Orfeo v. the Fairy King: Models of Kingship in Sir Orfeo
The Breton lai Sir Orfeo is an English reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. In contrast to the classical tale, this anonymously authored text replaces tragedy with comedy while also including a didactic function for a medieval Christian audience. Within the poem are two examples of a ruler: Sir Orfeo and the Fairy King. Orfeo’s reaction to the loss of his wife, Dame Heurodis, serves as a narrative device by which the poet allows Orfeo to develop into the construction of a truly ‘good’ king. On the other hand, though very little is known about the Fairy King, the poet’s descriptions of him and his actions reveal that he does not conform to the title of ‘king’ in the same way as Orfeo and thus should not be considered as a model of kingship. Rather, he and the entire fairy realm by extension operate as a symbol of external forces which test Orfeo to determine if he possesses the necessary wisdom to be an effective leader. Therefore, the model represented by Orfeo is one that forgoes all preconceived notions of leadership and is instead one reliant upon the king’s unique talents rather than the luxuries accorded to his position – a king that embodies the greatness of the human spirit.
In a literal sense, the Fairy King and all he represents is very much an external force because he must breach the borders of the kingdom, Orfeo’s castle, and Heurodis’s garden in order to capture her. In a metaphorical sense, he aligns more with a larger symbol of adversity and catastrophe that might plague a ruling king. Therefore, the poet uses the Fairy King to direct his illustration of a wise and capable king. For example, the Fairy King’s delay in abducting Heurodis seems questionable and frankly odd. Andrea Babich argues that his allowance of Heurodis to tell Orfeo of her impending abduction and his threat of violence are both designed simply to gain Orfeo’s attention (478). The Fairy King is not interested in Heurodis for love nor other less savory intentions as he permits his private act to become a public one, then keeps Heurodis as little other than a collectible in his castle. The reason for this delay, then, can only be understood as an interest in Orfeo’s response to a threat levied against the woman he deeply loves. Orfeo’s response, rooted in his kingly powers, is not adequate enough to deter the Fairy King. Considering the presumed Christianity of the audience, it could be argued that the Fairy King is a medieval adaptation of God’s test to Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac.
Babich also argues that the physical resemblance of the Fairy King’s castle to that of Orfeo’s suggests he is attempting to establish a kingdom to rival Orfeo’s Traciens (479). As further evidence, Babich gives the Fairy’s adherence to trouthe as demonstrative of an ‘eagerness to become a noble king’ (479). But these two instances are the only modes of direct comparison between Sir Orfeo and the Fairy King. Anne Marie D’Arcy, in contrast, states that a ‘principal demonic preoccupation is the emulation of the divine’ (26). D’Arcy’s statement is more strongly supported than Babich’s because, as Orfeo walks through the fairy country, he does not observe it to be comparable to his own. Instead, the plains, hills, and castle adorned with precious stones causes Orfeo ‘By alle thing [to think] it is / The proude court of Paradis’ (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 375-376). Though a fantastic sight, the poet constructs this Otherworld palace as ‘very dazzling, and very artificial’ (Gros Louis 251). The castle may look like some heavenly spectacle from the outside, but the horrible state of other captives is hidden behind its walls. The artificiality of physical looks is emphasized again in the Fairy King’s response to Orfeo’s request of Heurodis as his boon. He denies Orfeo on the grounds that they would not be suitable because Orfeo is ‘…lene, rowe, and blak, / And she is lovesome, withoute lak’ (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 459-460). Sir Orfeo, of course, is truly a king, and therefore his disguise, like the display of the fairy castle, cannot be trusted. Taken together, the Fairy King’s threat and his court seem to function as an effort to emphasize this realm as a superior, previously unforeseen power more than a supernatural entity.
The Fairy King, however, makes no delay in displaying that power. Heurodis tells Orfeo that the crown he wears is not made of silver or gold, but a single precious stone (ll. 149-151). This headpiece of only one stone is representative of the orphan stone motif, which was associated with imperial magnificence (D’Arcy 22). Another curiosity is his warning of dismemberment, since it seems Heurodis would still be worthy of capture despite being reduced to a torso. The Fairy King does not make empty threats, as his less fortunate victims stand exhibited in their mutilated states – some wounded, some strangled, some drowned, some burned and even some without heads (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 391-400). D’Arcy remarks on the persistent belief in the ‘ensoulment’ of statues, which is the belief that souls can become locked within their stone likenesses (20). Consequently, it is not Heurodis’ physicality which the Fairy King deems valuable, but her human soul. Finally, the Fairy King makes no indication that he is done ‘collecting’ despite the unprecedented encounter with Orfeo. His final words, ‘Of hire ich wol that thou be blithe’ (‘Sir Orfeo’ l. 473), could be read as a curse, but also as an acknowledgment of Orfeo having passed the test originally set ten years ago. Orfeo has finally come full circle, but not easily and not without significantly shaking his understanding of the world.
At the poem’s outset, Orfeo is described as a noble king (l. 25). He is valiant, hardy, generous, and refined – all the expectations accorded to a high lord in England (ll. 26-28). Such descriptions illustrate Orfeo as an ideal ruler at the time and immediately position him as the protagonist of the poem. Furthermore, though Orfeo possesses all the valued chivalric qualities, it is problematic when the poet reveals Orfeo is most notable for his skill at harping. In fact, Orfeo loves the music of harping to such an extent that he applied himself to become the best of any man, and plays so well that all men who hear his music think of Orfeo as one of the joys of Paradise (ll. 40-50). Orfeo’s love for and skill at harping adds a layer of intrigue and paints him as an unorthodox king as well. These facets of Orfeo’s character are hints that Orfeo will not conduct himself in the manner expected of kings, therefore implying that these standards of behavior do not make for a good leader. They also signify that traditional uses of this kingly power will not hold much significance in Orfeo’s tale. For example, in the high Middle Ages good kingship involved being dependent on counsel from advisors. But though Orfeo ‘asked conseil at eech a man, / But no man him helpe can’ (ll. 179-180). And again, though Orfeo takes one thousand knights, ‘Eech y-armed, stout and grim’ (l. 184), with him to guard Heurodis, they prove ineffectual at preventing the Fairy King’s abduction. Orfeo’s return of Heurodis to the grafted tree points to a consciousness of avoiding her dismemberment, but he is not aware enough to realize a conventional army will be useless (Babich 481). He already possesses the skills of harping and reason to keep Heurodis from being captured, but has become too accustomed to a king’s might and prestige to realize it.
Even more unsettling is the lack of a ‘long search’ for Heurodis once she has been taken, but Orfeo never intends to embark on one (Gros Louis 245-246). Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis observes that when announcing his exile to his lords, Orfeo does not express any wish or hope of recovering Heurodis (246). Furthermore, Orfeo ‘does not share the Phaeton-like boldness of earlier Orpheus figures’ but harbors a ‘deep humility’ (247). Thus Orfeo’s tale is not one of a daring heroic quest – he does not expect his fortunes to change by any means of his own making. Orfeo learned how little value the power and wealth of kingship held in his attempt to save Heurodis and is so affected by her kidnapping that he swoons to his chamber floor, laments on her capture, and considers his life finished (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 196-200). In response, Orfeo renounces the kingdom and position which failed him, and resolves himself to living, then dying, without Heurodis (Gros Louis 249).
Yet despite no effort from Orfeo, Heurodis suddenly reappears in front of him, and the reasons for her doing so point to Orfeo’s status as a pilgrim. Here, the poet makes a list of point for point contrasts between Orfeo’s previous and current circumstances to emphasize Orfeo’s realization of the ultimate worthlessness of his kingly possessions. He spends ten long years in the wilderness scrounging for roots, berries, and bark while using leaves and moss for a bed (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 255-260, 247-248). As a result, ‘Al his body away was dwined / For misaise, and al tochined’ (ll. 261-262), and ‘His heer of his beerd, black and rowe, / To his girdle-stede was growe’ (ll. 265-266). He has often witnessed the Fairy King riding with a large company ‘come to hunte him al aboute,’ but they never seem to take any beast (ll. 281-288). He might also occasionally see a great host of well-armed knights or ladies dancing through the wood, but never knew where they marched or why they danced (ll. 289-302). Similarly, none of the Fairy King’s people seem aware of Orfeo’s presence nor do they ever deign to acknowledge him. According to Gros Louis, this ‘purgatory of repetitious, purposeless activity’ allows Orfeo to experience a kind of purification whereby the ineffectiveness of his kingly position is further reinforced (248). After this has been completed, Orfeo is rewarded with the sudden reappearance of Heurodis. This is not a mistake, nor is it simple coincidence, and Heurodis has been brought to Orfeo after his time in the woods. Exile, therefore, was a necessity to demonstrate Orfeo’s misguided reliance on kingly acquisitions rather than true kingly attributes.
Once Orfeo has thoroughly rid himself of all indications of his former life, save for his harp, the potential for rescuing Heurodis is presented to him. Having ‘proved his worth as a Christian man’ (250), Orfeo uses his natural skill at harping to enter the Fairy King’s castle as a minstrel (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 382-387). As Orfeo enchanted the beasts in the wood, so is he able to enchant the fairy court (ll. 439-446), and the King is so pleased that he offers Orfeo a boon. Though he initially denies Orfeo’s request for Heurodis, the Fairy King relents when Orfeo responds, ‘Yit were it a wel fouler thing / To heere a lesing of thy mouthe…A kinges word moot needes be holde’ (ll. 464-465, 468). As previously stated, Orfeo’s skill at harping is a product of his own interest in learning. His use of it in combination with another learned ability explicitly conveys Orfeo’s assumption of the values of a truly ideal king. It is important to note that when holding the Fairy King to his word, Orfeo does not become outraged nor does he make an attempt at taking Heurodis by force. He remains in his ‘deep humility,’ is again rewarded for it, and responds with gratitude (ll. 474). A final reiteration of Orfeo’s realization is the test of his steward. Upon his return he does not question the quantity of his power but its quality, and is satisfied with the steward’s fidelity.
In examination of kingship in Sir Orfeo, it is only Orfeo who is actually constructed as a king. The Fairy King’s artificiality and statement of imperial might portray him not as a king, but a larger force which Orfeo must overcome to ensure the longevity of his kingdom during his reign. Crucial to that longevity is a reminder of Orfeo’s worth as a clever and musically talented man. By abandoning a king’s material pleasures, Orfeo is forced to make use of his wits and finds them to be more successful in rescuing Heurodis than any number of armed knights. His ability and success as a leader is not dependent on how many knights he can arm or the number of lords that pay him homage, but the recognition that a king’s possessions do not make for a true king.
‘Sir Orfeo.’ The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., ed. by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2012, pp. 169-182.
Babich, Andrea G. Pisani. ‘The Power of the Kingdom and the Ties that Bind in ‘Sir Orfeo.” Neophilologus, vol. 82, no. 3, 1998, pp. 477-486.
D’Arcy, Anne Marie. ‘The Faerie King’s Kunstkammer: Imperial Discourse and the Wondrous in ‘Sir Orfeo.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 58, no. 233, 2007, pp. 10-33.
Gros Louis, Kenneth R. R. ‘The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile.’ The Review of English Studies, vol. 18, no. 71, 1967, pp. 245-252.
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