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sir orfeo and the franklin's tale

literary theory
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the novel
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Reason and Will 

in Sir Orfeo and The Franklin's Tale

Both The Franklin's Tale and Sir Orfeo are self proclaimed Breton lays, and as such emphasise their appeal to the heart for as the narrator says in Sir Orfeo, lays take the world of fairies and enchantment as their theme and ‘mest o loue thai beth.’ Later medieval lays often self-reflexively situate themselves within a genre of ‘pleasaunce’ in a way which can be seen in the context of the move from minstrel to court poet. In a sense both these lays are grounded on wish fulfilment, in Sir Orfeo as Lerer argues the narrator identifies himself with his hero, while in TFT the Franklin’s aspirations to gentillesse are encoded in his text. The indulgence of the heart over the head in these texts is however made paradoxical as a double plot progresses in both texts and a story of adventure and romance is enclosed within an allegorical lesson.

In Sir Orfeo the double plot is clearly divided, beginning with the focus on the private inner sphere of emotion, it moves from the loss of the queen which precipitates the loss of the kingdom, to the recuperation and recrowning. This move from private to public can be seen as a suppression of feminine will or emotion in a celebration of masculine reason. In TFT the initial courtly couple are transformed into husband and wife and the initial model of mutuality rather than maistrye can be seen as one which fails within a code where appearance is everything. 

In SO as Lucas has argued, the abduction of Heurodis tests both bonds of chivalric society, that of the king with his subjects and that of the king with his queen. These bonds can be seen as the aspects of reason and will in the tale, and in these terms, the ‘supernatural agent’ of romance threatening these bonds threatens the capacity of society to survive unchanged. Orfeo’s abandoning of his feudal role as a move from duty to devotion can be seen as a parallel to Arvergus and Dorigen’s new individualistic model for marriage. Devotion as service is prolonged beyond marriage in both texts, in a way which in Kittredge’s view challenges the idea that the courtly model is incompatible with marriage where the husband acquires maistery and the heart as feminine is ruled by the head of the household. 

Significantly both texts complicate the presentation of their heroines by compounding two models. Heurodis is presented as idealised courtly wife, but her role changes when she is abducted. Dorigen is the conventional courtly lady who becomes grieving wife, but her relationship with Aurelius suggests as Lumiansky points out, the continuance of her previous role. 

One scene in the text which demonstrates the fluctuation between heart and head in the text is Dorigen’s complaint where the excessive use of sententia as reason and lesson is compounded with the emotional outpouring of a ‘silly garrulous woman’. Burlin’s argument that the Franklin’s tragedy is juxtaposed with Chaucer’s comedy is relevant as it points to the way we are detached from the overdose of emotion and spared the Franklin’s over involvement, in a way which can be compared to the narrator’s disarming role in the Clerk's Tale.

Dorigen’s complaint can be set against Heurodis’s one long speech, which has been seen as a depiction of female hysteria. Within the Christianised allegory of a pagan myth, Heurodis is as Friedman points out the embodiment of worldly desire over spiritual, and the woman as temptation and regressive figures in earlier versions of Orfeo’s backward glance. 

Orfeo attempt to reason with Heurodis and restrain her from returning to the garden is part of his role as reason, as his rescue is a triumph of eloquence and argument rather than the perversion of a use of power. In his role as guide and teacher, releasing the human soul from the static underworld, he can be seen as a figure who resembles Arveragus in the exegetical reading, which argues that the end restores the proper authority of the master, the head, over the heart, one which had culpably been absent, whether metaphorically or in the literal "out of town" absences of Arvgeras. 

Yet this reading is ambiguous, in that Orfeo and Arvgeras in the guide and teacher role can also be seen as the ones who are taught. 

In Christianised reading of Sir Orfeo the hero receives Heurodis back as a gift of grace for his sacrifice. This second reading of Orfeo as the sinner who loses his soul and is restored can also be seen as Arveragus’s story, as his trawthe (in the sense of social honour) is given up for what Brewer sees as a greater trawthe of inner moral ideal. This gesture which ends in a double replication, a conversion of romance into moral and a demnade d’amour which is a humorous juxtaposition of bargaining and an aspiration to gentilisee.

The depiction of Orfeo and Arvergus as head and reason is complicated in both texts. This in part is linked to the way the women in both plots begin in a central role, unlike Emily in The Knight's Tale for example. Their roles are conventional, but they do to some extent present a challenge to reason, until they are pushed to the margins. As R.H Nicholson has argued, Heurodis is unusual in that she is given and then denied a place - she is turned into a trophy, in a similar way to Dorigen. Beyond this loss of autonomy however, both texts include aspects of role reversal. This is perhaps most obvious in TFT, as Arveragus renouncing of his trawthe is accomplished by a restoration of his maistery: he bursts into tears.

This collapses the ideal of mutuality as his orders are given on pain of death, yet it also inverts the roles of heart and head as he can be seen as the embodiment of a will which finds it difficult to accept clerks comedy ‘al is for the beste’. This is similar to Dorigen’s fixation with the rokkes blake which Burlin sees as a pitting of a petty desire over god’s will. The dissatisfaction, a parallel to Aurelius's unfulfilled longing and on the narrative level on Franklin’s class aspirations, is not controlled or put a stop to by reason. On the contrary, reason - Arveragus - is, like his wife, unable to extricate himself from conflicting trawthes. 

Heurodis acceptance of destiny can be seen in terms of a similar role reversal, as she tells Orfeo what she knows to be inevitable and what he cannot accept. His stylised grief and later abdication can be seen both as a "feminine", and more over an irresponsible giving in to will and heart, or as a way to hide his own failures. The abduction breaks his vow to his wife but also reveals his powerlessness - despite the 1000 knights, he cannot save his wife. Orfeo and Arvegarus’s emotional breakdowns like Walter’s "ynogh" can be seen as a revealing of the incapacity of head to rule wholly over heart. 

Ultimately both Dorigen and Heurodis as heart are pushed to the margins of the lays which celebrate gentilesse and kingly qualities yet in both texts reason exclusively is shows to be dangerous and tainting. 

In TFT the metaphorical badinage is made dangerous by the casuistical spirit of overliteralisation, in an ironic underlining of ‘reason’ carried to extremes, while in Sir Orfeo the reason Orfeo’s harp symbolises is dissociated from Heurdis, and is shown to be inadequate. Orfeo wins Heurodis not by the music which appeals to reason and heart but by the lies which pervert reason. In this depiction of the dangers of literalisation and the suppression of emotion, both texts can be interpreted as a return to the lay as a genre which allows for wish fulfilment and romance. 

written: 2007

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