Poetry: Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo, as translated by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Our kids are studying Medieval literature this year. This necessarily means that my reading of The Brothers Karamazov, as well as other personal reading, will be interspersed with readings of Medieval inspired books and poetry.

Sir Orfeo is a poem believed to be originally penned around the 13th century. It is the lyrical, pleasant-reading story of King Orfeo. Orfeo is a happy king enjoying his life, his harp, and his fair wife, Heurodis. 

Sir Orfeo was a king of old,
in England lordship high did hold;
valour he had and hardihood,
a courteous king whose gifts were good.
His father from King Pluto came,
his mother from Juno, king of fame,
who once of old as gods were named
for mighty deeds they did and claimed.
Sir Orfeo, too, all things beyond
of harping’s sweet delight was fond,
and sure were all good harpers there
of him to earn them honour fair;
himself he loved to touch the harp
and pluck the strings with fingers sharp.
He played so well, beneath the sun
a better harper was there none;
no man hath in this world been born
who would not, hearing him, have sworn
that as before him Orfeo played
to joy of Paradise he had strayed
and sound of harpers heavenly,
such joy was there and melody.
This king abode in Tracience,
a city proud of stout defence;
for Winchester, ’tis certain, then
as Tracience was known to men.
There dwelt his queen in fairest bliss,
whom men called Lady Heurodis,
of ladies then the one most fair
who ever flesh and blood did wear;
in her did grace and goodness dwell,
but none her loveliness can tell

Not long after their introduction, Orfeo and Heurodis’ idyllic life is disrupted when she is kidnapped by the magic of the Faerie king and whisked away from her husband and home.It is, as I mentioned, Medieval literature. As such it is replete with all that the period entails; magic, darkness, and sufferings. 

What follows is 10 years of suffering and grief for Orfeo, who cannot bear to reign without his queen by his side. He wanders through the forests, aimlessly and bereft of hope until one day, he spots his beloved Heurodis. In addition to the suffering, Medieval literature also offers its readers romance, gallantry, and light. 

I don’t wish to give away any more spoilers, so you can read it here for free to discover what follows. It is far less linear than you might assume. There is much more to discover than have even begin to unpack here.

 It really is a beautiful piece of narrative poetry.