By Sarah Läseke
Published on Medievalists.net (2011)
When comparing Sir Orfeo to the classical version of the myth as found in Virgil and Ovid, several aspects clearly differ from the Roman sources. Orfeo regains his kingdom and his wife instead of being torn to pieces, the plot is set in the English early Middle Ages (“For Winchester was cleped tho Traciens, withouten no”(ll. 49-50)) and most noticeably, Heurodis is abducted to a mythical fairy world by the fairy king, rather than descending into the underworld after dying from a poisonous snake bite. Most of these changes can be traced back to another important influence on this poem: the Celtic tradition (Shepherd 345). Medieval Irish tales contained a large number of folklore elements and fairies played an important role in Celtic literature (Britannica). An example of this is the tale of Tochmarc Etaine, in which a king also loses his wife to a fairy prince (Shepherd 346). Breton minstrels were of Celtic origin and incorporated the Celtic mythology in their lays. Through these so-called Breton lays, which are short rhymed romances containing medieval chivalry combined with typical Celtic elements, the Celtic tradition influenced British medieval literature (Britannica). This explains the presence of a fairy world in a number of British romances (Paton 1). As these lays were transmitted orally, none have survived. However, several references in Old French texts to a “lai d’Orphey” suggest a Breton origin for Sir Orfeo (Kitredge 181), which explains the Celtic elements of the poem. Its representation of the fairy world has been a subject of debate for many years, with interpretations ranging between the fairy world as a metaphor for heaven and as a metaphor for hell. This essay will examine the nature of the fairy world and its inhabitants in Sir Orfeo. Taking the Celtic tradition, a detailed reading of the poem and the opinion of prominent academics into account, this essay will argue that the poet creates an essentially positive picture of the fairies and their kingdom.
The description of the outward appearance of the fairies and their kingdom is surprisingly positive considering Heurodis is threatened and subsequently abducted. After her encounter with the fairy knights and the fairy king, Heurodis describes the knights as “fair knightes wele y-armed al to rightes” (ll. 135-136) and she states that their clothes are “as white as milke” (l 146), which emphasises the positive impression of their outward appearance. The fairy king wears a crown which is “nas of silver, no of gold red, ac it was of a precious stone” (ll. 150-151). Mitchell therefore argues that it is not the fairies who cause Heurodis such distress, but the prospect that she will be separated from her husband (157). The description of their kingdom matches their beautiful appearance. Before being abducted, Heurodis describes the kingdom of the fairies as consisting of “castels and tours, rivers, forests, frith with flours” (ll. 159-160). In the classical version of the myth, Orpheus descends to the Hades or underworld, which medieval commentators on the myth equated with the Christian concept of hell (Friedman 142). However, the fairy world in Sir Orfeo resembles paradise rather than hell. After arriving in fairyland, Orfeo encounters a beautiful crystal palace, which make him “think that it is the proude court of Paradis (ll. 375-376). The location of the fairyland is typically Celtic rather than Christian (Rider 362), as Orfeo is able to enter it effortlessly. To enter the mysterious world of the fairies, Orfeo has to enter a rock, as the fairy ladies did, “in at a roche the levedis rideth – and he after, and nought abideth” (ll. 347-348). Therefore, the fairy world in Sir Orfeo is “neither and afterworld nor an underworld” (Friedman 190), but rather an otherworld, “a counter world to that of men” (Friedman 191). However, it is not completely positive. Just like Virgil who added both positive and negative elements to his description of the underworld in which Orpheus travels (Friedman 191), the Sir Orfeo poet added the description of torn apart and dead bodies in front of the fairy castle: “And sume a-strangled as thai ete, and sum were in water a-dreynt” (ll. 396-397). The presence of these eternally suffering and dying persons in the fairyland seem to refer to purgatory within the predominantly positive portrayal (Friedman 193). In conclusion, the poet of Sir Orfeo depicts the fairies and their kingdom mainly positively, even though a resemblance to purgatory is present.
This contradictory world houses creatures that also possess a negative and a positive side. Heurodis is kidnapped by fairy knights while sleeping under the “ympe-tre” (l 70), and their frequently riding in the words seems to suggest they are hunting for people. Convinced of their negative nature, Friedman claims that the poet explicitly connects the fairy king to Satan (190). He bases his argument on the fact that the fairy king appeared at noon, just as Satan does in traditional folklore. Furthermore, Friedman argues that the wounded, mad and dismembered people Orfeo finds at the courtyard of the fairy palace were torn apart by the fairies themselves, as the fairy king threatened to “tore thine limes al” (l 171) if Heurodis did not obey his command to return to the ympre-tre (194). However, this negative view on the fairies and their king does not fit in with the general picture of fairies and their behaviour. The fairies do not kidnap people from the real world at random, but they take those whose were about to suffer a sudden and unnatural death (Jirsa 148). These people were not murdered or tortured by the fairies, but merely “taken into some realm beyond the mortal one, from which these victims could often be reclaimed” (Jirsa 148). Heurodis, of course, seems to be an exception, but she exposed herself to the magical powers of the fairies by falling asleep under an ympe-tre at noon (Sir Orfeo 176, notes 6 and 7), and Orfeo finds her unharmed in the fairy kingdom.
The king of the fairies himself does not exhibit any negative behaviour towards Orfeo either. On the contrary, he proves himself to be a polite and hospitable host. Without objection, he keeps his promise of rewarding Orfeo for his music and even wishes him and Heurodis well. The occupations of the other fairies the poet describes – hunting, riding and dancing – are also peaceful and harmless, and the poet calls the fairies “gentil and jolif as brid on ris”(l 305). The suffering people Orfeo encounters in the courtyard are in fact the only negative element in the otherwise innocent fairy world. Mitchell goes as far as to claim that the courtyard passage must be an interpolation by an early scribe (157). His assumption seems plausible when comparing the poem to the general representation of the fairy world one finds in other Celtic tales. Kittredge discusses a few Celtic tales, and concludes that the fairy world is represented as “bright and noble, in which is not spoken falsehood or guile” (197). The typical Celtic fairy, he states, is “a being of human stature, wonderful beauty, and extraordinary powers” (197). Rider also confirms that, although there was uncertainty regarding the true nature of fairies, “fairies were never devils” (15). Overall, the Sir Orfeo poet presents his audience with a distinctly positive picture of the mythical fairy world and its inhabitants.
The positive portrayal of the fairy world in Sir Orfeo is surprising to a modern reader as it contradicts the typical narrative structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. However, the only distinctly negative feature of the fairy world, the suffering humans at the courtyard, does not lead to a negative portrayal of the fairies. It may very well be a later interpolation, and even if it was part of the original poem, it need not mean that the fairies are guilty of causing any pain or suffering. When one analyses the descriptions of the fairies and their occupations it becomes clear that, although the fairies are of a supernatural and mysterious nature, the Orfeo poet depicts their world as a paradise and the fairies themselves as polite and friendly beings.
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