257. Sir Orfeo, an anonymous poem c. 1330

King Orfeo (Orpheus) travels to the court of the Faerie King to rescue his abducted queen Heurodis (Eurydice).

My version is found in the Everyman’s Library volume Piers Plowman and other poems, translated by one J. R. R. Tolkien.

Once his queen disappears, the King leaves his realm in the care of his steward and sets out to roam in solitude and grief

“Now all his kingdom he forsook,  only a beggar’s cloak he took, …

His harp yet bore he even so,  and barefoot from the gate did go …

Through wood and over moorland bleak, he now the wilderness doth seek,

and nothing finds to make him glad, but ever liveth lone and sad.

He once had ermine worn and vair, on bed had purple linen fair,

now on the heather hard doth lie, in leaves is wrapped and grasses dry.

He once had castles owned and towers, water and wild, and woods, and flowers,

now though it turn to frost or snow, this king with moss his bed must strow.

He once had many a noble knight, before him kneeling, ladies bright,

now nought to please him doth he keep, only wild serpents by him creep.”    

lines 227-252

After ten years have passed, he sees a parade of faerie folk hunting with hawks, the lovely Heurodis amongst them. He follows them to their kingdom where many people long thought dead are still living, although some seem to have been magicked here at the point of death. Orfeo is a master harpist and so pleases the Faerie Court that the King asks him to name his own reward, so Orfeo manages to regain Heurodis and return to his own realm. Unlike the Orpheus story, there is no looking back or last minute tragedy. But Orfeo still has to regain his throne – has the Steward kept his word and will he hand back the kingdom?

The rhyming is simple aabbcc … and easy to read and follow despite some archaic words which aid the rhyme and maintain the old world feel.

This seems to be the month for journeys to the Underworld, as this Middle English retelling of the Orpheus myth sits nicely alongside the more epic Divine Comedy of Dante. Even their real world creators reached out from the grave in a way, for like the last stanzas of Paradiso found after Dante’s death, this version of Orfeo was found after the death of Tolkien and edited for this volume by his son Christopher.

At only 16 pages, I could read this aloud in barely half an hour and entertain my long suffering dog Kimmy at the same time.

Personal rating:  6/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Huh? Did you say something?

In the years 1330-1339:

  • Beginning of the Hundred Years War, between England and France 1338

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