Sir Orfew

 The Text: This lai survives in only one manuscript, the same one which preserves "Lay le Freine" and "Sir Degaré." It usually is called the Auchinleck MS. Advocates 19.2.1, a famous compilation of romances which you can access online at the National Library of Scotland website (co-edited by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins).  Visit this site and click on the "Contents" link on the upper left corner of the page.  That will give you an idea of the context in which a medieval reader might have encountered this rewriting of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Rather than a "book" about a single person, or containing a collection thematically unified by the topic "Breton lais" (e.g., Thomas Rumble's print edition), this manuscript resembles a specialized library.  It mingles secular chivalric romances ("Of Artour and Merlyn") with religious narratives like saints' legends, a short chronicle, and the "Battle Abbey Roll," a list of last names of important landowners near this this famous East Sussex monastery. 

The Tale: Wise, sweet, and mysterious, this is perhaps the least representative and most highly evolved of the Breton lais in Middle English. Its origins in Ovid’s tale of Orpheus and Eurydice (Metamorphoses) mark it as probably a late, humanist-influenced tale, but its treatment is resolutely medieval. We’ve seen Chaucer recycling creatively Ovid’s old material in Book of the Duchess, and Ovid is also known to medieval readers through the Ovíde moralisé, which explicates the meaning of Ovid’s pagan tales by using Christian hermeneutics. The use of this matter here seems driven by a desire to give structure to "faerielond" and to make Orfew’s quest a suitably great goal. However, Ovid also is renowned as a poet with unusually astute insight into human psychological conditions. Can you see evidence here that the lai reaches that kind of insight?

Study questions—

1) The opening establishes several formulaic relationships between author and audience, and between both of them and the tale’s material. It’s about love’s primacy, Spring’s beauty, our ancestors’ interest in worthy tales, and their desire that the tales be preserved. Orfew fits right in here in his love of music and musicians, and in his willingness to lay aside his noble hauteur a bit in order to learn to play the harp. This combination of humble diligence in service of art and noble generosity marks his behavior throughout the lai. What kind of social modeling is our poet doing for his audience, and how might it affect their reception of the tale?

2) When Dame Meroudys takes her fateful journey into the forest in May, she’s doing something the noble audience apparently took for granted as a crucial secular seasonal celebration (again, see the "May" plate in the Duc du Barry’s "Tres Riches Heures"). Like the lost mother of Degaré, however, she falls asleep "under an hympe tre" (an "imped" or grafted fruit tree which can bear fruits from varieties other than that of its root stock). For another view of the process of "imping" or grafting, see George Herbert’s famous "Easter Wings" where it involves the artful grafting of divine poetic inspiration to mortal poetic style ("if I imp my wing on thine"), and Andrew Marvell’s "The Mower Against Gardens," where it represents humanity’s dangerous meddling with natural reproduction that corrupts the garden with unhealthy richness. The verb "to imp" clearly suggests something about how strange and faerie-like this technique seemed to medieval people. Why is the shade of such a tree the place where you would expect the king of the faeries to seize access to the sleeping Meroudys?

3) Orfew’s stalwart response to his distraught wife’s frantic grief deserves to be remembered as a fine statement of loyalty, but notice it’s also beautifully written, with chiastically parallel clauses. That is, each of the two clauses of the compound sentence repeats, in reverse, order the statement of the other ("Wer thou arte, I wol be wyth the, / And wher I am, thou shall be wyth me!" [ll. 117-8]).  Could we possibly expect that the poet has given his artist-king a distinctive poetically accomplished voice?

4) Meroudys’ story is a terrible form of the dream-vision, one of those diabolical types the medieval audience would have been terrified of, but one of eerie beauty according to codes of courtly aesthetics. How does the poet mix the gorgeous with the terrifying to create this mixed mode and what might it be saying about the values of the faerie court vs. Orfew’s?

5) Orfew’s steward is given a dangerous charge (compare Gowther’s "old earl). The steward must account for all that goes on in the kingdom, though his authority is borrowed from an increasingly easy to forget, absent lord. A returning lord may be expected to examine accounts suspiciously for signs his steward has embezzled or prepared a trap for him by undermining the loyalty of his retainers. Does the manner of the king’s leave taking seem to take this into account, and what expectations might this set up in the audience’s minds?

6) Orfew’s wandering amid the wild beasts could be understood as a penitential journey (cf. Gowther’s and, later, Gawain's in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"), but its events are frequently marked by the poet’s reminders of his loss of kingly estate and his paradoxical new poverty. The sudden appearance of the king of faeries’ royal progress, with all those trappings of noble court finery (falcons, jewels, horses) dramatically re-emphasizes the king’s reversal of fortune. His confrontation with Meroudys clinches the transformation when she can’t recognize him for his wretched appearance. What is this kind of journey when it occurs in myth, and what might that mean for us, if myths are really about the fortunes of our lives?

7) When Orfew encounters the faerie palace and enters its gates, we suddenly are struck by the Ovidian element in this tale when the outer circle of the court is populated by the multitudinous dead, wounded and sad even as they were when they died. The juxtaposition of the faerie riches with this ghastly assembly is meant to be shocking. What is the author’s intention in doing this?

8) The king of faeries’ speech continues the Ovidian story line by pointing out that people don’t usually seek his realm without a summons. Here the poet turns the tale again to a story about artists and nobility when Orfew calls himself "a povre mynstrelle" and says it’s a minstrel’s custom to go into strange courts in order to offer their music. How does this shape the poet’s relationship to his own audience?

9) The king’s "rash boon" (435-9) sets up Orfew’s chance to regain his wife, his former identity, and his kingdom, but it almost doesn’t happen when the king first refuses to honor his boon. On what grounds does the king object to it, on what grounds does Orfew defend it, and what does that mean about the collision between artist and noble or mortal and faerie?

10) To those who know Ovid’s version, the rapid and successful escape of Orfew and Meroudys from the land of the dead/faeries should be a complete surprise. Obviously our poet’s focus is elsewhere, and it quickly becomes obvious that the steward’s testing will be the real conclusion of this tale. How does the steward's loyalty relate to the rescue of Meroudys by Orfew? Are we the stewards of those we love?

For some paper topic ideas involving the lais use of conflicting cultural codes, click here.