From Orpheus to Sir Orfeo: The Anglicization of a Myth

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How does a myth from one culture become adopted into another, and what are the implications of its transmission? This is one of the questions to be wrestled with when dealing with the medieval Sir Orfeo. The version discussed here is recorded in the Auchinleck Manuscript, dated from about 1330-40 (Laskaya and Salisbury), and even though it is quite a unique tale in some ways, an informed reader will immediately recognize certain origins of Sir Orfeo to be found in the classical myth of Orpheus.

Of course, the most immediate difference between the classical myth and the Auchinleck's Sir Orfeo is, of course, language. One was originally written in Greek or Roman, depending on the classical source, while the other is in Middle English. Beyond languages, however, in what ways does Sir Orfeo retain its connection to the Orpheus myth and it what ways is it uniquely English? Robert Sanderson points out that in regards to Sir Orfeo the Orpheus myth was "not only to be translated into, in this case, Middle English, but also to be rewritten in the style of the period and place" (Sanderson). What might be inferred, then, about the society that produced the Auchinleck's Sir Orfeo based on the Anglo-Celtic elements that alter the "original" Orpheus myth? What follows is a brief examination of just some of the mythic elements in Sir Orfeo that traverse the passage between classical and anglicized.

Altered but Still Visible: Origin Elements in Sir Orfeo
New and Improved: Uniquely Anglo/Celtic Elements
Works Cited

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ltered but Still Visible: Elements of Classical Origins in Sir Orfeo:

A typical medieval English audience would have been familiar with the classical Orpheus myth, says Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis in his essay examining the Orpheus traditions of the Middle Ages. They would have been exposed to it "primarily from Ovid's Metamorphoses , Virgil's Georgics , and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy", although admittedly the Ovid was probably not as widely read as Ovide moralise, an anonymous compendium to Ovid which "twisted and distorted elements of the story to fit Christian doctrine and instruction" (Louis). This is not surprising, as even commentaries of the Bible were often read more than the Bible itself during this time period. In Ovid's version of the Orpheus myth, Eurydice is frolicking "o'er the flow'ry plain" when she is bitten by a snake and dies. She is taken to the underworld, and Orpheus mourns for her. He plays his harp so sweetly and sadly that even the king and queen of the underworld are moved with pity. They allow him to take Eurydice back to the world of the living, provided one thing: that he walks in front, leading her, and does not look back at her in any circumstances. Of course, as is typical in classical tragedy, he is overcome with worry and does look back, thereby losing is wife forever (Ovid).
The basic story in Sir Orfeo is strikingly similar. Heurodis, Orfeo's wife, is frolicking in a garden, falls asleep under grafted tree, and is stolen away by the King of Fairy. Sir Orfeo eventually plays his harp for the King of Fairy, gaining a boon which his uses to effect his wife's escape from the Fairy Kingdom. However, unlike the ultimately tragic Orpheus, Sir Orfeo does not lose his beloved forever, but is able to effect a successful rescue. After he returns home and regains his kingdom from his faithful steward, all is declared well and good. Is this "happy ending" more English that the tragic original? At the least, perhaps, it can be said to be more in keeping with the genre through which the story is being told, that is, the romantic lay. The lays of Marie de France, for example, are known for their happy endings, usually involving a marriage. This type of ending is generally considered characteristic of all medieval lays, both English and French, therefore the transformation from tragedy to comedy is almost necessary for the transmission from one genre (classical myth) to another (medieval lay), which in turn is an aspect of Anglicization.

What's in a Name?

Another immediately identifiable element that connects the classical Orpheus with the medieval Orfeo are the character names. The etymological connections between Orpheus/Orfeo and Heurodis/Eurydice are fairly obvious. It is interesting to note that especially in the case of Heurodis/Eurydice, the connection is far more audible than it is visual. This is most likely because of the highly oral nature of much of the transmission. The scribe who wrote Sir Orfeo likely felt the freedom to choose whatever spelling of names he liked, so long as the sound of the name stayed similar. Also, the spellings "Orfeo" and "Herodis" are also more anglicized than are "Orpheus" and "Eurydice", further familiarizing the heroes of the tale to their Middle English speaking/reading audience.

For more on audience and how they expirianced a text, see Jane Minogue's essay on audiences and readers.

Sir Orfeo's Parentage: a page from the Auchinleck Manuscript
Sir Orfeo's Parentage:

The beginning of Sir Orfeo contains an elaborate introduction to the hero that includes a discussion of his parentage. In fact, the passage that begins "Orfeo was a king" is the first line to appear in the Auchinleck Manuscript, as shown picture to the left. That the story would contain a 'genealogy' of this kind is wholly unsurprising in a narrative where establishing the main character's royal lineage is important. In order for the audience to accept that...

Orfeo was a king,
In Inglond an heighe lording, (l. 39-40)
(Sir Orfeo)
...some sort of proof must be offered that he is indeed royal. Thus the classical hero Orpheus, son of the Muse Calliope, (who may or may not have been readily known to the medieval audience) becomes associated with two more recognizable names: Juno and Pluto.

His fader was comen of King Pluto,
And his moder of King Juno,
That sum time were as godes yhold
For adventours that thai dede and told. (l. 43-46)
(Sir Orfeo)

Although Pluto and Juno were both easily recognizable as major gods in the classical pantheon, here in Sir Orfeo they are made mortal kings, in order to better suit them as ancestors for a Christian hero. The writer, however, seems aware that these names may be recognized as classical gods, and so he includes a 'disclaimer' of sorts: at least in the world of this story, Pluto and Juno are not gods, but they were once thought to be, due to their "adventours" and mighty deeds.

Location, Location, Location

In classical myth, Orpheus is often depicted as the king of Thrace. This element is included in Sir Orfeo, but like the hero's parentage it is tweaked slightly

This king sojournd in Traciens,
That was a cite of noble defens –
For Winchester was cleped tho
Traciens, withouten no. (l. 47-50)
(Sir Orfeo)
Orfeo still rules in Traciens (Thrace), but its location has been moved. "Traciens" is now Winchester, England. This relocation may be amusing at first glance, especially how the author emphasizes it, but it also shows an interesting reorientation of the classical location to a more familiar English location. The literary purpose of this relocation can only be guessed at, but it may have been to engender a sense of the familiar and further connect it to the Celtic mythic themes that continue throughout the work.

Further discussion on both the location passage and Orfeo's parentage can be found at my mini-web project Sir Orfeo: A Hero's Introduction.

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ew and Improved: Uniquely Anglo/Celtic Elements:

The Breton Lay

Sir Orfeo self-referentially claims to be a Breton lay, a genre of medieval storytelling originating in the heavily Celtic region of Brittany, France.

In Breteyne this layes were wrought,
First y-founde and forth y-brought, (l. 13-14)
Sir Orfeo)
Brittany, on the north coast of France, was populated by the Celtic Breton people who had also heavily populated England. Any Celtic myth elements were therefore likely to be quite familiar to an English audience as well as a Breton French one.Additionally, there is evidence that an earlier Breton lay may have been a source for Sir Orfeo. Robert Sanderson discussed the fact that several medieval texts contain references to what is called Lay d'Orphey, which was "another, earlier, Breton lay concerning Orpheus. This is one of the crucial stepping points for the transmission of the myth to the Middle English Sir Orfeo, unfortunately there are no surviving manuscripts or even fragments of it", and he goes on to add that "this is conceivably the major source for Sir Orfeo, and perhaps the Middle English is a translation of it, such as Sir Launfal is of Marie's Lanval. Unfortunately this cannot be verified, only surmised, as there are no extant texts" (Sanderson)
. It is a loss to medieval studies that this text has not been found, as it might have been quite helpful in determining how and why these Celtic, English, and classical myth elements were combined, and possibly even to discover whether or not Sir Orfeo is, at its essence, a classical story with overlayed Anglo-Celtic elements, or a Anglo-Celtic story with overlayed classical elements.

Influences of Celtic Myth:

Marie de France, as has been mentioned previously, is perhaps the most famous author of romantic lays. As is common with most romantic lays, "the lays of Marie de France usually describe some supernatural or fairy event or character" (Sanderson). Sir Orfeo may be by an unknown author, but it still shares this trait with the lays of Marie and as well as many other Breton lays.

There are several uniquely Celtic aspects to Sir Orfeo just a few of which are discussed below:

a page from the Auchinleck Manuscript The Symbolic "Ympe" Tree

The scene begins with Sir Orfeo's queen, Heurodis, going to play in the orchard with her maidens at "underentide", or late morning. Then Heurodis falls asleep beneath a "ympe-tre", which is "variously translated as "grafted tree," "orchard tree," and "apple tree"" (Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, Sir Orfeo Notes). She is beneath this tree when she is visited by the Fairy King who steals her away.

This ich quen, Dame Heurodis
Tok to maidens of priis,
And went in an undrentide
To play bi an orchardside,
To se the floures sprede and spring
And to here the foules sing.
Thai sett hem doun al thre
Under a fair ympe-tre,
(Sir Orfeo)

Being stolen away to the fairy realm from underneath a tree, especially a grafted tree, has long been a part of Celtic Mythology. For example, Tam Lin, the Scots-Celtic hero, was kidnapped from under an apple tree. Because of the heavily Celtic history of the region of Brittany, it is not surprising that influences from Celtic myth should find their way into an Anglicization of a classical myth. After all, Celtic myth would be quite familiar to the Middle English speakers, as England was still deeply permeated with the mythological influence of the Celtic people.

Additionally, there is other imagery in this scene that may evoke familiarity with Celtic mythology through a connection with yet another mythology: Arthurian. One of the most stereotypically "English" of myths, the Arthurian myth has its roots deep in Welsh-Celtic mythology. According to Sanderson, Sir Orfeo contains elements of the Arthurian that a Middle English audience would identify and feel familiar with. He claims it is "significant that the action takes place in May. The May opening topos is a very familiar one in Middle English and French romances, both long and short. Adventures seem to befall characters in Spring after they have been cooped up inside their lodgings over Winter. [...] The queen going into her garden to play with her maidens in May would seem very familiar to the audience, they know they are going to hear a good Arthurian tale" (Sanderson).

The Harp:

Paul Beekman Taylor's essay Sir Orfeo and the Minstrel King connects Sir Orfeo with Richard the Lionheart in several ways, pointing out similarities in stories surrounding the crusader king and the story in Sir Orfeo . On of the most significant ways is Sir Orfeo's profound gift for "harping", which is extensively extolled at the beginning of the text;

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Orfeo mest of ani thing
Lovede the gle of harping.
Siker was everi gode harpour
Of him to have miche honour.
Himself he lerned forto harp,
And leyd theron his wittes scharp;
He lerned so ther nothing was
A better harpour in no plas.(l. 25-32)
(Sir Orfeo)

Taylor points out that "In Sir Orfeo, the king is the finest of minstrels, just as Richard's popular sobriquet was, [...] Rex Menestrallus, "The Minstrel King." When he was duke of Aquitaine, he associated, as did Orfeo, with troubadours, and he indulged in poetic composition" (Taylor). Sir Orfeo is further anglicized by this connection to Richard the Lionheart, a familiar, beloved, and already legendary king for a Middle English audience. By connecting Orfeo's interests to a historical English king, the hero is given an immediacy and relevance he may not have otherwise had.

Additionally, one must note that Sir Orfeo's use of the harp is also deeply connected to that of the minstrels who would sing the Breton lays with which Sir Orfeo claims affiliation. This connection is further explored in Jane Minogue's essay Sir Orfeo and the Power of the Harp.

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We have explored several ways how Sir Orfeo was anglicized. What is not so obvious is why. It seems likely that Sir Orfeo may have been anglicized to give the story greater relevance and recognition, and thus perhaps greater popularity among Middle English audiences, than it might have enjoyed were it more "faithful" to the classical myth it was based upon. Unfortunately, on this point we can only speculate. Despite these lingering questions, both the classical Orpheus myth and the medieval Sir Orfeo continue to enchant readers to this day, and lead them to consider the both the intricacies of cultural transmission and transformation, as well as the timelessness of a good tale.

As the scribe of Sir Orfeo wrote:
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That lay "Orfeo" is y-hote;
Gode is the lay, swete is the note.
Thus com Sir Orfeo out of his care:
God graunt ous alle wele to fare! Amen! (l. 601-604)
Sir Orfeo)

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I, Rebecca Lawson am responsible for the layout and content of this site, and have made appropriate citations for research. No one is to duplicate the content here without proper attribution.
This is an assignment for ENGL 630ML with Professor Scott Kleinman at California State University Northridge.

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