Feb. 2: Sir Orfeo

In Sir Orfeo, the Fairy King first does an evil deed by stealing away King Orfeo’s wife. Then, at the end, he does a good deed by following through with his promise (though reluctantly) and awarding Orfeo his wife. After reading this Lay, do you think the Fairy King to be good, evil, or neither?

13 thoughts on “Feb. 2: Sir Orfeo

  1. I believe the Fairy King to be evil. He captures and even kills various victims, as Sir Orfeo sees when he goes to the palace, observing “sum ded and sum awedde” (400). The Fairy King proceeds to keep these people he has tormented as trophies in his palace. The physical damage he has done to Heurodis was bad enough, but she is also clearly mentally traumatized, as she was “revised out of hir wit” immediately following the attack (82). Anyone capable of inflicting so much damage to not one, but multiple people, is evil. Even though he rewards Orfeo with his wife, he does so begrudgingly, after being influenced by the sweet harp music (which seems to have hypnotic effects) and calling Orfeo repulsive. Giving Orfeo his wife back does not redeem the Fairy Knight for his past actions.

  2. I think the Fairy King to be neither good nor evil. In the narrative there was only one moment in which the fairies were seen as malicious which was when they were stealing Queen Heurodis “under a fair ympe-tre” (70). The Fairy King does not harm Queen Heruodis in all the time was kept captive. Queen Heruodis even seemed to be enjoying herself when she was with “sexti levedis on hors ride” through the (304). The fairies in general are also described as “gentil and jolif as brid on ris” which adds a positive light to their character (305). Overall the kingdom of the fairies is described as a sort of paradise, filled with beauty and awe as the kingdom is also covered with “rivers, forestes, frith with flours”(160). Despite the Fairy King’s reluctance to give over Queen Heruodis, he was kept true to his promise and gave her back with out any trickery. The Fairy King was also a kind and polite host when Sir Orfeo was present. Through these actions, I think it is hard to judge the Fairy King’s character as being good or evil. Overall the author seems to paint a positive and magical characterization on the fairy world as a whole by the deep description of their world as well as their clothes (being “white as milke were her wedes”(146)).

  3. The Fairy King is a wicked character. Everything he does stems from deep selfish motives within his heart. At the beginning of the poem he goes and steals Sir Orfeo’s wife. He had no right to do that; he just wanted her for his own selfish enjoyment. He clearly kidnaps her because he tells her “and yif thou makest ous y-let/ What thou be, thou worst y-fet” (169-170). He essentially tells her that you are coming with me and, you have no choice in the matter. Clearly this action stems from a cruel and wicked heart. Now the one action that could possibly redeem the Fairy King’s character occurs when he gives back Sir Orfeo his wife, but even this act is one of self-preservation. He gives him Heurodis to preserve his own reputation, not because he is a good guy. He gives her out of pure spite when Sir Orfeo accuses him of speaking falsely (465). He is certainly an evil character who acts out of selfishness throughout the whole poem.

  4. Most of the Fairy King’s deeds are selfish and immoral and therefore I’d consider him an “evil” character more so than not. Although he doesn’t seem to harm his captives, he takes these people against their will for his own pleasure. In the end, when he reluctantly rejoins Sir Orfeo and his wife, I do not believe it is from a change of heart or even sympathy for Sir Orfeo. In these times, someone’s word meant a lot more than it seems to today. Going back on his promise would make the Fairy King himself look bad, and therefore he felt he must keep his promise and part with Heurodis.

    • I agree with the comment that “someone’s word meant a lot more than it seems today.” I think it’s interesting that an underlying sense of chivalry and honor is still relavent even in the supernatural realm of the fairy king’s Otherworld. Even though the fairy king is clearly the villain of the story, he must still abide by the code of courtly politeness and duty. Even Orfeo calls the fairy king on his error when he first refuses Orfeo’s request for the queen: “What ich wold aski, have y schold, And nedes thou most thi word hold” (467-468). Even though he is a fairy, he’s also a king, and therefore his only choice is to be true to his word.

  5. Though the Fairy King has many immoral qualities, I do not believe him to be wholly “evil.” Evil is a strong descriptor, and a confining one. The Fairy King is certainly self-involved and seems to mostly kidnap people on a whim, but he also does decent things. His kingdom itself is beautiful and plentiful, and his subjects, the fairies, are cheerful and cared for. Though he kidnapped the queen, when Sir Orfeo asks for her as a reward for his beautiful music, he at first refuses on the grounds that Sir Orfeo is “lene, row, and blac” while the queen is “lovesum without lac.” Though he initially refuses the couple mostly for aesthetic reasons, it still reveals a semblance of care for what happens to his victims. He gives in to keep his word, another semi-noble attitude. The king is by no means moral, but to say that he is evil would be a vast overstatement.

  6. I think that, like his classical Greek counterpart, Hades, the Fairy King is neither good nor evil. What he does is objectively terrible; I mean, he kidnapped a woman. While his actions are immoral, his motivations seem rather ambiguous. The fairies, however, seem to be natural, even good occasionally. The poet describes the Otherworld as “The proude court of Paradis” (p. 154, 376). Evil things do not generally live in paradise. And the Fairy King keeps his word when he returns Heurodis to Orfeo. The fairies seem to be part of nature and thus apathetic to the exploits of humans.

    • I completely agree with what you are saying. Comparing the Fairy King to Hades is exactly how my mind interpreted this text. To further this comparison, Hades kidnapped Persephone and takes her to the underworld against her will much like the Fairy King did With Queen Heurodis. Neither woman can leave either. It isn’t until someone comes, in our text Sir Orfeo and in the Greek myth Demeter, to make a deal to release the kidnapped. Once the deal has been made both the Fairy King and Hades unwillingly release their captives.
      In this light, I believe the Fairy King might be more misunderstood than evil or good. I believe he has intentions of doing good and might even be good in the eyes of the Fairy people, as you stated in your response, but to the world of humans his actions are evil and destructive and selfish.

  7. I think that while the fairy king is certainly not a good guy, I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that’s “evil.” At first he’s pretty horrible, kidnapping Heurodis and saying that if she refuses to come with him he’s going to “totore thine limes” (line 171) which translates to “tearing her limb from limb.” But after that initial bit of horridness he doesn’t actually seem so bad. As someone mentioned in one of the the earlier responses, his realm is described as being somewhat of a “paradise.” Yes, there are decapitated people but that doesn’t mean that the fairy king necessarily killed them. If it’s anything like the Greek story then he houses the dead along with those whom he brings into the Otherworld. Heurodis doesn’t even really seem to mind the place by the time that Orfeo gets there.
    The fairy king also does go through with his promise to Orfeo with no loopholes (unlike Hades in the Greek version). It’s kind of hard to look past that initial appearance that he makes, but after the kidnapping the fairy king just seems more a like a guy with too much power and a twisted sense of company.

  8. I think the Fairy King is meant to serve as the antagonist of the poem, and while the antagonist is typically seen as “evil,” the characterization does not completely fit for the Fairy King. There must be a distinction between evil actions and an evil character. The Fairy King’s decision to take Queen Heurodis without her consent was an evil action; however, an evil action does not an evil character make. As others have addressed, Heurodis was not treated poorly in the kingdom. In fact, the imagery almost makes it seem like a paradise of sorts with flowing rivers, flowers, and meadows (160). Additionally, the other fairies appear to be angelic creatures: “Y no seighe never yet bifore / So fair creatours y-core” (147-148). This picture of pure fairies in a serene meadow makes it hard to imagine that their king is a cruel, evil ruler. As others have mentioned, Heurodis was not treated poorly during her time in the kingdom and the Fairy King did keep to his word in agreeing to let Sir Orfeo take Heurodis back. Overall, although he performed an evil action the treatment of Heurodis and his kingdom shows that he is not a wholly evil person.

  9. Instead of being good or evil, two qualities of characters we as readers often settle for in our judgement of their moral position, I find the fairy king to be simply curious if not bored. While the actions of the King and his fairy-men can be interpreted as morally wrong, we must first examine who the king is before we make judgement. Our mystery author builds his Medieval poem around the framework of the classic myth Orpheus. Like Hades in Orpheus who dwells beneath the earth, the hall of the Fairy King lives somewhere no man “nist in wiche thede” (494). This foreign quality in both characters reflects the belief that they are not of men but are more in power and mortality. It is understandble to imagine as we see in countless tales, A godlike being growing bored of his lands even if it may be “The proude court of Paradis” (376). His time in the realms of men would be incomplete if he did not bring back with him the finest of all women in the land. In theory he probably planned to take her in her sleep, her untroubled abduction would lead to little physical harm and leave Orfeo forever curious of his fair Queen’s whereabouts. Instead our seemingly benevolent antagonist fails in stealth and must react quickly if he will take the panicking Queen. This folly, and the resulting carnage received by the Queen is why I believe the Fairy King acted as nobly as he did when Sir Orfeo’s bravery grants him passage to the otherworld. In the end while things did not go as planned, the characters for the most part fulfill all their desires and the two kingdoms live happily ever after. Not good, Not evil, but the constructive Other.

    • I agree that the fairy king is not fully evil. The fact that he abides by what we would see as some sort of vigilante justice, in taking Orfeo’s wife, but giving her back based on Orfeo’s merit, show him to be not necessarily wicked, but like you said, constructive. In a sense this bargaining on these grand ideological terms shows an interplay between the fantasy of the Breton Lais Genre and the values of the anglo-norman feudal society. As we have discussed in class women were often used as a means of peace making, but as we saw in Orfeo, they can also be a means of conflict. I believe the kidnapping and eventual return of Herodis could be a simplified rendition of conflict between feudal kingdoms. In this sense (excluding the taunting in the forest) the fairy King seems not necessarily evil, but aggressive, like many valued feudal lords. After all, in keeping with the romantic genre, Chaucer was not trying to produce horror at the Fairy king’s behavior, but merely a transaction wherein Orfeo could prove the devotion to his love.

  10. Although the fairies and land seem like a lovely place, a person isn’t deemed bad because they kidnapped someone and hid them in their basement, they are deemed bad because they kidnapped someone. In that sense, I think it is important to recognize that this makes the Fairy King a bad person for those actions. Not only that but he has kidnapped others as well and gives gruesome barbaric threats such as “totore [her] limes” if she doesn’t obey, and even if they have to tear off her limbs they will still take her (171). However, although a bad person he proves to be true to his word since he lets Orfeo take her.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *