Sir Orfeo

I have returned once more to the ol’ blog. I should really set myself a more regular schedule, but I lack the patience and fortitude to stick such a rigid chain on my life – turning things I enjoy into something I must do is a great way to ensure I would never blog!

Anyway, off with the usual preamble about my laziness when it comes to blogging, and on with the actual post. This week, I decided to write about the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo. It is an anonymous poem, written sometime between the very end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century. The poem itself is, based on the closing lines’ reference to Brittany, thought to be a loose translation of an older French poem, modified by the poet. None of this is very exciting, but I feel I ought to mention that the poem is from the Southern dialect, and, as such, is much easier for us to read than other poems of its time!

Anyway, the poem is a narrative one, of only 580 lines, so not an overly-Herculean task to read. The story is absolutely fascinating: it is, essentially, a retelling of the Greek myth of Oprheus and Eurydice. If the Dear Reader is unfamiliar, Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, died, and so Orpheus, king of Thrace, went into the underworld and charmed Hades with his famed harp-playing. Hades allowed Orpheus to take Eurydice back to the mortal realm, but told him not to look back at her till they both had come to the mortal realm.Sadly, Orpheus did not, and so Eurydice was returned to the underworld. I think it’s heartbreaking, but my brother did point out to me that this was the point – Orpheus’ love was so great that he could not. Of course, H D provides her thoughts on Orpheus…


This poem, though, is fascinating, as it has reinterpreted the Greek myth, mixed it all up with mediaeval romance, and thrown in a bit of good ol’ Celtic fairies for flavour. In this, Sir Orfeo is king of Winchester – the poet assures us that, in these ancient times, Winchester was actually known as Thrace – and Eurydice his wife. Then, one sad day, the King of Fairy-Land rides by Eurydice sleeping and, being the nasty sort of person Celtic fairies are, decided to drag her to Fairy-Land, and tear her limb from limb if she attempted to escape. Orfeo, in his misery, leaves Winchester in the hands of a regent, and wanders the forest for years, till one day he sights Eurydice and other ladies of the Fairy King’s court, and so follows her into Fairy-Land. Here, the Fairy King keeps those mortals whom he fancies, cursed ever to dwell in Fairy-Land.  From there, he tricks the king and amazes him with harp-playing, and so Eurydice is allowed to return to the mortal realm. Unlike the Greek myth, because English people weren’t apparently as bitter as Greeks, they return to Winchester and live long, happy lives, and no one is dragged back to Fairy Land. So yes, it is very interesting to see how the Mediaeval English took the Greek myths, and combined them with their own literary genres and folklore.

As for the poem itself. It is not the greatest poem ever to be found, nor the greatest example of Middle English (about which, in my opinion, I have already blogged). It is, though, quite pleasing to read. The foremost enjoyment is being able, with some work, to read the words of a poet some seven hundred years afterwards, in the same tongue. The poetry is well done, though. There is quite a great part, when Orfeo has gone into the woods, and the poem has a long list of what he once had, and what he has now. For example:

He that had y-had knightes of priis
Bifor him kneland, and levedis,
Now seth he nothing that him liketh,
Bot wilde wormes bi him striketh.

(he that had had knights of prize before him kneeling, and ladies, now se he nothing that he likes, but wild snakes by him glide)

I know it’s not the greatest. But I like it; I enjoy the contrast of knights and ladies, where now he has only widld snakes that go by him.

Or, again, when Sir Orfeo has entered Fairy-Land, and sees the fantastic castle, and all that lies around:

Al that lond was ever light,
For when it schuld be therk and night,
The riche stones light gonne
As bright as doth at none the sonne.
No man may telle, no thenche in thought,
The riche werk that ther was wrought.
Bi al thing him think that it is
The proude court of Paradis.   

(All that land was ever light, for when it should be dark and night, the rich stones begin to light, as bright as doth at noon the sun. No man may tell, nor think in thought, the rich work that there was wrought. By all things he thought that it is the proud court of paradise)

The description is enjoyable to read, and captures the magic of the scene, I feel. There is something so fantastic, and yet beautiful, about it, that it stays with one.

I fear the dinner is nearly done, so I shall not waffle for much longer. Sir Orfeo is a lot of fun to read. It gives a great picture of mediaeval English, and the story is interesting to read. In addition, the poem is nice and fun. I highly recommend it!

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