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Sir Orfeo
English
Middle English
Manuscript

When he was in þe roche ygo
When he was in þe roche ygo
He went into that rocky hill
wel þre milen oþer mo,
wel þre milen oþer mo,
a good three miles or more, until
he com into a fair cuntraye,
he com into a fair cuntraye,
he came into a country fair
as briȝt so sonne on someres daye,
as briȝt so sonne on someres daye,
as bright as sun in summer air.
smoþe and plain and al grene,
smoþe and plain and al grene,
Level and smooth it was and green,
hille no dale nas non ysene.
hille no dale nas non ysene.
and hill nor valley there was seen.
Amidde þe londe a castel he seiȝ,
Amidde þe londe a castel he seiȝ,
A castle he saw amid the land
riche and real and wonder heiȝ.
riche and real and wonder heiȝ.
princely and pround and lofty stand;
Al þe vtemaste wal
Al þe vtemaste wal
the outer wall around it laid
was cler and schene as cristal;
was cler and schene as cristal;
of shining crystal clear was made.
an hundred tours þer were aboute,
an hundred tours þer were aboute,
A hundred towers were raised about
degiseliche, and batailed stoute;
degiseliche, and batailed stoute;
with cunning wrought, embattled stout;
þe butras com out of þe diche,
þe butras com out of þe diche,
and from the moat eaxh buttress bold
of rede golde y-arched riche;
of rede golde y-arched riche;
in arches sprang of rich red gold.
þe vousour was anourned al
þe vousour was anourned al
The vault was carven and adorned
of ich manere diuers animal.
of ich manere diuers animal.
with beasts and birds and figures horned;
Wiþinne þer were wide wones
Wiþinne þer were wide wones
within were halls and chambers wide
alle of preciouse stones.
alle of preciouse stones.
all made of jewels and gems of pride;
Þe werste piler on to biholde
Þe werste piler on to biholde
the poorest pillar to behold
was maked al of burnissed golde.
was maked al of burnissed golde.
was builded all of burnished gold.
Al þat lond was euer liȝt,
Al þat lond was euer liȝt,
And all that land was ever light,
for when it was þe þerke niȝt,
for when it was þe þerke niȝt,
for when it came to dusk of night
þe riche stones liȝte gonne,
þe riche stones liȝte gonne,
from precious stones there issued soon
as briȝt as doþ at none sonne.
as briȝt as doþ at none sonne.
a light as bright as sun at noon.
No man may telle, no þenche in þouȝt,
No man may telle, no þenche in þouȝt,
No man may tell nor think in thought
þe riche werk þat þer was wrouȝt;
þe riche werk þat þer was wrouȝt;
how rich the works that were there wrought;
bi alle þing him þinkþ it is
bi alle þing him þinkþ it is
indeed it seemed he gazed with eyes
þe proude court of Paradis.
þe proude court of Paradis.
of the proud court of Paradise.



In þis castel þe leuedis liȝte;
In þis castel þe leuedis liȝte;
The ladies to that castle passed.
he wolde in after, ȝif he miȝte.
he wolde in after, ȝif he miȝte.
Behind them Orfeo followed fast.
Orfeo knokkeþ atte gate,
Orfeo knokkeþ atte gate,
There knocked he loud upon the gate;
þe porter redi was þerate,
þe porter redi was þerate,
the porter came, and did not wait,
and asked what his wille were.
and asked what his wille were.
but asked him what might be his will.
“Parfay!” quaþ he, “icham harpere,
“Parfay!” quaþ he, “icham harpere,
“In faith, I have a minstrel’s skill
þi lord to solace wiþ mi gle,
þi lord to solace wiþ mi gle,
with mirth and music, if he please,
ȝif his swete wille be”.
ȝif his swete wille be”.
thy lord to cheer, and him to ease.”
Þe porter vndede þe ȝate anon,
Þe porter vndede þe ȝate anon,
The porter swift did then unpin
and let him in þe castel gon.
and let him in þe castel gon.
the castle gates, and let him in.



Þan gan he biholde abouten al,
Þan gan he biholde abouten al,
Then he began to gaze about,
and seiȝ þer liggeand wiþin þe wal
and seiȝ þer liggeand wiþin þe wal
and saw within the walls a rout
folk þat þider were ybrouȝt,
folk þat þider were ybrouȝt,
of folk that were thither drawn below,
and þouȝte dede and nere nouȝt.
and þouȝte dede and nere nouȝt.
and mourned as dead, but were not so.
Sum þer stode wiþouten hadde,
Sum þer stode wiþouten hadde,
For some there stood who had no head,
and sum no fet no armes nadde,
and sum no fet no armes nadde,
and some no arms, not feet; some bled
and sum þurȝ bodi hadde wounde,
and sum þurȝ bodi hadde wounde,
and through their bodies wounds were se,
and sum þer laye wode, ybounde,
and sum þer laye wode, ybounde,
and some were strangled as they ate,
and sum y-armed on horse sete,
and sum y-armed on horse sete,
and some laay raving, chained and bound,
and sum astrangled as þai ete,
and sum astrangled as þai ete,
and some in water had been drowned;
and sum in water were adreinte,
and sum in water were adreinte,
and some were withered in the fire,
and sum wiþ fire were forschreinte.
and sum wiþ fire were forschreinte.
and some on horse, in war’s attire,
Wiues þer laye on childbedde,
Wiues þer laye on childbedde,
and wives there lay in their childbed,
sum were dede and sum awedde;
sum were dede and sum awedde;
and mad were some, and some were dead;
and wonder fele þer laye bisides,
and wonder fele þer laye bisides,
and passing many there lay beside
riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
as though they slept at quiet noon-tide.
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome
Thus in the world was each one caught
and þider wiþ fairie ycome.
and þider wiþ fairie ycome.
and thither by fairy magic brought.
Þer he seiȝ his owen wif,
Þer he seiȝ his owen wif,
There too he saw his own sweet wife,
Dame Heurodis, his leue lif,
Dame Heurodis, his leue lif,
Queen Heurodis, his joy and life,
slepen vnder an ympe-tre:
slepen vnder an ympe-tre:
asleep beneath a grafted tree:
bi hir wede he knew þat it was he.
bi hir wede he knew þat it was he.
by her attire he knew ’twas she.



When he biheld þise meruailes alle,
When he biheld þise meruailes alle,
When he had marked these marvels all,
he wente into þe kinges halle.
he wente into þe kinges halle.
he went before the king in hall,
Þan seiȝ he þer a semly siȝt,
Þan seiȝ he þer a semly siȝt,
and there a joyous sight did see,
a tabernacle blissful, briȝt;
a tabernacle blissful, briȝt;
a shining throne and canopy.
þerinne her maister king him sete,
þerinne her maister king him sete,
Their king and lord there held his seat
and her quene, fair and swete.
and her quene, fair and swete.
beside their lady fair and sweet.
Her crounes, her cloþes, schine so briȝte
Her crounes, her cloþes, schine so briȝte
Their crowns and clothes so brightly shone
þat vnneþe biholden hem he miȝte.
þat vnneþe biholden hem he miȝte.
that scarce his eyes might look thereon.



When he hadde biholden al þat þing,
When he hadde biholden al þat þing,
When he had marked this wondrous thing,
he kneled adoune biforn þe king,
he kneled adoune biforn þe king,
he knelt him down before the king:
and seide: “O lord, ȝif þi wille were,
and seide: “O lord, ȝif þi wille were,
“O lord,” said he, “if it be thy will,
mi menstraci þou schulde yhere”.
mi menstraci þou schulde yhere”.
now shalt thou hear my minstrel’s skill.”
Þe king answerde: “What man artow
Þe king answerde: “What man artow
The king replied: “What man art thou
þat art hider ycomen now?
þat art hider ycomen now?
that hither darest venture now?
Ich, no non þat is wiþ me,
Ich, no non þat is wiþ me,
Nor I nor any here with me
no sente neuer after þe;
no sente neuer after þe;
have ever sent to summon thee,
seþþen þat ich her regni gan,
seþþen þat ich her regni gan,
and since here first my reign began
I no fond neuer so hardi man
I no fond neuer so hardi man
I have never found so rash a man
þat hider to ous durste wende,
þat hider to ous durste wende,
that he to us would dare to wend,
but þat ichim walde ofsende”.
but þat ichim walde ofsende”.
unless I first for him should send.”
“Lord”, quaþ he, “trowe ful wel,
“Lord”, quaþ he, “trowe ful wel,
“My lord,” said he, “I thee assure,
I nam but a pouer menestrel;
I nam but a pouer menestrel;
I am but a wandering minstrel poor;
and, sir, it is þe manere of ous
and, sir, it is þe manere of ous
and, sir, this custom use we all
to seche mani a lordes hous;
to seche mani a lordes hous;
at the house of many a lord to call,
þeiȝ we nouȝt welcome be,
þeiȝ we nouȝt welcome be,
and little though our welcome be,
ȝet we mot proferi forþ our gle”.
ȝet we mot proferi forþ our gle”.
to offer there our minstrelsy.”



Biforn þe king he sat adoune,
Biforn þe king he sat adoune,
Before the king upon the ground
and tok his harpe miri of soune,
and tok his harpe miri of soune,
he sat, and touched his harp to sound;
and tempreþ it as he wel can,
and tempreþ it as he wel can,
his harp he tuned as well he could,
and blissfule notes he þer gan,
and blissfule notes he þer gan,
glad notes began and music good,
þat alle þat in þe palais were
þat alle þat in þe palais were
and all who were in palace found
come to him for to here,
come to him for to here,
came unto him to hear the sound,
and liggeþ adoune to his fete,
and liggeþ adoune to his fete,
and lay before his very feet,
hem þenkeþ his melodie so swete.
hem þenkeþ his melodie so swete.
they thought his melody so sweet.
Þe king herkneþ and sitt ful stille,
Þe king herkneþ and sitt ful stille,
He played, and silent sat the king
to here his gle he haþ god wille;
to here his gle he haþ god wille;
for great delight in listening;
god bourde he hadde of his gle,
god bourde he hadde of his gle,
great joy this minstrelsy he deemed,
þe riche quen also hadde he.
þe riche quen also hadde he.
and joy to his noble queen it seemed.



When he hadde stint harping,
When he hadde stint harping,
At last when he his harping stayed,
seide to him þan þe king:
seide to him þan þe king:
this speech the king to him then made:
“Menstrel, me likeþ wel þi gle.
“Menstrel, me likeþ wel þi gle.
“Minstrel, thy music pleaseth me.
Now aske of me what it be,
Now aske of me what it be,
Come, ask of me whate’er it be,
largeliche ichil þe paye.
largeliche ichil þe paye.
and rich reward I will thee pay.
Now speke, and tow miȝt assaye”.
Now speke, and tow miȝt assaye”.
Come, speak, and prove now what I say!”
“Sir”, he seide, “ich biseche þe
“Sir”, he seide, “ich biseche þe
“Good sir,” he said, “I beg of thee
þattow woldest ȝiue me
þattow woldest ȝiue me
that this thing thou wouldst give to me,
þat iche leuedi briȝt on ble
þat iche leuedi briȝt on ble
that very lady fair to see
þat slepeþ vnder þe ympe-tre”.
þat slepeþ vnder þe ympe-tre”.
who sleeps beneath the grafted tree.”
“Nay”, quaþ þe king, “þat nouȝt nere!
“Nay”, quaþ þe king, “þat nouȝt nere!
“Nay,” said the king, “that would not do!
A sori couple of ȝou it were,
A sori couple of ȝou it were,
A sorry pair ye’d make, ye two;
for þou art lene, row, and blac,
for þou art lene, row, and blac,
for thou art black, and rough, and lean,
and sche is louesum wiþouten lac;
and sche is louesum wiþouten lac;
and she is faultless, fair and clean.
a loþlich þing it were forþi
a loþlich þing it were forþi
A monstrous thing then would it be
to sen hir in þi compaini”.
to sen hir in þi compaini”.
to see her in thy company.”



“O sir”, he seide, “gentil king,
“O sir”, he seide, “gentil king,
“O sir,” he said, “O gracious king,
ȝet were it a wel fouler þing
ȝet were it a wel fouler þing
but it would be a fouler thing
to here a lesing of þi mouþe,
to here a lesing of þi mouþe,
from mouth of thine to hear a lie.
so, sir, as ȝe seide nouþe,
so, sir, as ȝe seide nouþe,
Thy vow, sir, thou canst not deny,
what ich wolde aski, haue I scholde,
what ich wolde aski, haue I scholde,
Whate’er I asked, that should I gain,
and nedes þi word þou most holde”.
and nedes þi word þou most holde”.
and thou must needs thy word maintain.”
Þe king seide: “Seþþen it is so,
Þe king seide: “Seþþen it is so,
The king then said: “Since that is so,
take hir bi þe hond and go;
take hir bi þe hond and go;
now take her hand in thine, and go;
of hir ichil þattow be bliþe”.
of hir ichil þattow be bliþe”.
I wish thee joy of her, my friend!”



He kneled adoune, and þonked him swiþe;
He kneled adoune, and þonked him swiþe;
He thanked him well, on knees did bend;
his wif he tok bi þe honde,
his wif he tok bi þe honde,
his wife he took then by the hand,
and dede him swiþe out of þat londe,
and dede him swiþe out of þat londe,
and departed swiftly from that land,
and wente him oute of þat þede:
and wente him oute of þat þede:
and from that country went in haste;
riȝt as he com þe way he ȝede.
riȝt as he com þe way he ȝede.
the way he came he now retraced.

Commentary
Sir Orfeo is a Middle English poem by an unknown author, dated from the latter part of the 13th or the early 14th century, possibly adapted from a now lost original in Old French (Tolkien subscribed to this opinion). We know it from three later manuscripts; the oldest one, called Auchinleck, was copied around 1330 and gives the best reading by far, whereas the two others from the 15th century, the Harley 3810 and the Ashmole 61, provide quite corrupt versions. The story latter survived in folklore: it is thus attested as the 19th of the Child Ballads, an anthology of traditional English, Scottish and American ballads collected by Francis James Child in the second half of the 19th century.

The poem is one of several English 13th and 14th century emulations of a poetic form of possible Celtic origin and name but French in language: the narrative lays or Breton lays. They are stories in octosyllabic couplets, of delicate and refined character (in contrast with the fabliau), moderately long – typically a few hundred lines – and told in concision and ellipsis (in contrast with the romance). The plot usually revolves around love and fantasy and is often but not always taken from the matter of Brittany. The model was set in the later 12th century by the twelve lays of Marie de France, the first known female poet in the French language (in its Anglo-Norman dialect).

Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a fairy tale. Orfeo, a king of England and a famous harper, holds court in Winchester. His queen Heurodis is warned in a dream that she is soon to be magically abducted, which eventually happens despite all precautions. In his grief, Orfeo forsakes his kingship and lives as a hermit in the woods for more than ten years, without any comfort but his harp. From time to time he sees the king of Faërie’s hunt passing, and one day spots Heurodis in the ladies’ company. He follows them into a wondrous land and finds accommodation as a minstrel in a magnificent castle. The king of Faërie enjoys his skill and rashly promises him whatever he will. Orfeo of course asks for Heurodis, and to keep his word the king must give her to him. They go back to Winchester. Orfeo makes sure that his steward has remained faithful to him, and the royal couple comes back in general mirth.

On Sir Orfeo by J. R. R. Tolkien we know both a restitution of the Middle English text and a translation into modern English. The restitution was published anonymously and rather discreetly in Oxford in 1944 as a twenty page booklet, and reedited in 2004 by Carl F. Hostetter in the first issue of Tolkien Studies. It is based on the Auchinleck manuscript as edited by Kenneth Sisam, Tolkien’s tutor and later his colleague at the University of Oxford, but makes some changes to improve the meter and bring the language in line with the 13th century Middle English of South-eastern England, after Tolkien’s opinion about the date and geographic origin of the poem. He thus attempts to get closer to the putative primary version, before it was altered by being transmitted and copied by scribes familiar with other dialects, whose influence can already be felt in the Auchinleck. Tolkien’s modern translation in verse is evidently based on this restitution; it was published posthumously in 1975 by his son Christopher.

The selected sample – how Orfeo recovers Heurodis – is presented after Tolkien’s restitution edited by Hostetter. However, we have made the spelling closer to the Auchinleck’s by omitting the breve on certain o’s (ŏ) and replacing the digraph th by the letter thorn (þ). The translation is also Tolkien’s.

The text’s transcription rather resembles the kind of blackletter writing known as textura prescissa or sine pedibus, typified by the lack of serifs on descenders. This style appeared at the end of the 13th century and spread much in England in the Late Middle Ages. We made use of Robert Pfeffer’s typeface Pfeffer Simpelgotisch.

References
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (ed.). Sir Orfeo: A Middle English Version by J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited, with introduction and notes by Carl F. Hostetter. Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review vol. 1, 2004. Morgantown (West Virginia): West Virginia University Press, 2004. P. 85-123. ISSN 1547-3155. 🌍 Project MUSE.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo: translated by J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2006. VII-158 p. ISBN 978-0-261-10259-0.
Sisam, Kenneth & Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary. Two volumes bound as one. First work originally published: Sisam, Kenneth. Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1921. Second work originally published: Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. A Middle English Vocabulary. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1922. Mineola (New York): Dover Publications, 2005. 292 p. ISBN 0-486-44023-0.

The works of John Ronald Reuel and Christopher Tolkien are under the copyright of their authors and/or rights holders, including their publishers and the Tolkien Estate.
Quotations from other authors, editors and translators mentioned in the bibliography are under the copyright of their publishers, except for those whose copyright term has ended.
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