Said to have been be composed in the late 13th, early 14th century, the tale of ‘Sir Orfeo’ ties together elements of the past and present, highlighting that there are minimal bounds concerning literature and its place in time. Written by an unknown author, Sir Orfeo is loosely adapted from the earlier Ancient Greek classic ‘Orpheus and Eudyice’. The poem Sir Orfeo allows the reader to explore the story in its new medieval context, thus allowing people appreciate how literature is able to develop through time and become venerable and influenced by its contextual placement. From as early as the 6th Century B.C, the myth of Orpheus had circulated the western world, and is heavily noted in both literature and Greek art, this continues to develop through the following centuries was well-represented by medieval authors such as Ovid and Virgil. It is certain the medieval audience would have been familiar with these works. The ancient myths of Orpheus have echoed through time, thus leaving Sir Orfeo open to interpretation. Entwined within ‘Sir Orfeo’ we are able to see evidence of numerous contexts inviting the audience to explore the ambiguity within the poem, especially when considering the placement of time.
The poem itself lends its style to the form of a Breton lay, although it is still set on its original classical theme by entwining the stories of the past ‘We redeth oft….Layes’ and developing them in their new founded context.
In contrast, earlier tales from the classical period were passed from one generation to the next in oral form, often though the use of a bard and later likely to have been adapted and polished by minstrels.
The opening line of Sir Orfeo highlights the developing world of literature, typical of the renaissance period. The stress is very much on the written form of the poem and we are drawn to the image of a reader and a text, thus marking a change in literary traditions. It is of my opinion that the writer wanted this change to be noticed and marks this period which would naturally raise levels of ingenuity, within the world of literature.
We redeth oft and findeth y-write,
And this clerkes wele it wite,
Layes that ben in harping
Ben y-founde of ferli thing:
Moreover, the opening lines of the prologue invites the reader to question the use of the word ‘we’, implying Ofero is collectively addressing his fellow scholars by noting the present use of the historical story and allowing an audience to gage where they are in time, whilst also noting its original passage in time in the classical period. Breton lays were routinely accompanied with music and in Sir Orfeo, the harp in particular becomes a strong motif and again allows the reader to explore its versatile meanings. The harp is symbolic of Celtic culture:
The Dagda … played for them the three things by which a harper is known: sleep music, joyful music, and sorrowful music. He played sorrowful music for them so that their tearful women wept. He played joyful music for them so that their women and boys laughed. He played sleep music for them so that the hosts sleep
Elizabeth A. Gray (translator), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired
The harp or Harper is heavily noted in Celtic culture and folk law and is representative of the power of music and its magical qualities.
Furthermore, The authors use of ‘harping’ is used as a devise to remind the audience that we are separated from the world in which the tale is set, running parallel to the separation of Orpheus and his connection to the land of the ‘ferli’. In Sir Orpheo the harp aids Orpheo when connecting with the fairy world. The symbol of the harp and its mystical capabilities also invite the reader to question the lay as a magical entity of its own.
Reinforcing the element of time, the character of Sir Orfeo has also developed from that of his ancient ancestor ‘Orpheus’. Differentiating, the main character Orfeo is no longer portrayed as a hero who has the power to descend into the ‘other worlds’, switching between the realms of the human world and that of the immortals.
Orfeo was a king,
In Inglond an heighe lording,
A stalworth man and hardi bo;
Large and curteys he was also.
His fader was comen of King Pluto,
And his moder of King Juno,
The opening, singular line of the tale stands out to the reader, by introducing Sir Orfeo as ‘a king’, the author introduces a new founded medieval Orfeo. Allowing the reader the reader to notice he has been stripped of his classical status as leader and that Orfeo belongs very much to the medieval period. Orfeo is able to portray a time and culture of different values, a time where social interaction was of importance, he no longer has the magical powers in order to enter the land of the fairies. Rather, he has to rely heavily on chivalry and by wooing the King of the fairies through the use of his music, again highlighting the heavy Celtic influence that weaves its way throughout the poem. Referring to Orfeo as ‘heighe lording’ continues to modernise the poem in a new found context, by showing the importance of Orfeo’s status. Orpheos description is portraying his ‘pedigree’ status and romanticises his character, typical of Breton lay form. Interestingly, the author takes the reader even further back in time, to the classical period where ‘King Pluto’ and ‘King Juno’ were Gods not Kings, again highlighting the lay’s rhetorical strategy and also allowing the audience to note the pre-Christian context. In Chaucer’s’ A Merchants Tale portrays Pluto as the ‘King of the fayerye’.
Bringing the audience back to the present time, the writer informs the audience of where the poem is set and where the story will imminently unfold.
This king sojournd in Traciens,
That was a cite of noble defens –
For Winchester was cleped tho
The writer continues to conflate the idea of time but also conflated place. The audience are aware that the play in set in England yet ‘Thracians’ implies we are still in ancient Greece.
The differentiating contextual influences continue to be woven throughout the poem. Herodis’ encounter with the fairy world by falling asleep under a tree highlights Nature as a key theme throughout Sir Orfeo. Nature is a theme that is open to interpretation, interestingly; it sits at the heart of Celtic tradition and can also be viewed to have biblical connotations. The imagery of the tree is also representative of the Genesis, for the reader it becomes difficult to ignore the analogy of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, thus associating a mystical darkness with trees in general. Allowing the audience to question the significance of the ‘tree’ in medieval literature and its representation of a force not human. The ‘ympe-tree’ represents a portal to the other worlds, equally in the Breton lay Sir Degare, a fairy and a woman meet under a chestnut tree, proving a common theme in medieval literature.
That slepeth under the ympe-tree
Moreover, in Irish Celtic folklore, it is common for sleep to represent an eerie state, which has the ability to allow one to pass over to other lands, enabling us to wonder where this land is and where in time this other land exists. This suggests that Sir Orfeo is rooted deeply with Celtic culture. Celtic hero Cú Chulainn crosses over into realms of the other worlds through his sleep in The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn:
and for one man to eat his fill of its flesh and its broth, and to sleep after that meal; and for four druids to chant a spell of truth over him. And the form of the man to be made king used to be shown to him in a dream, his shape and his description, and the manner of work that he was doing.
Dillon, Myles (translator), The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn
Again, this draws upon the idea of sleep as a portal to an ambiguous world, where immortal beings live in a place that is mystical and appears to differ in time from that of the mortal world. It is also important to notice the importance of the time of day as ‘noon’ appears to represent a perilous time in both biblical and medieval literature.
So sche slepe til after none,
That undertide was al y-done
The idea that noon is a time that unites different worlds and a time representative of unsureness and unease, especially for medieval audience. Many literary greats have touched upon this idea in mythical writings. From Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:
In every bussh or under every tree
Ther is noon oother incubus but he
The idea that at noon, one can come into contact with a ‘noon day deamon’ was commonly referred to in literature of this time. Written in Latin in the 14th century, The Vulgate quotes ‘deliver me from the snare of the hunters . . . from hostile attack, and from the noon-day demon’, and proves there is a direct religious element to Sir Orfeo. We are able to see the common link when Herodis is kidnapped to the fairy kingdom after the use of this representation within the text.
The image of Sir Orfeo wandering into the wilderness builds upon the theme of nature and land, a familiar theme in Celtic Irish Literature. This passage is rhetoric of the original Greek story of ‘Orpheus and Eudyice’. In contrast to the classical version, Sir Orfeo banishes himself into the wild as a reaction to the loss of his Queen. For the reader, we are able to see significance in that Orfeo does not actually go to seek Herodis as classical Orpheus did. Instead, Orpheos’ isolation appears to be in response to his grief and heartache.
Lord! who may telle the sore
This king sufferd ten yere and more?
Orpheo appears to desire to suffer. Emotion is overwhelming and to a modern audience it appears daft that Orpheo would abandon his work, banishing himself from his kingdom for a broken heart. This reaction is standard of a Breton lay and emphasises that the play indeed is very much early romantic in style. (Rash boon). Mention about style format of the Breton Lay itself.
In Early Celtic Irish literature to modern day Irish Literature, The Queen or ‘Lady of the land’ was a symbolic reference to Ireland itself. To lose a queen was often a metaphor for the loss of the land, which was of all importance in Irish culture. This metaphor was used to highlight grief and sorrow and the author could be using Orpheus as a tool to explore this idea.
It becomes difficult to ignore that it is only after Orpheo strips himself of his possessions and robes that he enters the wilderness. As though one can only truly engage with nature once you are relieved of your mortal possessions, thus the author is enabling the reader question is nature as mystical world of its own and where its placement belongs in time, the mere fact that Orfeo’s wonderings last for a period of ten years denotes the writer could be deliberately wanting the reader to question this idea. The period of ten years is heavily denoted throughout literature, for example in homers Odyssey and early Greek Classics, journeys of significance often last for periods of 10 years.
Sir Orpheo is a solid example of how literature has the power to adapt and develop through time, thus always having significant meaning and values. A more modern example of how a play or literature can engage the past and present, is Timberlake Wertenbakers Our Country’s good, as in Sir Orfeo the placement of time echoes throughout the piece; character Wisehammer speaks ‘It doesn’t matter when a play is set. It’s better if it’s set in the past, it’s clearer. It’s easier to understand’.
Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (edited by) Sir Degare.
Originally Published in The Middle English Breton Lays
Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995
Elizabeth A. Gray (translator)- The Second Battle of Mag Tuired – 9th Century http://www.druidry.co.uk/bardmusic.html
Geoffory Chaucer – A Merchants Tale – Graham D. Caie – York Press (1982)
Maelmuiri mac Ceileachair. The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn Source: Transcribed from The Lost Yellow Book of Slane
Timberlake Wertenbaker – Our Countrys Good – Penguin edition