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Sir Orfeo is an anonymous Middle English narrative poem. It retells the story of Orpheus as a king rescuing his wife from the fairy king.

History and Manuscripts

Dated to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, it represents a mixture of the Greek myth of Orpheus with Celtic mythology and folklore concerning fairies, introduced into the Englishmarker culture via the Old French Breton lais of poets like Marie de France. 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.

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.


In the poem, Sir Orfeo, king of Thrace, loses his wife Heurodis (i.e. Eurydice) to the fairy king, who steals her away from under a ympe-tre (grafted tree) that happened to be haunted by the fairies, and takes her to his underworld kingdom. Orfeo, distraught by this, leaves his court and wanders in a forest. After ten years, he sees Heurodis riding past in the company of the fairy host. He follows them to the realm of the fairy king, where he entertains the fairy king by playing his harp. The fairy king, pleased with Orfeo's music, offers him the chance to choose a reward; he chooses Heurodis. Orfeo returns with Heurodis and reclaims his throne. The final action in the story is the testing his steward's loyalty upon his return.


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 Hades, 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 Winchestermarker", 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.

The poem's unique innovation, in comparison to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, is 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. . However, in a seminal article "The Dead and the Taken" 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"

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.



  • 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.

See also

External links

  • 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.

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