[Dream Gate] [Poet Glas]

The King of Faerie in "Sir Orfeo"

This essay looks at the King of Faerie in a Medieval Lay that retells the Orpheus myth... the King of Faerie and Hades, Lord of the Underworld, being the same. I found an unusual way to sign it, of course.

Gestes and romances of the age of chivalry did not spring from their creators' brows fully formed; they grew slowly out of the verdant soil of the tales and folklore common to Europe. Lays from Ireland, Wales, and Brittany spread across Europe, inspiring poets like Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach to sing of Arthur's Percival, recasting the Welsh-Saxon troubles and the Cymric milleu into a spell-binding new world of knights and ladies, terrible quests and beautiful boons; still other poets drew from yet more varied sources, Celtic and Classical. An anonymous English poet retold the story of Orpheus and his hellish journey to reclaim Eurydice, casting Hades from his place as plutonic god to that of the King of Faerie. "Sir Orfeo" and the transformation of the tale's bete noire from god to elf is my tale and subject[1].

When the fourteenth century Orfeo poet told his tale, he transformed many of its elements. Removing Thrace from Greece to Winchester, he likewise changed the glooms of the underworld to the glamours of the otherworld. Orfeo, no longer the son of a Muse, became an English king. The poet allowed the mortal dead to remain, though they became company to the King's company of fairies; this is not so unusual, for the Sovereign of Faerie, be they King or Queen, is oft-times associated with the dead, as seen in the Scots-English border ballads of "Tam Lin" and "True Thomas," or Goethe's eighteenth century "Erl King" (Child 1: 317, 335; Van Doren 832). Endings between the poet's tale and its classical source show difference and differance, as well; Sir Orfeo again captured the loving presence of Heurodis.

The role change of Hades follows a pattern common to Christian Western Europe, wherein ancient powers are given less exalted parts to play. Hades does not become mortal, though, unlike the euhemerization that overcomes gods like Odinn, to whom a mundane chieftainship is ascribed by sources ranging from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of the ninth century to Snorri Sturlason of fourteenth century Iceland (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles 10; Sturluson 26).[2] Instead, while the Orfeo poet changes Sir Orfeo's parents to mortals, he gives Hades the Elvish task of coming and abducting someone who is asleep beneath a tree, in much the same manner as the Queen of Faerie abducting both Tam Lin and True Thomas in later tales; this is not so much of a change, as the Elves of ancient Germanic myth were often associated with wood-witches and with certain of the later German-Norse gods, the Aesir (Spaeth 150). Since the Tuatha de Danann, who are the Celtic Fair Folk, and the Elves of German lore likewise have associations with the dead, Hades role as Fairy King enables him to retain his shady entourage and portfolio.

Even older influences arise within the tale, however; like the fair Janet meeting Tam Lin or True Thomas meeting the Fairy Queen, Heurodis encounters the ruler of Elfland underneath a tree, while asleep. Similar trees abound, from Adam's time to now; the Eildon tree, under which True Thomas meets the Fairie Queen is one, and the later tree of which he is warned (and of which he eats, in one version of the tale) is another. Such a leafy commonality is no strange thing to Indo-European folklore, though, should one accept the hypothesis of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. As Sir James saw things, a multitude of gods spring from the Oak, an ancient god of that tree and of the skies and their thunders; these godlings include Jupiter, Zeus Pater, Thor/Donar, Perun of the Slavs, and Perkuns/Perkunas of the Lithuanians, all associated with the same root myth as the Indian Parjanya, god of thunder, rain and plants, in Sir James' views (Frazer 2: 356). Yes or no, the tree is still the boundary within Sir Orfeo and other tales wherein this world meets the next; like the King of Faerie, the tree is a remnant of earlier roots to this tale.

From ancient times to the present, storytellers and poets have drawn from myth and legend the refreshing draught of inspiration. Orpheus becomes Orfeo in this medieval tale which bears his name, as well as in a later, similar Orkney ballad recorded by Professor Child (Child 1: 215). Recast as a King of the Fairies, Hades retains his plutonic associates, if not his gloomy throne. Fortunately, this role fits him well, for fairies in lore are often of indeterminate nature, from Anglo-Saxon times to the near-present; a seventeenth century spell for summoning a "Fayrie" refers to the "spirrits name, or fayries name" (Briggs 376). Using the bare bones of the Orpheus myth, the Orfeo poet retells and finishes his polished tale with an English theme of high romance and chivalry. Numerous relics of Celtic and Classical lore abound, and yet this tale is its own, setting down a part of the foundation upon which later Dreams and Queenly allegories would stand.

NOTES FOR The King of Faerie in "Sir Orfeo"

  1. I used the following translations: Loomis, Roger Sherman, and Laura Hibbard Loomis, ed., Medieval Romances (New York: The Modern Library, 1957) and Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. and ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1978).
    Return to Note 1 .
  2. See also Dumezil, Georges, Gods of the Ancient Northmen, trans. the Regents of the University of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
    Return to Note 2 .


  1. Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies. New York: Pantheon Books,1976.
  2. Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. 1882. New York: Dover Publications, 1965.
  3. Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion. 3rd ed. New York: MacMillan Company, 1935.
  4. Spaeth, J. Duncan, trans. and ed. Old English Poetry. New York: Gordian Press, 1967.
  5. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jean I. Young. 1954. Berkeley: University of California Press, undated.
  6. Van Doren, Mark, ed. An Anthology of World Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1928.
  7. Whitelock, Dorothy, trans. and ed. with David c. Douglas and Susie I. Tucker. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1961.

copyright 29 Apr 1991 (AS XXV) by Earle B. 'Glas' Durboraw

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