I read Tolkien’s translation of Sir Orfeo again tonight. It’s really delightful. Sir Orfeo was written by a medieval poet, the same author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, back in the days of mead halls, chivalry, and holy quests. In fact, the volume from which I’m reading contains Tolkien’s translations of all three.
The poem tells the story of a good king in Winchester, whose abode was “Tracience, a city of stout defense.” He was descended from gods, his father in the lineage of Pluto and his mother of Juno. Orfeo was famed for his skill with as a harpist, for a better harper there was none.
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.
His wife, the queen Lady Heurodis, was, of course, the fairest lady who ever flesh and blood did wear. Well, it happens that she, sleeping under “a bower quiet,” is snatched away by the king of a magical realm, Orfeo and his men unable to save her. Rent in grief, Orfeo leaves his kingdom to his steward and departs into the wilderness as a beggar, with naught but cloak and harp. After wandering for years in the wilderness, Orfeo wins back his queen by his harper’s skill.
Sir Orfeo is a good story not only because of its poetic beauty and imagery, but especially because it reflects certain aspects of the great story, God’s narrative. King Orfeo represents the ideal good king. He is wise, courageous, benevolent, and humble. His subjects serve him out of loving and grateful devotion. Further, Orfeo is the majestic king who humbles himself in the form of a wandering beggar.
A me! the weeping woe that day,
when he that had been king with crown
went thus beggarly out of town!
Through wood and over moorland bleak
he now the wilderness doth seek
What other King whom we know humbled himself thus, “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men?” Of what other King can we say, though foxes have holes and birds their nests, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head?” And how much greater was our Lord’s humiliation, that God would become man, and the servant of men!
In the realm of the wicked king, we see a picture of the deceit of Satan and the state of man in his fallen nature. The city in the mountain is beautiful and majestic, filled with light, and it seemed to Orfeo that he gazed on Paradise. But its inhabitants, all the captives of the king of the land, were dead men walking,
for some there stood who had no head,
and some no arms, nor feet; some bled
and through their bodies wounds were set…
…Thus in the world was each one caught
and thither by fairy magic brought.
Orfeo frees his bride from this captivity of death, as our Lord frees us from captivity, breaking the power of death and hell.
The steward, too, reflects the biblical themes of feasting and hospitality, as he invites this travelling minstrel, his king in disguise, in to share in his own lot. The poem ends beautifully, as Orfeo returns to Winchester to find that his steward has remained faithful and loyal the the king. May we declare, upon Christ’s second advent, as Orfeo’s steward did, “Ye are our lord, sir, and our king!”
So have a seat, pick up Tolkien’s excellent translation, and learn of feasting, benevolence, loyalty, love, music, meekness, and courage from Sir Orfeo.
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.