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Sir Orfeo

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Title: Sir Orfeo  
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Language: English
Subject: J. R. R. Tolkien bibliography, Orpheus, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad, Roverandom
Collection: Anonymous Works, Child Ballads, Middle English Poems, Orpheus, Romance (Genre)
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Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo
Orfeo was a king/In Inglond an heiȝe lording
Author(s) Unknown
Language Middle English
Manuscript(s) Auchinleck manuscript
Subject the Orpheus legend, recast and with a happy ending
Personages Orfeo

Sir Orfeo is an anonymous Middle English narrative poem, retelling the story of Orpheus as a king rescuing his wife from the fairy king.[1]


  • History and manuscripts 1
  • Synopsis 2
  • Manuscript Differences 3
  • Folklore elements 4
  • Commentary 5
  • Similarities and Differences with Orpheus 6
  • Similarity with "The Matter of Rome" 7
  • Translations 8
  • Reception 9
  • Notes 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

History and manuscripts

Sir Orfeo is preserved in three manuscripts: the oldest, Advocates 19.2.1, known as the Auchinleck MS. is dated at about 1330; Harley 3810, is from about the beginning of the fifteenth century; and Ashmole 61, compiled over the course of several years, the portion of the MS. containing Sir Orfeo dating around 1488. The beginning of the poem describes itself as a Breton lai, and says it is derived from a no longer extant text, the Lai d'Orphey.

The story contains a mixture of the Greek myth of Orpheus with Celtic mythology and folklore concerning fairies, introduced into English via the Old French Breton lais of poets like Marie de France. The Wooing of Etain bears particular resemblance to the romance and was a probable influence.[2]

The fragmentary Child Ballad 19 "King Orfeo" is closely related to this poem, the surviving text containing only portions of the known story.[3]


Sir Orfeo, king in England, loses his wife Heurodis (i.e. Eurydice) to the fairy king, who steals her away from under an ympe-tre (a tree propagated by grafting), probably an apple or cherry tree. Heurodis had visited the orchard the day before, accompanied by two maidens, to sleep beneath the shade of its branches, but when she had awoken from her midday nap, she was so distressed that they had to call for the help of knights to restrain her. In her sleep, she had been visited by the king of the Otherworld, she claimed, who was intent upon taking her to his underworld kingdom. Now, a day later, she is in the orchard again, as the king of the Otherworld has instructed her to be, and despite a posse of armed knights surrounding and protecting her, she vanishes away.

Orfeo, distraught by this, leaves his court and wanders alone in a forest. He has left his steward in charge of the kingdom and seems to have no intention of returning to his capital city of Winchester (in southern England, the old capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex). Winchester was called Thrace in those days, we are assured. Sir Orfeo leaves instructions that when they learn of his death, they should convene a parliament and choose a new king.

Sir Orfeo wanders in the forest for many years, sleeping on the bare earth and living on berries and fruits in summer, roots and the bark of trees in winter, until after ten years, he sees Heurodis riding past in the company of a fairy host. She is riding with sixty ladies, with not a man among them, hawking by a river. He follows these ladies into a cliff and travels for three miles through the rock until he emerges into a fairy kingdom, a flat expanse of countryside presided over by a magnificent castle, built from gold and crystal and glass. He is allowed into the castle by the gatekeeper and looking all about, he sees, lying inside these castle walls, people who had been thought to be dead, but who were not:

"Than he gan bihold about al,
And seighe liggeand within the wal
Of folk that were thider y-brought
And thought dede, and nare nought." [4]

Some were headless, others had been drowned or burned:

"Sum stode withouten hede...
And sum were in water adreynt,
And some with fire al forschreynt." [5]

Amongst these bodies he sees his dear wife Heurodis, asleep again. Despite suffering a rebuke by the king for being the only person ever to have entered this castle without having been summoned, Sir Orfeo entertains the fairy king by playing his harp and the fairy king, pleased with Orfeo's music, offers him the chance to choose a reward: he chooses Heurodis. Despite initial protestations by the king, Sir Orfeo reminds him that he gave him his word and Sir Orfeo returns with Heurodis to Winchester:

"To Winchester he is y-come,
That was his owhen cité,
Ac no man knewe that it was he." [6]

Sir Orfeo arrives in Winchester, his own city, but nobody knows who he is. He takes lodgings with a beggar and, leaving Heurodis safely there, travels into the city wearing the beggar's clothes, where he is insulted by many people for his unkempt looks. The steward, however, for the love of Sir Orfeo, invites this unknown musician into the castle to play his harp. The final action of the story is the testing of the steward's loyalty upon Sir Orfeo's return with Heurodis to reclaim his throne. Quickly, the harp is recognized and Sir Orfeo explains that he found it ten years ago beside the mutilated body of a man who had been eaten by a lion. Upon hearing this, the steward faints in distress and grief. The beggar then reveals to the court that it is Sir Orfeo himself who is speaking to them and when the steward recovers, he is assured by Sir Orfeo that, if he had been pleased to learn of his death, he would have had him thrown out of his kingdom. As it is, however, he will make him his heir. Heurodis is brought to the castle and all the people weep for joy that their king and queen are alive and well.

Manuscript Differences

The three preserved manuscripts Auchinleck MS., Harley 3810, and Ashmole 61, each have striking differences present throughout the texts. The three manuscripts are very similar in the content of the story, however, there exists a small discrepancy between the Auchinleck and Ashmole manuscripts: Sir Orfeo's wife is called Meroudys in the Ashmole manuscript, and is called Heurodus in the Auchinleck Manuscript. While their content is similar, the manuscripts omit certain lines, and add lines in order to portray the story more accurately, which may be a result of the time period.

The Auchinleck manuscript was originally written on 332 Vellum leaves. Most of this manuscript has been mutilated and a large number of leaves have been cut away. Eight of these missing leaves have been recovered and the present contents of the volume originally had 52 gatherings of leaves each. This manuscript is the closest to the original version as it comes and is often known as the "base" text with 604 lines.

The Harley 3180 manuscript was composed of 34 paper folios and only contained six articles: Sir Orfeo and moral and religious pieces being two of them. The verse on the last folio is written in sixteenth-century hand with an inscription being: Hic liber olim fuit liber Wil’mi Shawcler’ et Cur de Badesly Clinton: Eccl’a. The Harleian Collection version of Sir Orfeo has only been printed once. It contains only 509 lines about 100 shorter than the Auchinleck version. Using that as the base text this Harleian version omits lines 49-50, 166-7, 206-7,241-2,247-50, 293-6, 391-404, 411-12, 439-42, 445-6, 458, 481-2, 485-6, 501-8, 521-2, 527-8, 539-40, 545-52, 555-6, 559-62, 565-82, 585-6, 589-94, 597-602. Passages are also added to this manuscript: two lines after line 280, two lines after line 468, two lines after 518 and four lines added at the end.

The last manuscript is Ashmole 61, which is a tall narrow folio containing 162 paper folios. This manuscript contained 41 articles of romance, saints' lives, and various moral and religious pieces. Sir Orfeo was the 39th article in this manuscript. Using Auchnileck as the base text, Ashmole omits 19-22, 39-46, 59-60, 67-68, 92-98, 123-4, 177-8, 299-302, 367-79, 394, 397-400, 402-4, 409-10, 481-2, 591-2. Passages are also added: six lines in the beginning, two after line 104, two after line 120, one before and after line 132, nine after line 134, one after line 159, two after line 180, two after line 190, two after line 270, two after line 274, one after line 356, three after line 296, two after line 416, two after line 468, two after line 476, one before and after line 550, two after line 558, and six at the end. [7]

Folklore elements

Fairies are not unique to Sir Orfeo. There is a long history of Celtic folklore. Most of the folklore warn of their malice and relate ways to protect oneself. It also warns of fairies stealing babies and other people.[8] The folklore has been incorporated into many stories. Fairies are seen in The Faerie Queene, Arthurian Literature, The Canterbury Tales, A Midsummer Night's Dream, modern literature such as Wicked Lovely and Need, Disney films and countless other works. It is difficult to describe fairies as they are quite different around the board. They tend to look human and have magic capabilities. In many works, they are portrayed as very rich and beautiful. A majority of the time they are neither evil or good, simply otherworldly. As Christianity spread so did the slight demonization of the fairies. But it is agreed that fairies were never demons.[9] Sir Orfeo fairies differ slightly from folklore fairies.[10] The story does not instil fear in the reader. The monstrous ways of the fairies are only seen once. Besides that one section, the fairies are seen in a positive light. Everything is outlandishly beautiful and the Fairy King is very "knightly". He is polite, seemingly kind, and keeps to his word which let Orfeo and his wife leave unharmed. This goes along with the idea that fairies are neither evil nor good.[11]


Thrace is identified at the beginning of the poem as "the old name for Winchester", which effectively announces that the well-known Greek myth is to be transposed into a British context:

"This king sojournd in Traciens,
That was a cité of noble defens -
For Winchester was cleped tho
Traciens, withouten no." [12]

The poem's unique innovation, in comparison to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, may be that the underworld is not a world of the dead, but rather a world of people who have been taken away when on the point of death. In "The Faery World of Sir Orfeo", Bruce Mitchell suggested that the passage was an interpolation.[13] However, in a seminal article "The Dead and the Taken" [14] D. Allen demonstrated that the theme of another world of people who are taken at the point of death (but who are not dead) is a well-established element in folklore, and thereby shows the complete folklorisation of the Orpheus story.

Ruth Evans views the lai of Sir Orfeo to be not just a medieval retelling of Orpheus, but also a work influenced by the politics of the time; Orfeo has been criticized as a rex inutilis ('useless king'/roi faneant) a medieval literary motif that links Orfeo with several late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century sovereigns, including Edward II and, in his role as a harpist, as a type of David, the royal figure upon whom many medieval kings modeled themselves. When Orfeo outcasts himself from society, he is bringing in the idea of a king being an isolated man. He leaves his kingdom in the hands of his steward, upsetting the order of things. Orfeo himself is upset when his wife his taken, and Evans says in her essay that the poem's narrative syntax, by doubling social order with the classic romance structure of exile, risk and then reintegration suggests an emotional link to the loss and recovery of a wife with the loss and recovery of a kingdom. Evans argues that even if it was not the intention of the author, when read in a cultural context this interpretation is possible through the concept of the “political unconscious[15]

Patricia Vicari, in her essay titled Sparagmos: Orpheus Among the Christians says that in Sir Orfeo Orpheus the hero is very Celticized. She cites the fate of Queen Heurodis and its commonality with the fates of other Celtic heroines. Instead of having a Christian take on the myth, Sir Orfeo sticks to a rather pantheistic view where the fairy king of Celtic literature rules over the underworld as neither good nor bad - as opposed to J. Friedman who was attempting to argue Christian undertones through relating Heurodis to Eve taken away by Satan in the form of a fairy king. This Christian reading does not translate well overall, however. The Otherworld is described as attractive as well as menacing and the fairy king is more force of nature than evil villain. Heurodis is also not be punished for any kind of sin or transgression, or the victim of a targeted attack necessarily, but was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.[16]

Similarities and Differences with Orpheus

Sir Orfeo takes the core elements of the myth of Orpheus and changes them into a more modern setting, giving a happy ending to an otherwise tragic myth.


Very similar to Orpheus of myth is the quality of singing and playing on a stringed instrument that Sir Orfeo exhibits. His wife, like Eurydice, showed loyalty by resisting advances. In the myth, Orpheus goes marching down to Tarutus to ask for Eurydice back while Sir Orfeo exiles himself for ten years until he chances a glimpse of his wife. Another similarity between these two stories is found in the name of Orfeo's kingdom, Traciens (Thrace), which perhaps for the sake of familiarity for the modern readers has been moved to be the old name of Winchester, England. Orfeo obtains the Fairy King's permission to take his wife home with him by using his beautiful music playing, much the same as Orpheus did in the original Greek myth.


Unlike Orpheus who was actually descended from Gods, Sir Orfeo's parents were just named after Gods. When Sir Orfeo goes to take his wife back, no condition is issued to not look back at her. Sir Orfeo exiles himself for ten years, citing not wanting to see any more women after suffering the loss of his beautiful wife. For Orpheus, this self-exile occurs after he has lost Eurydice the second time. The loss of Eurydice, and the saving of Heurodis is the main difference between the tragedy of the original myth and the romantic lai of Sir Orfeo.[17]

Similarity with "The Matter of Rome"

This treatment of elements from Greek mythology is similar to that of the Old French literary cycle known as the Matter of Rome, which was made up of Greek and Roman mythology, together with episodes from the history of classical antiquity, focusing on military heroes like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar – where the protagonists were anachronistically treated as knights of chivalry, not much different from the heroes of the chansons de geste.


The German-American poet Paul-Henri Campbell produced a German translation of Sir Orfeo, using a technique that interprets the text in terms of the performance practice of the late Middle Ages. Recognizing the differences between the languages and their historical transformations, Campbell lengthened the meter. In order to retain the compelling dramatic force of the piece, he substituted the antiquated couplet rhyme, which was a function of the recital practice rather than an aesthetic device, by a more flexible dramatic usage of rhyme.

Following J.R.R. Tolkien's death, his son Christopher Tolkien found an unpolished translation of Sir Orfeo and published it in edited form with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl.


Critics unanimously call Sir Orfeo one of the best of the English romances. Though retold in a medieval setting, it seems to lack the concepts that were apparent in other medieval romances. "It lacks, however, any sense of chivalric values and ideals, and though the hero undergoes much suffering in the course of the story, this simply testifies to the power of his [Orfeo's] devotion and is not related to any scheme of self-realization." [18] The main contribute of the success of the story comes from the atmosphere of the storytelling. "...its main success is usually attributed rather to the potency of the magical atmosphere than to any particular skill on the part of the author.... the poem is an outstanding example of narrative skill, and the author's artistry is such that his technical brilliance may be [at first] mistaken for untutored simplicity." [19]


  1. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p196 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  2. ^ Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England p197-8 New York Burt Franklin,1963
  3. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 216, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  4. ^ TEAMS edition of Sir Orfeo, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, lines 387-390
  5. ^ TEAMS edition of Sir Orfeo, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, lines 391, 397 and 398
  6. ^ TEAMS edition of Sir Orfeo, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, lines 478-480
  7. ^ Bliss, A. J. Sir Orfeo. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1966.
  8. ^ "Faeries", Encyclopedia Mythallica. 2008. web.
  9. ^ Joe, Jimmy. “Faeries” Timeless Myths (Celtic Mythology) 2005. web.
  10. ^ Läseke, Sarah "'With fairi forth y-nome': The Representation of the Fairy World in Sir Orfeo." 2011. web.
  11. ^ Williams, Tara. "Fairy Magic, Wonder, And Morality In Sir Orfeo." Philological Quarterly 91.4 (2012): 537–568. Academic Search Complete.
  12. ^ TEAMS edition of Sir Orfeo, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, lines 47-50
  13. ^ Mitchell, B (1964). "The Faerie World of Sir Orfeo". Neophilologus 48: 156–9. 
  14. ^ Allen, D. "Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken." Medium Aevum, 33 (1964), 102-11.
  15. ^ Evans, Ruth. "Sir Orfeo and Bare Life." Medieval Cultural Studies. Ed. Ruth Evans, Helen Fulton, David Matthews. Wales: University of Wales, 2006 198-212. Print.
  16. ^ Vicari, Patricia. "Sparagmos: Orpheus Among Christians." Orpheus, The Metamorphoses of a Myth. Ed. John Warden. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1982 61-83. Print.
  17. ^ Warden, John. "Introduction" Orpheus, The Metamorphoses of a Myth. Ed. John Warden. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1982. viii-ix
  18. ^ Gibbs, A.C. Middle English Romances. N.p: Northwestern UP, 1966. Print.
  19. ^ Bliss, A.J. Sir Orfeo. Oxford University Press, 1966.

See also


  • Gibbs, A.C. Middle English Romances. N.p: Northwestern UP, 1966. Print.
  • Bliss, A. J. Sir Orfeo. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1966.
  • Briggs, Katharine, "King Orfeo", p249, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures,. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  • Brouland, Marie-Therese. Le Substrat celtique du lai breton anglais : Sir Orfeo. Paris: Didier Erudition. 1990.
  • Shuldham-Shaw, Patrick, The Ballad King Orfeo. In: Scottish Studie 20: 124*26. 1976.
  • Sisam, Kenneth, Sir Orfeo. In: Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1921.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R., Sir Orfeo. In: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo. Translated by J.R.R. Tolkien. New York, Ballantine, 2003.
  • Mitchell, B., "The Faery World of Sir Orfeo." Neophilologus, 48 (1964), 156-9.
  • Allen, D., "Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken." Medium Aevum, 33 (1964), 102-11.

External links

  • Transcription from the National Library of Scotland Auchinleck manuscript
  • Sir Orfeo, edited by Edward Eyre Hunt, Cambridge : Harvard Co-operative Society, 1909.
  • Sir Orfeo, from The Middle English Breton Lays, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.
  • King Orfeo
  • Translation of Sir Orfeo into Modern English
  • Sir Orfeo, material including a recitation in Middle English by Professor Corey Olson of Washington College as part of his Faerie and Fantasy course, spring 2011
  • [2], comparison contrast with the Orpheus myth
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