Washington State University
Sir Orfeo (c.1325) is the Ovidian story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Hades, probably via an unknown French source and Celtic legends. It’s considered the best Breton lai in English and a copy may have been seen, or even owned, by Chaucer. A Breton lai has the same concerns and conventions of romance but is simply shorter — a tale one can take in one sitting. Thus it is tighter, more compact, and leaves no option for rambling.
The introduction makes the story seem a tad arbitrary, but it sets the casual tone. Andthis version of the story is much brightened. We have a happy ending after no serious difficulties or obstacles. Orfeo doesn’t look back; the steward proves faithful; there are no battles — so there’s very little tension at all. It’s a feel-good story for the minstrel.
A few features Anglicize the story:
- Orpheus becomes Orfeo, an English king although he’s a harpist.
- The gods Pluto and Juno become humanized to serve as parents.
- Traciens (O.F. Thracian, Thrace) becomes Winchester.
- Orfeo favors the election of a successor by Parliament.
But we get the reverdie tradition, sleep initiating the adventure, a well-considered and planned madness, a slower passage of time than in “Culhwch and Olwen,” and otherwordly grotesquery.
Sir Orfeo. Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas J. Garbáty. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1984. 349-364.
Sir Orfeo. Middle English Verse Romances. Ed. Donald B. Sands. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966. 85-200.