March 15: Sir Orfeo vs. his mythological counterpart, Orpheus

Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the classic Greek myth Orpheus.  If that story is unfamiliar to you, here is a link of a synopsis:

The similarities between the two are clear; yet our Middle English version makes some distinct changes to the classic story (particularly the ending).  What are the differences between Sir Orfeo and the classic Orpheus and what can this tell us about Medieval English culture/literature?

4 thoughts on “March 15: Sir Orfeo vs. his mythological counterpart, Orpheus

  1. I was always deeply in love with the story of Orpheus as a kid. It’s the kind of story that sticks with you–it’s romantic and it’s a story about faith and also treachery–like many greek myths it had a lesson to teach: don’t doubt love or don’t deal with the devil or something. Orpheus was always similar to tantalus to me–both pining for something in hell. So when I was reading Sir Orpheo I was obviously expecting that big finale when orpheus looks back (one of my favorite songs is called “Orpheo Looks Back” by Andrew Bird). But Sir Orpheo is never tested in this manner–the king doubts him at first; he proves his skill; the king offers payment; Orpheo asks for his wife back; the king tries t renegotiate; Orpheo is steadfast–he challenges the kings word–and gets his girl back. His will is never tested even though it is steadfast. He becomes a hermit wandering the earth for a decade without complaint. Orpheus is foolish because he is not steadfast in his love he doubts that she is following him. Sir Orpheo is very sure of himself and his aims. He drops everything for his courtly love. He devotes all his faculties to finding her. He is an amazing harpist and that conquers all. Even at the end when it seems he might have to live in hovel with queen because his throne has been taken: his squire and his people take him back when he plays his harp and says his name. There is no test other than music.

  2. Tragedy versus triumph is the quintessential difference between Orpheus and Sir Orfeo. Both characters are issued a challenge to earn back their wives, but Orpheus barely fails while Sir Orfeo reclaims his wife, as well as his royal status. These disparate outcomes help shape our understanding of the stories’ respective cultures, particularly in regards to failure and how it serves each reality. In Classical Greece’s case, failure is an inevitable element to existence that can only be suppressed. Orpheus completes his challenge by the letter of the law as it applies to his perspective; he is completely separated from the underworld when he looks back at his wife. However, because she has not passed, Orpheus has failed, although there would be no way for him to know if she had passed, thus making the challenge unfavorably rigged. Despite what seems to be a gruesome death according to the summary, it appears Orpheus is in some way rewarded with honorable remembrance for resisting failure to a near victory. Medieval Britain, on the other hand, seems to view failure as a barrier to gaining agency. When Sir Orfeo avoids failure and earns his wife back through song, he becomes the challenge-maker, testing the steward’s loyalty in the end. At this point, he controls the narrative and appears to receive a mortal reward of prosperity for his success.

  3. The fact that Sir Orfeo succeeds where Orpheus fails in bringing their respective wives out of the underworld is the most obvious difference between the two stories, but it is not the only major difference. To me, the most interesting difference is that Sir Orfeo spends 10 years in the wilderness living poorly and humbly before attempting to win his wife back from the fairy lands with his music. While Orpheus instantly attempts to win his wife back and, upon failing, spend the rest of his days in the wilderness. Perhaps, Sir Orfeo did not need the restriction of “not looking back” because he was already properly humbled by giving up his kingdom to live in poverty before attempting to win his wife back from the gods. For Sir Orfeo, instead of being humbled by following the instructions of the gods (as Orpheus had to do), his challenge was to prove his worthiness. Living in the forest for 10 years made Sir Orfeo look unkempt and malnourished instead of the lordly type that deserved a lady like Dame Heurodis. He did this by demanding the king keep the promise of a payment when he said, “Now aske of me what it be, Largelich ichil the pay” (450 – 451).

  4. A distinct difference between the Middle English tale Sir Orfeo and the Greek myth of Orpheus is the representation of the fairy world that exists as an alternate realm to Orfeo’s “real world” domain. In Orpheus his lover is taken to the underworld, which would have been ruled by Hades. The representation of fairies in Sir Orfeo – rather than a hellish underworld – is likely the result of an influence of Celtic culture which often incorporates fairies and distinct fairy realms. Additionally, the fairy world presents a new challenge for Orpheus, but as we see, his skill with the harp enables him to easily overcome his challenges.

    There are also distinct differences in the male protagonists as well. The Middle English tale has a similar plot as the Greek myth, however the characters are very different in how they take on their opponents. Orfeo is presented with the challenge of getting back his wife/lover – as is Orpheus – however, Orfeo is steadfast, confident and level headed throughout which allows him to be successful. Orpheus is unsure and wavering which ultimately causes him to fail. It is interesting to see that the Greek myth allows for failure while the Middle English tale ensures success. Perhaps this is gives us insight into the Middle English understanding of failure vs. success. It seems as though there is no room for failure in Medieval Britain; failure is never honorable, instead success is always more noble.

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