Contributed by Joshua R. Eyler (University of Mississippi) and Emma E. Duncan (Rutgers University-Camden)
The discussion below is based on Legends and Satires from Mediæval Literature, Edited by Martha Hale Shackford, Ginn and Company, 1913, as preserved by the electronic Project Gutenberg. Shackford, in turn, reproduces the edition by D. Laing found in the reprint of Select Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1884). The poem runs from pages 139-60 in Shackford’s text, which is in the public domain after having been released on February 25, 2015.
The Middle English poem Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the famous story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the doomed lovers who tried, and failed, to transgress the boundaries of death. Unlike its ancient Greek and Roman source material, though, Orfeo (a king in this version) is successful in rescuing his wife Heurodis from the Otherworld, but only after abandoning his throne for ten years to search for her. Following their reunion, Orfeo regains his kingdom, which has been protected by a loyal steward in his absence, and all live happily ever after. Or do they? Therein lies the brilliant ambiguity of this often underappreciated poem.
In many readings of the text, the ending really does offer a satisfying resolution. This is especially true if we focus on the poem’s political overtones, as many scholars have. The issue of kings leaving their thrones would have been of particular interest to an English audience in the early or middle part of the fourteenth century, because the two kings who reigned during this time (Edward I and his son, the much-maligned Edward II) were frequently away from the country fighting wars with Scotland or on diplomatic expeditions. The conduct of those governing in the king’s stead would have been of utmost concern to nobles and commoners alike. The steward of the poem, then, is a kind of archetype of a faithful servant or even an embodied wish fulfillment on the part of the author. When Orfeo reveals himself to the court at the end of the poem, the steward falls “adoun to his fet; / So dede everich lord that ther sete, / And al thay sayd at o criing, / Ye beth our lord, sir, and our king” (ll. 441-44). This scene is clearly meant to portray ideal behavior when faced with both the absence and the return of a nation’s sovereign.
These highly public and overtly political aspects of the poem are only part of the story, however. The text also concerns itself with a much more private, personal tale about mental illness and the impact of this disability on a wife and a husband. Indeed, the poem challenges our understanding of disability in the Middle Ages by artfully using metaphors to uncover the nature of complex, deeply individualized responses to mental illness.
Following Penelope Doob’s classic Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature, many scholars who broached the subject of mental illness focused on Orfeo and the madness that seems to fall upon him as he wanders for ten years searching for his wife (ll. 200 ff.). But Orfeo’s condition is as much performative and affected (akin to Don Quixote’s in Cervantes’s later work) as it is a genuine result of his grief. The plight of Heurodis, on the other hand, is a central element of the text and is clearly legitimate and devastating.
Near the beginning of the poem, Heurodis falls asleep at “undren tide” (l. 27) underneath “a fair ympe tre” (l. 32), both of which have connections to the Otherworld of fairies in early British literature. She is subsequently kidnapped by a fairy king, and when she returns she is “reneyd out of her witt” (l. 44), her physical body unable to contain the emotional distress. There follows a heart-rending scene where she tells her husband Orfeo that she must leave him and go back to the Otherworld against her will. The next day she is forcibly removed to the Otherworld by fairies.
On the surface, this seems fairly straightforward. However, Susan Schoon Eberly’s work reveals that Celtic tradition had long used the world of fairies as a metaphor for mental illness. It is possible, then, to read the Otherworld in Sir Orfeo as an allegory related to Heurodis’s disability. She may not, in fact, actually go anywhere, but—instead—she loses herself in and her relationship is torn apart by her mental illness. Read this way, the reunion of husband and wife, and the restoration of the kingdom, may not be as happy an ending as we assume. After the rescue, Orfeo and Heurodis do not say a word to each other. In addition, he leaves her behind while he goes to regain his throne from the steward (l. 360). After his restoration, they are physically together, ruling as king and queen once more, but their lives have been forever altered, and we never again see the intimacy that made their interactions early in the poem so memorable.
Bliss, A. J., editor. Sir Orfeo. Oxford UP, 1954.
Caldwell, Ellen M. “The Heroism of Heurodis: Self-Mutilation and Restoration in Sir Orfeo.” Papers in Language and Literature, vol. 43, no. 3, 2007, pp. 291-310.
Craig, Leigh Ann. “The History of Madness and Mental Illness in the Middle Ages: Directions and Questions.” History Compass, vol. 10, no. 9, 2014, pp. 729-44.
Doob, Penelope B. R. Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature. Yale University Press, 1974.
Eberly, Susan Schoon. “Fairies and the Folklore of Disability.” The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, edited by Peter Narvaez, Garland, 1991, pp. 227-50.
Kendall, Elliot. “Family, Familia, and the Uncanny in Sir Orfeo.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol. 35, 2013, pp. 289-327.
Pearsall, Derek. “Madness in Sir Orfeo.” Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, edited by Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillian Rogers, and Judith Weiss, University of Wales Press, 1996, pp. 51-63.
Spearing, A. C. “Sir Orfeo: Madness and Gender.” The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance, edited by Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert, Longman, 2000, pp. 258-272.