Sir Orfeo

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Sir Orfeo
Sir Orfeo, first page, Auchinleck.jpg
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[edit]

Dated to the late 13th or early 14th century, it represents a mixture of the Greek myth of Orpheus with Celtic mythology and folklore concerning fairies, introduced into the English culture 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]

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 fragmentary Child Ballad 19 "King Orfeo" is closely related to this poem, the surviving text containing only portions of the known story.[3] The ballad has been recorded by Barbara Dickson, and by the groups Alva and Malinky.


In the poem, 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.


While this is not the classical myth of Orpheus, the poet shows substantial ingenuity in merging the Orpheus of mythology, who tries and fails to obtain the return of his wife Eurydice from the underworld, with the traditional fairy motifs of the fairy raid or hunt, the fairies' otherworldly kingdom, their attempts to abduct mortals, and the magical transformations endured by those who are captured by them. These motifs are shared by both Sir Orfeo and later-collected versions of the ballad fairy-lore in such works as the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin.

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." [7]

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.[8] However, in a seminal article "The Dead and the Taken" [9] 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.

Similarity with "The Matter of Rome"[edit]

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.


  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. ^ TEAMS edition of Sir Orfeo, edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, lines 47-50
  8. ^ Mitchell, B. "The Faerie World of Sir Orfeo." Neophilologus, 48 (1964), 156-9.
  9. ^ Allen, D. "Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken." Medium Aevum, 33 (1964), 102-11.

See also[edit]


  • 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[edit]