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Disarming Sir Orfeo

Commentators on the Middle English Breton lai Sir Orfeo frequently describe it as ‘lovely’, ‘charming’ or ‘delightful’. Beyond this general perception that Sir Orfeo is a ‘good’ literary work, however, there is, as Jeff Rider notes, an “almost utter lack of accord among critics as to its interpretation” and this ‘lack of accord’ is particularly evident when it comes to discussing the Sir Orfeo with whom the lai is concerned. The instabilities stem not from the narrative itself but rather, as Anna Laskaya and Eve Salisbury argue, from “the juxtaposition of different avenues of interpretation” within it. The multiple layers of meaning – spiritual, emotional, political and textual - contained by and in the deceptively simple plot make it inevitable that “[e]ven the task of interpreting the major characters unravels a plethora of possibilities.” 

There have been, over the ages, a plethora of interpretations of the Orpheus myth itself. Boethius’s commentary was perhaps one of the most influential in the middle ages, giving rise to a tradition of moral or Christian allegorical readings where Eurydice was often taken to embody will, while Orpheus was seen to represent reason. But, in reading Christian mythology into the tale, the ambiguity is not resolved, but insistently resurfaces. Pierre Bersuire, in Reductorium Morale, implicitly acknowledged it in seeing Orpheus as both a Christ figure and sinner, in terms which can be applied to Orfeo’s character in the Breton lai. On the one hand, Orfeo can be seen as a Christ figure who foretells redemption, and who brings Heurodis as the human soul back to the upper world. On the other hand, if the text is read as the Christianised narrative of penance Kenneth Gros Louis believes it to be, Orfeo stands for the sinner who descends into netherworld and regains Heurodis as a gift of grace. 

Reading Sir Orfeo as a spiritual metaphor reveals the dichotomies personified in its central character - dichotomies which indicate that Orfeo cannot unproblematically be considered a hero. However, the allegorical view also to some extent elides the realism in the romance. Whether or not Orfeo is intended to be a symbolical figure, he is portrayed, from the beginning, as a historical personage. ‘Orfeo was a king/In Inglond an heighe lording.’ In one version, we are told that, far from having the innate, semi-divine musical talent of Calliope’s son, he ‘lerned forto harp/And leyde theron his wittes sharpe.’ This realistic detail points, as D. Ripley argues, to the kingly quality of fortitude and determination which are tested during his exile. Significantly, and in contrast to most romances where the forest is the space of fantasy, the hardships Orfeo encounters in exile are for the most part physical tests, in particular emphasising the lack of shelter. This is in obvious contrast to the enclosed world of the court, as the orchard Heurodis is stolen away from stands in contrast to the open wilderness. The many antitheses in this romance are foreshadowed early on in a much-quoted passage which inverts a familiar medieval image through the medieval topos of the upside-down world. Orfeo comes into the queen’s chamber and laments the change he finds in her: “thy bodi that was so white y-core/ with thine nails is all to-tore/allas thy rode, that was so red/Is al wan as thou were ded.” This ‘as though dead’ state is later recalled in Pluto’s courtyard, and the words ‘to-tore’ are by the end a familiar refrain, but more immediately Orfeo’s words signal his sense that something is fundamentally wrong.The ‘wrongness’ is underscored when Orfeo and his ten hundred knights are unable to fulfil their oath to ‘dye ther everichon/er the quen schuld fram hem gon’. At this point, the twin concerns of the story intersect, for as critics have often noted, the abduction of Heurodis is a double affront. It tests the vows of both duty and devotion, putting what Peter Lucas calls “the bonds of human society” under pressure. For while the fairy king’s magic invalidates Orfeo’s regal authority, it is not only a public vow which is broken, but also a private one: Orfeo’s “whider thou gost, ichil with the/and whider y, thou schalt with me”. Thus, Orfeo’s unwritten contracts with his subjects and his wife are simultaneously broken. It has been argued by some that this failure is a punishment for in succumbing to the sin of pride, as Orfeo presumes upon a value and a worth celebrated in the lai, but as yet untested. 

His reaction to this failure however, could be seen as demonstrating the difficulty the ideal of chivalry had in re-writing itself, in adapting to circumstances, and to the conflicts inherent in its triple codes of courtly, military and religious behaviour, an institution “on the borders of the sacred and profane” as Richard Barber put it. In Sir Orfeo, the idealised version of the real world chivalry presents, and the conviction that this vision can be made real, is attacked and challenged by the otherworld, itself an idealised, fantastical mirror to Orfeo’s court. Critics have often pointed to the ‘static’ quality of the fairy kingdom, embodied in the frozen scenes of the ‘taken’, seeing it as a world of suspended motion ‘moved’ by Orfeo’s song. It could be argued, however, that stasis is in fact also a characteristic of Orfeo himself, a stagnant timelessness symbolic of a chivalric world unable to accept a plurality of codes, an inflexibility which in crises destroys its own possibility of continuity, becoming almost nihilistic. This can be seen in the fact that Orfeo, in response to the breaking of his two vows, makes a third: ‘never eft y nil no woman se/into wilderness ichil te/and live ther evermore.’ 

Critics have frequently pointed out that Orfeo does not undertake a quest for Heurodis, but instead gives her up as lost and retreats into exile. This can be read in the context of medieval fatalism, the idea of a foreclosed destiny moving either according to divine will or to the blind changeability of Fortune’s wheel. It could also, however, be an indication of character progression, if compared to Orfeo’s earlier refusal to accept destiny. 

The question of character development is itself a point of critical debate. Felicity Riddy for example argues that Orfeo is “not the kind of character who can be said to ‘learn’ anything since he lacks…breadth of consciousness.” It is only ‘outward’ and observable behaviour which is emphasised; we are not shown the character’s inner life. Critics such as Mary Hynes-Berry however, see that the lai shows an emotional depth, and that the ‘outward’ in Sir Orfeo is also deeply concerned with the inward, the theme being primarily psychological. 

Question of development often look at the indications given by Orfeo’s initial reaction to the Heurodis’ dream. Here, readings of Orfeo as Heurodis’ “teacher and guide” have been criticised for not taking into account Heurodis’ independence, in her return to the orchard. This reading can however be inverted, with Heurodis as the teacher and guide, for from the beginning, she seems to know that her abduction is inevitable, and asks him to accept this: ‘ac now we mot delen ato’ and it is Orfeo who will not follow this guidance. 

Ostensibly, Orfeo’s fall or descent from civilisation into the natural world is self-willed, his exile self-imposed, although the choice he makes may indicate that, politically, he had no other choice: his continuation in his role as king without authority would have emptied this role of its significance, collapsing the ideal of kingship into its sign, the ‘croun’. 

On the emotional level, Orfeo’s giving up of the crown is often read positively as an attempt to keep his word to Heurodis, as the moment when devotion prevails over duty. On the other hand, however, Robert Sanderson sees Orfeo’s renunciation of power as another breaking of the agreement between a lord and his subjects, arguing that Orfeo “abandons his rule in a most irresponsible manner.” This completes the breakdown of the feudal system, already signified in that, even before they fail their queen, the knights fail their king: ‘he asketh conseyl at ich man/ac no man him help no can.’ The subjects who should advise their king cannot help him, and the king who should protect his subjects deserts them. 

Orfeo gives the abduction as the reason for his abdication ‘for now ichave mi quen y-lore’ yet it could be argued that there is potential for subterfuge here. Orfeo’s ‘y-lore’ is ambiguous, not directly acknowledging responsibility, and reflecting this vagueness, his speech as a whole avoids addressing the question of failure. Orfeo seems to find the idea of the unavoidability of destiny useful here, the sense that there’s nothing to be done is suggested both by his speech and by his determination that ‘it schal be so!’ words which recall Heurodis’ ‘that nought nis!’ While echoing her, his grief disguises the fact that he had believed he could alter the world, and conceals the failure of this attempt. 

Orfeo’s exile is at first spiritualised, and he is presented as a pilgrim: ‘al his kingdom he forsoke/bot a scavlin on him he toke…and dede him barfot out ate gate.’ Yet, once in the wilderness, he no longer seems to fit the type of the religious hermit. Instead, he becomes, as critics have often noted, the ‘Wild Man’ character that frequently appears in medieval romance, yet his wandering is curiously dissociated from its cause: unlike the characters who ‘woode wylde’ in chivalric romances such as Le Morte D’Arthur, there is no suggestion of madness or purposelessness in Sir Orfeo. 

In fact, while there is no quest, Orfeo does seem to be on a journey of self-discovery. Music, which in court was one sign of nobility and skill, is now ‘al his gle’: ‘his harp, whereon was al his gle/he hidde in an holwe tre.’ The iconic image of the harp is valuable in itself, as a semi-divine sign of power, and as such it forms a stable centre and focus for the text as a whole, but it also literally ensures that Orfeo remains the centre and focus of attention through the four major sections of the text. 

As Sanderson notes, Orfeo is never alone. He is always surrounded by listeners. This is most strikingly brought to our attention in the wilderness section, where we are told that ‘alle the wilde bestes that ther beth/for joi abouten him thai teth…and when he his harping lete wolde/ no best bi him abide nold.’ Orfeo’s power is his music, and in exile he comes to understand more fully the force he controls. Later, he will act the part of the minstrel in disguise both in Pluto’s court and in his own, yet there seems to be a slight irony in this situation, for Orfeo acts naturally, he puts on an appearance which is a reality. 

He is neither the religious hermit nor the grieving husband, nor even the exiled ruler, but rather the minstrel, the figure upon whom society depends on to communicate moral and social conventions. The bard sees and relates what he sees, and it is precisely at this point that the narrator relates what Orfeo sees to the audience. ‘he might se him besides/oft in hit undertides…’ Three scenes are described before he sees the ‘sexti levedis’, and among them Heurodis. It is significant that he sees the women some time before Heurodis appears. At this point, we realize that he has broken his third vow: ‘never eft y nil no woman se’ but at the same time, we see that recognising Heurodis brings about a radical shift in tone, from the initial ‘ther is fair game/thider ichil’ to ‘widerso this levedis ride/the selve way ichil streche.’ The end remains the same, but the motive has altered, and the form might reminds the reader of Orfeo’s promise ‘whider thou gost, ichil with the.’ 

The recommencement of the duties of devotion is signalled by the list of scenes – the hunt, the army, the dance - which often seem to mirror the world Orfeo left behind. “Otherworldness is reduced”, as Sanderson argues, and at times there is a conscious duplication of forms: most obviously in the 10,000 knights, but also in the description of the landscape. Sanderson believes that “the poet wants us to associate the Fairy King with Sir Orfeo to emphasis his theme of what a good ruler should be” and in a way the parallelism between the two characters extends beyond this. Pluto as feudal ruler, a king with his ‘fair and swete’ queen by his side, and the fairy court seems to be a mirror world, fantastical but familiar. Sanderson makes the point that if there had been a disparity between the two worlds, the laws of chivalrous behaviour would not have applied - Pluto would not have been under any obligation to fulfil his rash boon. On the other hand, Seth Lerer argues that the striking similarity between the two kingdoms is countered by subversion, as Pluto’s words “pervert the rhetorical rituals and conventions of civilised life.” That this is no ordinary court is made clear with Pluto’s first discourteous speech ‘y no fond never so folehardi man/that hider to ous durst wende.’ 

Orfeo’s response, and his way of winning Heurodis back, is one of the most ambiguous points of the poem. In a sense, it is a triumph of honour, restoring his honour through intelligence and skill rather than magic, while at the same time maintaining the ideal of an honourable code of conduct. Yet this interpretation can be seen as simplistic, if we consider Orfeo’s strategy, for if Pluto abducts Heurodis invisibly, Orfeo releases her incognito. He lies, in essence, when he pretends to be no more than a ‘pover menstrel’, while at the same time protesting the idea that a ‘gentil king’ can lie. 

It is significant that Pluto at first refuses Orfeo’s request because he says they would be a ‘sori couple’: that appearances may be deceiving is not relevant in a world where appearance is everything. And because the Fairy realm is to some extent a reflection of the real world, this implies that in Orfeo’s court too, the ‘croun’ is more than a signifier of kingship, it is kingship. 

The Otherworld presents another problem to the presentation of Orfeo as hero, though one that is only implied, in the courtyard scene. If the fairy kingdom is a reflection of Orfeo’s, then the grotesque tableaux in the castle courtyard could be interpreted as mirroring the atrocities of medieval life. The unnatural deaths described are thus indirectly a comment on the abuse of power and on the relationship between rulers and ruled. Robert Longsworth’s observation that “the poem portrays the unfamiliar hidden with the familiar…and reality disguised by appearance, or vice versa” is relevant here. Yet, as Longworth agrues that ‘the manner…belongs to the magician rather than the moralist. Playfulness…is the driving spirit of the work.’ 

Playfulness, and theatricality are present most noticeably towards the end, though they disguise a very serious purpose. It has often been noted that the double plot is unwound at the point when Orfeo resumes his kingly duties. We only see Heurodis as a character before her abduction, glimpsed in the wilderness she is silent, and once rescued seems to have played out her role. The heroine collapses into a token of kingship, a possession or trophy, whose loss precipitates the loss of the kingdom, and whose recuperation precipitates the restoration. As R.H Nicholson notes, she is “given a place and then that place is denied her.” She is literally kept on the margins, as Orfeo leaves her in the beggars ‘y-bilt ful narwe.’ He has regained one sign of kingship, his queen, and must now regain the other, his crown. 

Significantly the steward does not recognise Orfeo but the symbol of his power, the harp. Orfeo tells his second lie when he claims to have found the harp by ‘a man totorn smale,’ although critics have argued that this is at least psychologically true. It is perhaps also symbolically true, for the sign of the harp indicates the minstrel, as the crown indicates a king, and at this level of appearance as reality, Orfeo does not lie, in both cases he tells a disguised truth. The text’s pre-occupation with signs and with disguise is bound up in the presentation of the hero whose journey chronicles, more than the fall and rise of a ruler, the loss and recovery of the symbols of the ruler’s power. That this recovery is only achieved through disguise and disguised truths could be seen as a covert comment on the way rulers achieve, and exercise, their power. 

Ultimately, however, it is not shades of manipulation or deception but the harp itself which enables and validates his recuperation of both queen and crown, and critics have argued that the centrality of the harp and the minstrel disguise could be seen as indicating that the lai was composed by a minstrel. As Sanderson argues, the story often seems to be “full of wishfulfillment for a minstrel.” Seth Lerer makes the same point, as he suggests that the narrator “associate[es] himself with his minstrel hero.” 

This is central to the presentation of the central character as the complexities of Orfeo as king and as husband are finally flattened out, and the end is a rehearsal of a life already lived out, as Orfeo is reabsorbed into an inexorable historicity. Reversing the normal process, Orfeo names his heir even before he is newly crowned, and the summing up at the end, which informs the audience that the steward did go on to again become king, seems to negate the significance of Orfeo’s return to ruling, shifting the emphasis from Orfeo as ruler to Orfeo as the subject of the ‘harpours’ who made a lai and named it ‘Sir Orfeo.’ This self-referential note might indicate that, as Seth Lerer argues, “Sir Orfeo articulates a vision of arts power to reshape experience,” but it also takes possession, as far as Sir Orfeo is concerned, of the character of its hero as a subject for art, as well as a symbol of art’s civilising influence. Orfeo, who was in an earlier version ‘to-torn’ at the end, will be remembered, and re-membered through art. 

The end brings Sir Orfeo back into the fold of textuality and historicity, without resolving the questions raised by the character. Appearing as devoted husband, as exile, and finally, as returning hero, Orfeo’s roles seem stereotypical but the complexities the lai brings to these roles leaves us, ultimately, uncertain as to how far Orfeo can be considered an ideal figure. What seems certain is that the positive epithets applied to Sir Orfeo cannot uncomplicatedly be transferred to the title-character. 

written: 2007
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