King Orfeo [Child 19]
DESCRIPTION: The wife of (King) Orfeo, perhaps in a fit of madness, flees from him and his court. Orfeo sets out to find her. Encountering her under guard in a high hall, he plays his pipes so well that his wife is returned to him.
EARLIEST DATE: 1880
KEYWORDS: music magic separation madness royalty
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Hebr))
REFERENCES (25 citations):
Child 19, "King Orfeo" (1 text)
Bronson 19, "King Orfeo" (1 version plus 1 in addenda)
BronsonSinging 19, "King Orfeo" (2 versions: #1, #2)
Davis-More 11, pp. 79-80, "King Orfeo," comments only
OBB 15, "King Orfeo (A Shetland Ballad)" (1 text)
DT 19, KNGORFEO*
ADDITIONAL: Emily Lyle, _Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition_, Wissenschaflicher Verlag Trier, 2007, pp. 63-65, article "King Orpheus" (2 texts in parallel, 1 tune)
A. J. Bliss, editor, _Sir Orfeo_, second edition, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. l-li, "King Orfeo" (1 text, from Child, as well as "Sir Orfeo." This edition is the standard edition of "Sir Orfeo," containing complete transcriptions of all three manuscripts of the romance)
RELATED: Versions of the Romance "Sir Orfeo" --
Digital Index of Middle English Verse #6172
A. J. Bliss, editor, _Sir Orfeo_, second edition, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 2-57, "Sir Orfeo" (3 texts, the texts of the three extant manuscripts, presenting in a somewhat confusing set of parallel versions)
J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, _A Book of Middle English_, second edition, 1996 (I cite the 1999 Blackwell paperback edition), pp. 112-131, "Sir Orfeo" (1 text, of 604 lines)
Boris Ford, editor, _The Age of Chaucer_ (The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Volume 1), Pelican, 1954, 1959, pp. 271-287, "Sir Orfeo" (1 text, of 580 lines although it says it is based on Sisam)
A. C. Gibbs, editor, _Middle English Romances_, York Medieval Texts, Northwestern University Press, 1966, pp. 84-103, "Sir Orfeo," of 590 lines, primarily from Auchinlek with expansions from Harley)
Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, _The Middle English Breton Lays_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2001. Much of the material in this book is also available online), pp. 15-59, "Sir Orfeo" (1 text, of 604 lines, primarily from Auchinlek with expansions from Harley)
Thomas C. Rumble, editor, _The Breton Lays in Middle English_, 1964 (I use the 1967 Wayne State University paperback edition which corrects a few errors in the original printing), pp. 207-226, "Kyng Orfew" (1 text, of 604 lines, seemingly based on Ashmole 61)
Donald B. Sands, editor, _Middle English Verse Romances_, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1966, pp. 185-200, "Sir Orfeo" (1 text, of 580 lines)
George Shuffelton, editor, _Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2008, pp. 386-399 (1 text, of 603 lines, obviously based on Ashmole 61)
Stephen H. A. Shepherd, _Middle English Romance: A Norton Critical Edition_, Norton, 1995, pp. 174-190, "Sir Orfeo" (1 text, of 604 lines, primarily from Auchinlek with expansions from various sources)
Kenneth Sisam, editor, _Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose_, Oxford, 1925, pp. 13-31, "Sir Orfeo" (1 text, of 604 lines, primarily from Auchinlek with expansions from Harley)
Robert D. Stevick, editor, _Five Middle English Narratives_, Bobbs-Merrill, 1967, pp. 3-26, "Sir Orfeo" (1 txt, of 604 lines, based mostly on Auchinleck and Bliss's suggestions)
Modernized poetic version: J. R. R. Tolkien, translator, _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight * Pearl * Sir Orfeo_, with an introduction (and perhaps some light editing) by Christopher Tolkien, 1975 (I use the 1988 Ballantine edition), pp. 133-148, "Sir Orfeo"
Modernied prose version: Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis, editors (and translators), _Medieval Romances_, 1957 (I use the undated Modern Library paperback), pp. 311-323, "Sir Orfeo"
RELATED: Versions of the Romance "King Orphius" --
Rhiannon Purdie, _Shorter Scottish Medieval Romances: Florimond of Albany, Sir Colling the Knight, King Orphius, Roswall and Lillian_, Scottish Text Society, Fifth Sieries, No. 11, 2013, pp. 113-123, "King Orphius" (2 incomplete texts, one from NRS MS RH 13/35 and one from the David Laing papers)
John Stickle, "King Orfeo" (on FSB4, FSBBAL1)
NOTES: For a detailed analysis of the history of this ballad, see now Robert B. Waltz, Romancing the Ballad: How Orpheus the Minstrel became King Orfeo, Loomis House Press, 2013. (Shameless self-promotion -- but I don't get any royalties, so I'm not out to sell more books....) For additional bibliography, see Rice, pp. 481-501 (which lists 22 different editions plus articles, although many of the editions aren't very good).
Loosely based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Observe, however, that "King Orfeo" has a happy endings: Orfeo and the Euridice figure are successfully reunited.
The same is true of what may be the direct source of this piece, the Middle English romance "Sir Orfeo." There is also an independent Scottish romance, "King Orphius," on the subject; Lyle, p. 66. She thinks it the direct source of the ballad, as does Purdie, p. 26, but the evidence is slight. The main reason given by Purdie, p. 27, is that the Scottish romance and the ballad both call Orfeo's wife "Isabel." That name, however, occurs only once in the extant text of "King Orphius" (line 80 -- a line that isn't found in the Laing text; see the text on pp. 116-117 and the Index of Names on p. 280). I would counter-argue that "Orpheus" is based in Portugal ("Portingale") (Purdie, p. 218), which does not at all match "King Orfeo."
Since Romancing the Ballad was published, another copy of "King Orphius" has been recognized by Purdie (p. 45); a transcription of this second manuscript, which was probably written in 1586, is found in the mostly-uncatalogued papers of David Laing. That text plus the fragment in National Records of Scotland MS. RH13/35 combine to give us more information about that "King Orphius," although both are fragmentary and MS. RH13/35 is terribly decayed; despite much preservation work, it is hard to read.
The obvious thought is that "Sir Orfeo" and "King Orphius" are English and Scots versions of the same romance. The difficulty -- as was noted by Marion Stewart, who discovered "King Orphius" -- is that "Sir Orfeo" and "King Orphius," although they are very close in theme, share "[not] even a single recognizable shared line" (Purdie, p. 25). On its face, this would make literary dependence difficult. But the two texts of "King Orphius" also show major differences (Purdie, p. 46), implying much oral transmission. Or, perhaps, a major rewrite. There is also much divergence in the copies of "Sir Orfeo."
It should be noted that if the date of the Laing manuscript is correct, it is two and a half centuries more recent than the Auchinleck copy of "Sir Orfeo." The National Records of Scotland copy also from the 1580s, according to Purdie, p. 47. The strong evidence is that "King Orphius" is a newer romance than "Sir Orfeo." Given the difference in dates, I don't think the difference in texts means all that much. Despite Lyle et al, I rather suspect that "King Orphius" is a Scottish rewrite of "Sir Orfeo," or of a memory of "Sir Orfeo." "King Orphius" may be the direct ancestor of "King Orfeo," but "Sir Orfeo" is also an ancestor.
On the other hand, Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 113, thinks that both "Sir Orfeo" and the Scottish piece are translations of the same original, possibly the "Lai d'Orphey," a French musical piece referred to in romances but now lost. But if this were so, why isn't there more common text? Something is very strange about these two pieces, and given the fragmentary state of "King Orphius," we may never be able to tell what. So I would not go so far as to claim that the ballad is derived from either romance, although my analysis in Romancing the Ballad demonstrates that "Sir Orfeo" (and so, probably "King Orphius" also) came first.
The change to a happy ending is not the only alteration in the tale of "Orfeo" (a name I use to distinguish both ballad and romance hero from the Orpheus of classical myth). Shippey, p. 63, notes that Orfeo is fighting the forces of Elfland, not Hell (there may be a link with "Thomas Rymer" [Child 37] or something like it), and that Orfeo's honor as well as his music plays a role.
Incidentally, the romance and the ballad should perhaps be referred to under the title "Sir Orfeo," like the romance; Lyle, p. 61, points out that the name of the ballad was supplied by Child based on one version of the Middle English romance. Lyle refers to the song as "King Orpheus" after a Scottish version (also known as "Orpheus King of Portugal" after a title mentioned in the Complaynt of Scotland of c. 1550; Lyle, p. 66. Purdie seems to think that the Complaynt of Scotland reference is to "King Orphius").
The interesting question is how "Sir Orfeo" evolved the ending it did. Of the 50-odd Middle English romances, "Orfeo" is generally considered the best not by Chaucer or the Gawain-Poet or derived from the work of Marie of France ("Sir Orfeo," like the works of Marie, is considered a "Breton Lei"; Bennett/Gray, p. 138). CHEL1, pp. 294-295, for instance, declares that "The best [of the romances] in English are Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal. The first of these, which is the story of Orpheus, is proof of what can be done by mere form[;] the classical fable is completely taken over, and turned into a fairy tale; hardly anything is left to it except what it owes to the Breton form of thought and expression."
The story of Orpheus was known in the Middle Ages, from Virgil's Georgics (Book four, roughly lines 450-550 -- the very end of the book) and from Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book X, about lines 1-100) -- indeed, it seems to have been better known from Latin than Greek sources. The tale also occurs in the writings of Boethius, much philosophized (Loomis, p. 311; Burrow/Turville-Petre, p. 112), and Alfred the Great had translated Boethius into Old English (and Chaucer would put parts of it into Middle English, the "Boece"). But those accounts are clearly classical in their settings, and don't have the happy ending; it's not clear how the tale was converted to a romance, or how the ending changed into the form of the romances. If the original was indeed French, it's definitely lost (Sands, p. 185).
We do find allusions to a similar story in the writings of Walter Map (Bennett/Gray, p. 140, who however think this may be a Celtic tale; Bliss, p. xxxiii, is convinced that Map's story has already been influenced by the Orpheus legend, because in other stories, the kidnapped person is taken to a land of the living, but in Map's story, the victim is described as truly dead). Perhaps it was the combining of the Celtic and Orpheus stories which gave us the happy ending. There is a French mention of the story being told by an Irish bard (Loomis, p. 312). Certainly the piece has been thoroughly adapted to a medieval setting (Bennett/Gray, p. 143; Loomis, p. 313, notes that the Thrace of the Greek account has been transformed into Winchester!).
"Sir Orfeo" is now found in three MSS, with the earliest and best, the Auchinleck MS., from about 1330; the others, Harley 3810 and Ashmole 61, are of the fifteenth century (Sisam, p. 13). It has been suggested that the Auchinlek manuscript may have been used by Chaucer (Sands, p. 185). It is sometimes suggested that another romance in that manuscript, the "Lay Le Friene," is by the same author (Sands, p. 185; this is partly because the beginning of "Lay Le Friene" is quoted in the non-Auchinleck manuscripts of "Sir Orfeo." The "Lay Le Friene," although a Breton Lei, should not be confused with Marie of France's Lei "Le Fresne," even though both are on the same theme).
Anderson, p. 136, mentions a further speculation (praising the poet while he is at it): "The author of Sir Launfal is by tradition the same shadowy Thomas Chestre to whom was attributed the Middle English Tristan. Sir Orfeo, believed by some to be also the work of Chestre, is a beautiful and sensitive retelling of the pathetic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice."
The Orfeo poem is #3868 in the Brown and Robbins Middle English Index.
The language of "Sir Orfeo" appears to be SW English but with some northern forms, perhaps introduced by a northern copyist; the whole is perhaps from a French or Breton original, and the translation perhaps is from the fourteenth century (Sisam, p. 13; Loomis, p. 313; Bliss, p. lii, refers specifically to the "Westminster-Middlesex dialect").
Sir Orfeo is, incidentally, one of the few Middle English romances to be generally praised by critics, for both its plot and for its well-handled poetry. Sands, e.g., says (pp. 186-187) that "few narrative poems conceal artfulness under disarming artlessness so well." Similarly Bennett/Gray comment that "Of all the English verse romances, Sir Orfeo is the one that in grace and charm, lightness and neatness, comes closest to the twelfth century lays of Marie de France, and to her conception of... the goodness... of love" (p. 138).
The complete edition of "Sir Orfeo" was published by A. J. Bliss in 1954; the second edition, cited in the references, came out in 1966. This edition cited all three manuscripts separately, and is considered definitive -- but it presents the three manuscripts separately and does not make any attempt to reconstruct the original text, instead making the peculiar comment (Bliss, p. xv) that "no critical text is possible; we can do better than to accept the text of A[uchinleck] as it stands." This frankly shows a complete misunderstanding of the role of a textual critic, but it means that there is still need of a critically edited text.
A semi-critical text of the romance (604 lines), based on Auchinleck, is available in Sisam, pp. 14-31. Unfortunately, it is not glossed (though the book has a complete glossary by J. R. R. Tolkien). A glossed version (580 lines) is available in Sands, pp. 187-200. Tolkien, pp. 133-148, prepared a modernized verse version following the same lineation as Sisam (though it is not just a crib; it's a true translation, which was published posthumously; it uses almost none of the language of the original).
The alternate version of "Sir Orfeo" found in manuscript Ashmole 61, under the name "King Orfew," was published (with a facsimile of the first page of the manuscript) on pp. 206-226 of Rumble. Rumble's presentation might cause us to think it's an independent romance (that was my first thought), but it is in fact just a less pure version of the tale.
Although "Sir Orfeo" is probably a sufficient source for this ballad, Lyle thinks she finds other materials which might have gone into the mix. On p. 67, she mentions the romance of "Guy of Warwick" -- another item with a theme of visiting the underworld. Lyle is right that this is an unusual theme in romance. But with Vergil and Ovid and Homer all telling tales of visits to the underworld, I don't really think it necessary to ring in "Guy." Especially since the Orpheus legend seems to have been popular in Britain; in addition to the two romances and the ballad, Robert Henryson wrote an Orpheus poem (Lyle, p. 75). And the only thing "Guy of Warwick" could have taught the author of "Sir Orfeo" is that long-winded romances are hideous.
Lyle, p. 71, also notes thematic links to the Tristan legend, and to the Orpheus tale as found in Lefevre's Recueil des Hystoires Troyennes." The latter link is made particularly complicated by the fact that the Recueil was translated by Caxton, who then (in order to put it in more people's hands) printed it -- the first English printed book. If the Recueil is an influence, is it from a French source, or did an English writer know Caxton? (The difficulty with the latter hypothesis, of course, is that Caxton lived after the Auchinleck MS. was written. But it might have influenced the later stages of the transmission).
A scholar named Whitney Stokes suggested that the types of music played by Orfeo -- the notes of joy, of noy, and the gabber reel -- are related to the "sleep music," "sad music," and "joyful music" of an early Irish poem, "The Second Battle of Moytura" (Bliss, p. lvii). To which I can only say that the types of music aren't the same, the sounds of the words aren't the same, and there is no reason to connect an Irish (as opposed to Breton) source with Orfeo.
Several other ballads also derive loosely or from Middle English romance, or from the legends that underly it, examples being:
* "Hind Horn" [Child 17], from "King Horn" (3 MSS., including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "Floris and Blancheflour")
* "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" [Child 31], from "The Weddynge of Sir Gawe and Dame Ragnell" (1 defective MS, Bodleian MS Rawlinson C 86)
* "Blancheflour and Jellyflorice" [Child 300], from "Floris and Blancheflour" (4 MSS, including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "King Horn," and the Auchinlek MS, which also contains "Sir Orfeo") - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Anderson: George K. Anderson, Old and Middle English Literature from the Beginnings to 1485, being volume I of "A History of English Literature," 1950 (I use the 1966 Collier paperback edition)
- Bennett/Gray: J. A. W. Bennett, Middle Englich Literature, edited and completed by Douglas Gray and being a volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, 1986 (I use the 1990 Clarendon paperback)
- Bliss: A. J. Bliss, editor, Sir Orfeo, second edition, Oxford University Press, 1966
- Burrow/Turville-Petre: J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, second edition, 1996 (I use the 1999 Blackwell paperback edition)
- CHEL1: Sir A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, Editors, The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, 1907 (I use the 1967 Cambridge edition)
- Loomis: Roger sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis, editors (and translators), Medieval Romances, 1957 (I use the undated Modern Library paperback)
- Lyle: Emily Lyle, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition, Wissenschaflicher Verlag Trier, 2007
- Purdie: Rhiannon Purdie, Shorter Scottish Medieval Romances: Florimond of Albany, Sir Colling the Knight, King Orphius, Roswall and Lillian, Scottish Text Society, Fifth Sieries, No. 11, 2013
- Rice: Joanne A. Rice, Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985, Garland Publishing, 1987
- Rumble: Thomas C. Rumble, editor, The Breton Lays in Middle English, 1964 (I use the 1967 Wayne State University paperback edition which corrects a few errors in the original printing)
- Sands: Donald B. Sands, editor, Middle English Verse Romances, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1966
- Shippey: Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, revised edition, Houghton-Mifflin, 2003
- Sisam: Kenneth Sisam, editor, Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, Oxford, 1925
- Tolkien: J. R. R. Tolkien, translator, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight * Pearl * Sir Orfeo, with an introduction (and perhaps some light editing) by Christopher Tolkien, 1975 (I use the 1988 Ballantine edition)
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.