Sir Orfeo is an anonymous middle English narrative poem that retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The earliest Middle English version is found among other tales in the Auchinleck manuscript, which dates from about 1330-1340, Geoffrey Chaucer its possible owner. Sir Orfeo appears to have been written during the second half of the 13th century, and its chief version consists of 602 short lines of rhyming couplets.
In the poem, the reader is exposed to the romance of King Orfeo, a harp player without equal and his fair wife, Heurodis. At the beginning of May, King Orfeo’s wife falls into a deep sleep under an imp, or grafted, tree and dreams she is abducted by the fairy King, shown his fantastic kingdom, and told that, come tomorrow, she will be kept there forever. To thwart the realization of the dream, Orfeo has hundreds of knights guard Heurodis, but they prove ineffective as the fairy King uses enchantment to take her away effortlessly.
Distraught, Orfeo abandons his kingdom to the charge of his steward and takes to the woods barefoot, his only possessions his cloak and harp. Living off nuts, roots, and bark for more than ten years, Orfeo wanders aimlessly. His only respite from grief comes from playing his harp, which soothes him and enchants all the woodland creatures. One day, he chances upon his wife among a group of ladies from the fairy kingdom. Although Orfeo’s appearance shows the effect of a decade in the wilderness, and his hair is rough and hangs to his waist, Heurodis recognizes him instantly. Overcome with emotion, neither can speak to the other.
Orfeo follows her through a rock and below ground to the fairy kingdom. He gains permission from the porter to enter the castle and, although the fairy King reproaches him for entering his domain without invitation, he listens to Orfeo as he plays his harp. Impressed by his skills, he offers Orfeo whatever his heart desires. Orfeo demands Heurodis and, although the fairy King hesitates to give her to him because the couple seem so mismatched, he honors his word and relinquishes her. Orfeo returns to his kingdom but does not reveal his identity until he tests his steward’s loyalty. The steward passes the test, Orfeo makes his true identity known, and Orfeo and Heurodis are newly crowned. They live and rule in peace until their deaths, upon which, the steward becomes king.
The story contains a mixture of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with Celtic mythology. However, there are many notable differences between the two tales. In Sir Orfeo the main resolution occurs in Fairyland instead of Hades, and the ending is a happy one. But what truly sets Sir Orfeo apart is the fact that the poem is characterized by the complete abandonment of the ancient Greek spirit and worldview that coloured the original myth. Instead, it is steeped in the Celtic spirit and all its sublime beauty.
The Celtic imagined reality is haunted by the idea of the dreamy Otherworld, a parallel dimension where the fairies and the dead reside. In the poem, proof of that is the presence of the fairies who spirit Heroudis away. The fairy land is conceived as a parallel dimension to the everyday world rather than the Land of the Dead as in the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In contrast to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, 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 views the passage as an interpolation. On the other hand, in the article “The Dead and the Taken” D. Allen points out that the theme of another world of people who are taken at the point of death (while not dead yet) is a well-established element in folklore, and therefore shows the complete folklorisation of the Orpheus story.
Ruth Evans considers the lay of Sir Orfeo not merely a medieval retelling of Orpheus, but a work heavily influenced by the politics of the time; Orfeo has been criticized as a rex inutilis. The medieval literary motif of the useless king links Orfeo with several late thirteenth and early fourteenth-century sovereigns, including Edward II. Moreover, in his role as a harpist, as a type of David, Orfeo becomes the royal figure upon whom many medieval kings modeled themselves.
As an outcast from society, Orfeo presents the figure of the king as 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 claims 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. Therefore, the figure of the queen stands for political stability and prosperity of the kingdom and the land itself.
In her essay Sparagmos: Orpheus Among the Christians, Patricia Vicari rejects the idea of the christianization of the myth. In Sir Orfeo the hero is very Celticized, and the fate of Queen Heurodis is similar to the fates of other Celtic heroines. Sir Orfeo remains faithful to a rather pantheistic view, where the fairy king of Celtic literature rules over the Otherworld as a force of nature, neither good nor bad – as opposed to J. Friedman, who argues that Christian undertones relate Heurodis to Eve taken away by Satan in the form of a fairy king. This Christian reading doesn’t hold much merit. The Otherworld is presented as both alluring and menacing and the fairy King is not cast in the role of the villain. What’s more Heurodis is not being punished for any kind of sin or transgression, nor is she necessarily the victim of a targeted attack, but was merely a hapless victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But beneath all the symbolism and ambiguity, Sir Orfeo reads as a tale of loyalty and devotion. An exemplary fruit of the Celtic worldview, the poem involves spells and enchantment, a King who loses everything only to regain it after years of suffering, fidelity to spouse and to lord, love, and the all-powerful, magical properties of music.
And so beguiling is the atmosphere that permeates the whole poem, that so many centuries after its composition it still has the ability to mesmerize the reader and invite many more interpretations, as is the case with all fine artistic creations.