famous Auchenlick manuscript, some scholars believe that the same author may have written both poems. No Breton source is known for Sir Orfeo (although there are references in Old French to a non-extant romance called the Lai d’Orphey). The ultimate source for the story is the tale of Orpheus, as told in books 10 and 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
   The tale turns Ovid’s Orpheus and Eurydice into Sir Orfeo and his wife Heurodis. Orfeo, a magnificent harper, is king of Thrace (which the poet identifies with Winchester) and Heurodis is his queen. In a dream the king of Fairy appears to Heurodis and tells her he will abduct her despite anything she or Orfeo can do. Orfeo and 1,000 of his troops guard the queen, but she magically disappears from under a grafted tree notwithstanding their efforts. Orfeo, in despair over the loss of his wife and his inability to protect her, leaves his kingdom in the charge of his Steward.He shoulders his harp and wanders off into the wilderness in beggar’s rags, where he lives as a wild man—a conventional medieval depiction of madness.
   For 10 years he wanders in the forest, playing his harp in a way that charms the beasts, until one day he happens to catch sight of Heurodis herself, among 60 ladies who are out hawking in the woods. He follows the ladies right through a mountainside into a level, green land with a castle. Pretending to be a minstrel, he gains entrance to the castle, where he sees people who had been drowned, burned,wounded, all thought to be dead but actually snatched by the king of Fairy. There, too, he sees Heurodis sleeping beneath the grafted tree. Orfeo comes before the king and entertains him with his harp. The king is so moved that he grants Orfeo any boon he asks for, and he asks for Heurodis. The two are allowed to leave. The English poet omits the tragic ending of Ovid’s story, in which Orpheus loses Eurydice when he looks back at her. Instead, the two arrive back in Winchester, where Orfeo, still in disguise, meets his Steward on the street. The Steward, believing him to be a minstrel, invites Orfeo to the castle, where he says all harpers are welcome for his lord’s sake.At the castle, Orfeo takes out his harp to play, and the Steward instantly recognizes the harp. He asks Orfeo where he obtained it, and Orfeo tells him he took it off a man who had been torn in pieces by lions. The Steward swoons in sorrow when he hears this, after which Orfeo reveals his true identity, and rewards the Steward for his loyalty by making him heir to the throne.
   It is likely that one of the poet’s sources for his story was BOETHIUS’s brief summary of Ovid’s tale in book 3 of his CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY. Here, Boethius uses the story as an ALLEGORY of how humankind’s desire for God’s light is thwarted by our attachment to earthly things that draw our thoughts toward hell. Some modern critics of the poem have used Boethius’s ideas to justify an allegorical reading of Sir Orfeo, suggesting that Orfeo’s rescue of Heurodis depicts human reason saving the flesh from hell. But it seems clear that the poet resisted the Boethian interpretation of the tale when he omitted the tragic ending, and specifically resisted identifying fairyland with hell—depicting it, in fact, like Orfeo’s own Winchester. A more pertinent question for the poem is why the poet chose to change the end of the story, and why he added the test of the Steward. Perhaps the point is a reinforcement of the main tale’s theme of long-term devotion rewarded. One thing that seems clear is the poet’s emphasis on the importance of treating minstrels well: In what was probably a poem in the repertoire of traveling minstrels, there is almost certainly some selfinterest evident in the text.
   ■ Bliss, A. J., ed. Sir Orfeo. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.
   ■ Dorena, Allen.“Opheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken,”Medium Aevum 33 (1964): 102–111.
   ■ Friedman, John Block. Orpheus in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.
   ■ Gros Louis, Kenneth R. R. “The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile,”Review of English Studies n.s. 18 (1967): 245–252.
   ■ Hanson, Thomas B. “Sir Orfeo, Romance as Exemplum,” Annuale Mediaevale 13 (1972): 135–154.
   ■ Hill, D. M. “The Structure of Sir Orfeo,” Medieval Studies 23 (1961): 136–153.
   ■ Lerer, Seth. “Artifice and Artistry in Sir Orfeo,” Speculum 60 (1985): 92–109.
   ■ Liuzza, Roy Michael. “Sir Orfeo: Sources, Traditions, and the Poetics of Performance,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 21 (1991): 269–284.
   ■ O’Brien, Timothy D. “The Shadow and Anima in Sir Orfeo,”Mediaevalia 10 (1984): 235–254.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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