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Item 39, Sir Orfero: Introduction


1 For the Scots King Orphius, see M. Stewart’s “King Orphius.” For the ballad version, see Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1:215–17. See also Wright, “From Sir Orfeo to King Orpheus.”

2 The quotation is from Pearsall, “Madness in Sir Orfeo,” p. 51.

3 See Severs, “Antecedents of Sir Orfeo.” Though Rate spells the heroine’s name “Meroudys” or possibly “Iuerodys” (see note to line 44), the more common Middle English form of this name is used throughout the introduction and notes.

4 The most thorough survey of the medieval Orpheus legends is John Friedman’s study, Orpheus in the Middle Ages. See also Warden’s edited collection, Orpheus: The Metamorphosis of a Myth, and Gros Louis’s “Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice and the Orpheus Traditions of the Middle Ages.”

5 Pierre Bersuire juxtaposes these two interpretations; see Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages, pp. 127–28.

6 See, for example, the works by Doob, Friedman, Grimaldi, Jeffrey (2003), Masi, and Riddy (1976).

7 Grimaldi tries this line of argument; see “Sir Orfeo as Celtic Folk-Hero,” pp. 158–61.

8 Cartlidge, “Sir Orfeo in the Otherworld,” p. 226.

9 For a brief discussion of the Breton lay as a subgenre of romance, see the note to line 9, and the introduction to The Erle of Tolous (item 19); see also the introduction by Laskaya and Salibury to Middle English Breton Lays, pp. 1–14. Though Marie de France and various other writers in France and England seem to rely on a coherent understanding of what the Breton lay was, no lays in the Breton language have survived. Modern readers must therefore interpret the narrator’s claim that Sir Orfeo is based on a Breton lay with the same caution used to decode other aspects of the text.

10 On the sources of Sir Orfeo, see Bliss, Sir Orfeo, pp. xxvii–xli; see also Severs, “Antecedents of Sir Orfeo.”

11 See, for example, Grimaldi, “Sir Orfeo as Celtic Folk-Hero,” pp. 149–53; Lasater, “Under the Ympe-Tre”; and Baldwin, “Fairy Lore and the Meaning of Sir Orfeo.”

12 See Bliss, Sir Orfeo, pp. xxxi–xxxix; see also D. Allen, “Orpheus and Orfeo, the Dead and the Taken.”

13 Edward D. Kennedy criticizes Orfeo’s actions in “Sir Orfeo as Rex Inutilis.” For a defense, see A. M. Kinghorn, “Human Interest in the Middle English Sir Orfeo.” See also J. Eadie, “Suggestion as to the Origin of the Steward in the Middle English Sir Orfeo.”

14 For a recent historicist reading, see Falk, “Son of Orfeo.” Hynes-Berry considers the poem’s construction in “Cohesion in King Horn and Sir Orfeo”; see also Kooper, “Twofold Harmony of the Middle English Sir Orfeo.” For gendered readings, see Spearing, “Sir Orpheo: Madness and Gender”; see also Carlson, “Minstrel’s Song of Silence.” O’Brien subjects the story to Jungian psychoanalysis in “Shadow and Anima in Sir Orfeo.”

15 Perhaps the most influential of these readings is Lerer’s, “Artifice and Artistry in Sir Orfeo.” See also Liuzza, “Sir Orfeo: Sources, Traditions, and the Poetics of Performance.”

16 Hynes-Berry, “Cohesion in King Horn and Sir Orfeo,” p. 68.

17 For a fuller discussion, see Bliss, Sir Orfeo, pp. xiii–xvii.

18 Bliss provides a full list of the omitted and added lines (Sir Orfeo, p. xvi). The more notable omissions and additions are discussed here in the Explanatory Notes.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Written around the beginning of the fourteenth century (perhaps in the vicinity of Lon­don), Sir Orfeo survives in three manuscripts. Though these three manuscripts alone do not indicate a widespread audience, they were copied roughly fifty years apart from each other, and in three different regions (London, Warwickshire, and Leicestershire), suggest­ing the work's enduring appeal. Two related Scots texts also survive, one as frag­ments of a narra­tive and the other as a ballad.1 While these traces constitute the sole evidence for Sir Orfeo's medieval popularity, its modern popularity is well-documented. In the past century scholars have gener­ally viewed Sir Orfeo as "a small poetic mira­cle" and have produced voluminous amounts of accompanying scholarship.2 Of all the texts in Ashmole 61, none has attracted the amount of critical attention that Sir Orfeo has. Though much of this atten­tion stems from the poem's beauty and ingenious con­struction, a large portion of the scholarly interest can also be attributed to the poem's mysteriousness.

This mysteriousness does not come from unusual subjects (love, loyalty, the power of art), and the protagonists are very familiar, drawn from the classical myth of Orpheus, the Thracian harper who journeys to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice only to lose her when he glances backwards on their return. But the Middle English text acquires its complexity by defamiliarizing crucial aspects of the story. Heurodys (Eurydice) does not die, but is taken C carried off alive by the mysterious Fairy King.3 Orfeo does not immediately set out to look for her but encounters her in the midst of a lengthy self-imposed exile. He does not lose her on their return from the land of Fairy, and the story includes a second climax when Orfeo returns to his own kingdom and tests the loyalty of his steward.

By defamiliarizing the Orpheus legend, these innovations make it more difficult to apply the interpretations commonly applied to that legend. The content of the legend was well-known from a variety of classical texts, particularly Ovid's Metamorphoses X and Virgil's Georgics IV.4 Medieval retellings include versions by Boethius, Fulgentius, Wil­liam of Conches, Nicholas Trevet, Boccaccio, Christine de Pizan, and Robert Henryson, a group that spans the entire thousand years of the Middle Ages and suggests that the story invited constant updating and retelling. From Boethius onwards, the text was inter­preted as a phil­osophical or Christian allegory, particularly (for the later Middle Ages) in the popular Ovide Moralisé and the moralized Ovid of Pierre Bersuire. Orpheus becomes a figure for Christ, rescuing a fallen humanity from death, or he represents sinful humanity, who loses his soul (Eurydice) by sliding back into sin.5

Modern scholarship has often interpreted Sir Orfeo as another Christianized allegory in this vein.6 Yet such interpretations often leave many details unexplained or strain at some of the contradictions. If Orfeo is a Christ-figure, why is he unable to prevent Heurodis's sei­zure, and why does he declare his loyal steward as the heir-apparent at the end of the poem? If Orfeo is a sinner, what is his sin? Many critics have assumed that the sin is pride or lust (whether it is Orfeo's lust or Heurodis's), but the poem provides no more than a few faint hints of either.7 The equation of the Fairy King with Satan, and his kingdom with hell, has some evidence to recommend it but poses similar problems of incongruity. The rational order of Dante's hell or the clearly moralized purgatory depicted in many medieval visions of the afterlife are reassuring in comparison to the Fairy King's realm, which remains "disturb­ingly insusceptible to any stable analysis."8

Many of these interpretive difficulties come from the poem's fusion of the Orpheus myth to the form and style of the Breton lay.9 This was likely not the work of the Middle English poet, but a combination made by an earlier, lost lay in either French or Breton, perhaps the same "lai d'Orphey" referred to in the French Floire et Blancheflor, the Lay de l'Espine, and the prose Lancelot.10 The poem's opening makes much of its status as a Bre­ton lay and (by extension) the Celtic folklore it contains. As a result, some critics have sug­gested that Celtic folklore and other legends of "fairy" hold the key to understanding this text.11 These readings help define the context for the "ympe-tre" under which Heurodys is taken and some aspects of the uncanny relationship between the Fairy King's world and the world of Tracyens; but no single Celtic source shares more than a few of the elements of Sir Orfeo.12 It is not clear how much Celtic folklore was known by fourteenth-century English audiences or to what extent the poem's Breton origins are brandished as exoticism.

The political drama of Orfeo's lost-and-reclaimed kingship has also prompted consider­able interpretation. This aspect of the poem seems relatively unimportant until the striking conclusion, in which Orfeo returns in disguise to test the loyalty of his steward. Medieval romances often examine the loyalty of stewards and vice-regents. Some are despicably treach­erous, such as Mordred in Malory's Morte D'Arthur; or Marrok, the steward of King Ardus, in Sir Tryamour; or Gower's "Tale of the King and His Steward's Wife" (Confessio Amantis 5.2643B2825). Others are loyal, like the stewards who serve Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick. That Orfeo's steward exemplifies loyalty to perfection, in both his passionate attachment to his king and his continuation of Orfeo's generosity (to minstrels), is clear. Less clear is Orfeo's wisdom in first abandoning his kingdom and finally declaring the steward his successor, though these decisions have also been defended by critics.13

Other lines of inquiry include the historical and political background of the poem, its formal techniques, and theories of gender and psychoanalysis.14 Perhaps the most domi­nant strand of modern interpretation (and one agreed upon by many readers who agree on little else) concentrates on Orfeo's music as a figure for the power of art to bind and heal.15 In a poem marked by profound sorrow, Orfeo's harping is twice described as "blissedfull" ("blissful"), and it brings joy to those who hear it. The text's turning point can be located in the lines describing Orfeo's ability to enchant the wild animals with his music; from this point on, the poem shows Orfeo in action, overcoming the paralyzing grief of his ten-year exile and restoring his identity (even as he twice conceals it).

For a poem in praise of art, Sir Orfeo displays its artistry elegantly. Mary Hynes-Berry has pointed to the poem's masterful balance of artifice and simplicity:
The antithesis that distinguishes and elevates this romance to such a high level of art is that between its complexity as artifact and its essential simplicity. The language itself, with its simple diction and syntax, its spontaneous interjections and exclamations, and its speaking voice, belies all the formal complexities it transmits. The passionate simplicity of the language cor­responds to the simple passions that inform the poem.16
The poem's formal elegance involves many symmetries, such as those between Heurodis's description of the Fairy King's palace and Orfeo's later impression, between the loss and the reappearance of Heurodis during the "hot underyntydes," and between the two climactic harp­ing scenes (to take only a few examples). The narrating voice betrays nothing, not even ironic detachment, leaving the reader free to enjoy the remarkable feat of a serene, other­worldly tale about violent passion and human vulnerability.

Manuscript Context

Given the poem's reputation for artistry and sophistication, Sir Orfeo might seem to stand apart from the rougher, homespun material that makes up much of Ashmole 61. But as a romance centered around the loss and recovery of a family, Sir Orfeo resembles Sir Isumbras and its partner text, Saint Eustace (items 5 and 1). In this it shares the con­cern with marriage that runs throughout the manuscript, attested in texts as diverse as How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, Sir Corneus, The Jealous Wife, and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire (items 4, 21, 22, and 35b). The construction of Sir Cleges (item 24), with its combination of folk-motifs, may approach the elegance of Sir Orfeo, and the two texts also share a humane appreciation for sacrifice, pa­tience, and grace.

Even a cruder entertainment like Lybeaus Desconus (item 20) shares several important elements with Sir Orfeo, including the rescue of a heroine from a dark magic with indef­inite Celtic origins. The eerily deserted palace of Sinadoun and the Fairy King's palace have a surprising amount in common. It is impossible to guess whether the audience of Ashmole 61 preferred the repetitive swashbuckling of Lybeaus Desconus to the under­stated (and unchivalric) interior drama of Sir Orfeo, but the presence of both texts in one manuscript suggests an audi­ence prepared to enjoy both.

The uncanny horrors of Fairy Land's living dead can be profitably compared to the other afterlives and other worlds of Ashmole 61, particularly those of The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire (items 25 and 35b). Finally, Rate's juxta­position of Sir Orfeo with Vanity (item 40) seems like a particularly good example of his ability to pair related texts; this connection is discussed in the introduction to Vanity.


Sir Orfeo survives in two other manuscripts: the famous Auchinleck Manuscript (Ak) and Harley 3810 (H), a composite manuscript. The Auchinleck Manuscript dates from the 1330s, and Harley dates from the first half of the fifteenth century. The relationship of each manuscript to the others is unclear. The Auchinleck Manuscript is damaged and lacks the prologue (usually supplied in critical editions by H), but generally preserves the best text. The Harley text and Ashmole 61's text share many inferior readings but on a few occasions present a more attractive reading than that of the Auchinleck text. The Harley text and Ashmole 61's text probably (as Bliss suggests) derive from a shared ancestor, possibly a text that was as good as or better than the Auchinleck's, but that has suffered from at least a century of scribal error and revision.17

In many respects, Ashmole 61's text is superior to Harley's, but Rate's usual habits are fully in evidence: Ashmole 61's text lacks over fifty lines present in the Auchinleck text, and while some of these are also missing in Harley's text (suggesting that they may have been missing from Rate's copy-text), many are not. In addition to omitting certain lines, Rate's copy has added forty-nine lines, most of which are probably Rate's own compositions.18 The omissions and additions are scattered throughout the text and do not show any deliberate agenda on Rate's part, but rather demonstrate his usual habit of rolling revision. With the exception of a few strained readings and one miscalculation towards the poem's close (see the note to line 551), Rate's text is quite readable. And while it lacks the complexity of Auch­inleck's text, it preserves much of its affective power.

Printed Editions (based on the text of the Auchinleck MS unless otherwise noted.)

Alexander, Michael, and Felicity Riddy, eds. The Middle Ages (700B1550). London: Mac­millan Education, 1989. Pp. 158B76.

Bliss, A. J., ed. Sir Orfeo. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. [A useful scholarly edition; prints the complete texts of all three MSS.]

Laskaya, Anne, and Eve Salisbury, eds. The Middle English Breton Lays. Pp. 15B59. [Thoroughly annotated.]

Rumble, Thomas, ed. The Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 206B26. [Prints text of Ashmole 61.]

Sands, Donald B., ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966. Pp. 185B200.

Sisam, Kenneth, ed. Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921. Rpt. and corr., 1975. Pp. 13B31.

Speed, Diane, ed. Medieval English Romances. 2 vols. 3rd ed. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1993. 1:122B48.

Stevenson, John Horne. "Syr Orfeo." Scottish Antiquary 16 (1902), 30B38. [Prints Ashmole 61.]

Tolkien, J. R. R. "Sir Orfeo: A Middle English Version by J. R. R. Tolkien." Ed. and intr. Carl F. Hostetter. Tolkien Studies 1 (2004), 85B123. [Based primarily on Ak, but emended to correct for meter and to recover the supposed Essex dia­lect of the original.]

Zielke, O., ed. Sir Orfeo, Ein englisches Feenmärchen aus dem Mittelalter, mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Breslau: Koebner, 1880. [A critical edition largely superseded by Bliss.]

Adaptations and Modernizations

Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Pp. 123B37.

Reference Works

NIMEV 3868
MWME, 293B94

Rice, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955B1985. Pp. 481B501.

See also Cartlidge, Doob, Friedman (1970), Grimaldi, Gros Louis, Jeffrey (2003), Lerer (1985), Liuzza, Longsworth, Olsen, Pearsall (1996), Riddy (1976), Rider (1988 and 2000), Spearing, Tajiri, and Warden in the bibliography.

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