Make a list of the words, and their occurrences, in Sir Orfeo which refer to music and its performance. Discuss what part these play in the narrative and the depiction of character in the poem.

Sir Orfeo is an amalgam of classical literature and Celtic mythology. In the Greek source, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, music plays an essential role as Orpheus uses his skill on the lyre to lull Cerberus and the other obstacles of Hades. In the lay the underworld is replaced by the Celtic idea of a parallel world ruled by malevolent fairy creatures; however, the creator of Sir Orfeoretains music as a central theme.

Depiction of character in chivalric romances, of which this is a version, is usually simplistic; these laudatory descriptions of King Orfeo and Queen Herodis are typical:

A stalworþ man and hardi bo,

Large and curteys he was also;

His fader was comen of King Pluto

And his moder of King Juno,

(ll. 41-44)

Þe fairest levedi, for þe nones

Þat mi t gon on bodi and bones,

Ful of love and of godenisse;

Ac no man may telle hir fairnise.

(ll. 53-56)

Importantly, however, Sir Orfeo carries another criterion by which its characters' virtue may be measured, besides the usual ones of nobility and beauty: their attitude to music. The narrator explains at great length the King's love of harp music and his own skill at playing. In particular any harpist arriving at his court could be assured of 'miche honour' (l. 28). This contrasts strongly with the Fairy King's hostile response to Orfeo's arrival at his court:

...What man artow

Þat art hider ycomen now?

Ich, no non þat is wiþ me,

No sent never after þe.


Orfeo even has to explain the practice of minstrelsy to the Fairy King, whose unfamiliarity with musical entertainment emphasises not only the detachment of his mystical realm from the real world but also his threatening, malicious character. In order to be a worthy opponent of the hero the Fairy King must be a social peer, but as immoral as Orfeo is moral; this difference, and therefore the battle between good and evil, is highlighted by their opposite attitudes to music. This culminates in the defeat of the wicked King by the music of the heroic King, because Orfeo is so skilled that he enthrals everyone, even those who are unaccustomed to enjoying music, as is prefigured by his experience with the forest creatures:

Into alle þe wode þe soun gan schille,

Þat alle þe wilde bestes that þat þer beþ

For joie abouten him þai teþ

(ll. 272-274)

Orfeo's speech about minstrelsy is interesting in the context of the time as Sir Orfeo would in most instances have been performed by a travelling entertainer. His pleas on behalf of minstrels, and indeed the fact that a king takes up the guise of an itinerant musician, were surely incorporated to make the listeners more kindly disposed towards their storyteller. The lay would also have been accompanied by music, as mentioned in the prologue - 'Layes þat ben in harping' (l. 3) - which would have made further references to music stand out.

Orfeo's skill as a musician is not only expressed by the enchanting effect of his music; he also displays versatility in being able to play on his own or with others, as on his disguised return to Winchester, where he is accompanied by trumpets, tabors (small drums) and other stringed instruments called 'crowds' (ll. 521, 522). He is able to 'temper' his harp, a notoriously difficult instrument to tune because of its many strings (l. 437). An examination of the contemporary meanings of certain words also illuminates the beauty of Orfeo's playing. 'Melody' is used in two different ways in Sir Orfeo: general music-making as in line 590, 'Lord, þer was grete melody!' or music of wonderful quality as in line 38, 'Swiche melody in his harping is.' The former sense comes from the definitions the OED gives as, 'singing, chanting; rhythmical hymns,' which gives a quasi-religious nuance to the people's joy at their King's return. The latter meaning, 'sweet music,' is due to association with 'mel' which meant 'honey'. The 'notes' Orfeo produces are described as 'blisseful' (l. 438) but the word itself also carries connotations of bird-song, which shows the natural beauty of his music and is appropriate considering his transformation into a wild creature during his exile.

As can be seen from the list of occurrences above, many of the words describing music appear at the beginning and end of the text, but are absent from the middle. Most notable is 'lay' which is self-referential and therefore appears only in the prologue (ll. 1-24) and epilogue (ll. 593-604). Their contextualising summary of the tradition of Breton lays forms two effective 'bookends' signalling the start and finish of the entertainment, but also extends the theme of music, thus highlighting its importance in the narrative.

Other words mostly absent from the middle passage of Sir Orfeo include 'harping,' 'harpour' and 'melody'; these are mainly associated with court life and so do not occur when Orfeo is in self-imposed exile. 'Harping' appears in the context of Orfeo's love of it:

Orfeo mest of ani king

Loved þe gle of harping.

(ll. 25, 26)

and he does not have the opportunity to experience another's playing whilst he is in the forest. The same applies to 'harpour':

Siker was everi gode harpour

Of him to have miche honour.

(ll. 27, 28)

"...Everich gode harpour is welcom me to

For mi lordes love Sir Orfeo."

(ll. 517, 518)

'Melody' is the context of the Winchester court has a celebratory sense, while its rarer appearances in-between imply technical skill: 'So miche melody was þerin,' in line 278 but, 'Miche melody þai maked alle,' at court in line 523. 'Trompours,' 'tabourers' and 'crouders' also appear at court (ll. 521, 522). This courtly vocabulary provides a linguistic change in setting akin to the one Orfeo experiences and its recurrence signals a return to familiar territory for both Orfeo and those following his story. Some of the words reappear when he plays to the Fairy King, such as 'harping' (l. 447) and 'melody' (l. 442), as if the mythological court triggers lexical memories of Winchester.

One lexeme that recurs throughout is 'harp.' Its four word forms appear constantly but the most common and most important is the noun 'harp.' Although it does not appear in the narrative until line 231, it is in the prologue at line nineteen, and the circumstances are strikingly similar: the latter is, 'Þai taken a harp in gle and game,' 'Bot his harp he tok algate,' is the latter. This links the two sections, though the intention may be also to associate the writers of lays with kingship, thereby increasing the status of the author, performing minstrel and musicians.

Hereafter, 'harp' and its associated forms are a touchstone to which Orfeo, the text and the audience return again and again; just as the harp becomes one of Orfeo's two material possessions and reminders of the life he once enjoyed, 'harp' provides continuity for the listener and connects the disjointed parts of the adventure. Its romantic connotations remind us that Orfeo is on a quest of love, and thus it is both apt and ironic that his harp is the means by which he defeats the vicious Fairy King and wins back his wife.

The harp thus becomes the embodiment of Orfeo's kingship and this is affirmed by the steward, who recognises it in its own right:

Þe steward biheld and gan yse,

And knewe þe harp als blive.

(ll. 530, 531)

When told that the harp was found next to a mauled body, the court concludes that Orfeo is dead: his harp plays his funeral march, as it were. The harp, the symbol of Orfeo's majesty, has outlived the 'attack', however, and so Orfeo has as well; it is revealed to be not evidence of his death but proof of his survival.

The narrative ends with triumphant musical festivities, which is entirely appropriate as music acts as a metaphor for King Orfeo and the forces of good in general throughout sir Orfeo. Its jubilant presence at the story's conclusion celebrates the survival of the King, his defeat of the evil fairies and, crucially for the itinerant and impoverished performers, the power of music itself.


Burchfield, R.W. (ed.), Oxford English Dictionary, second edition (Oxford: Clarendon) 1989

Burrow, J.A. and Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English, second edition (Oxford: Blackwell) 1996

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