The Magic of Sir Orfeo
by Cathy Cupitt

Each was taken like this from our world,
And with fairy magic brought to that place. 1

Sir Orfeo is a poem or lay, that is typical of the romance in that its characters are confronted with the presence of magic in their world, a “serene intermingling of the unexpected with the everyday”2. It has been suggested that “references to magic and enchantment in the romance are usually an attempt to mystify political or sexual power relations”3. The twin concerns in Sir Orfeo are of kingly honour/duty, and true love, or put another way, political and sexual power relations. Do the elements of magic present in the tale mystify these central themes? According to Peter Lucas, both these bonds are at least tested by magic.

In Sir Orfeo the bonds of human society are tested, principally by a mysterious, external, supernatural agent. Broadly, the bonds involved are the basic ones. That between a man and a woman … [and] … that between man and man [society].4

What then is magic? The Macquarie Dictionary defines magic as.

The art of producing effects claimed to be beyond the natural human power and arrived at by means of supernatural agencies or through command of occult forces in nature. 5

The Faerie King is a supernatural agent, and certainly is capable of “producing effects … beyond the natural human power” of King Orfeo. The magical abduction of Queen Heurodis by the Faerie King is a direct affront to both political and sexual power relations in Orfeo’s kingdom. The Faerie King’s magic renders Orfeo’s kingly power – represented by his thousand knights – useless. And simultaneously breaks his vows of love to Heurodis: “Where you go, I will go with you / And where I go, you shall go with me”. Orfeo’s unwritten contracts with his subjects and wife have been broken, and so he abdicates his crown and “will never look on any woman again”.

Although Orfeo blatantly does not embark on a quest to regain his wife, and hence to regain some sort of power balance with the Faerie King, his actions in response to the situation are the crux of the poem according to Lucas.

In Sir Orfeo there are two tests, that of the relationship between Orfeo and Heurodis, and that of the relationship between Orfeo and his subjects. But these relationships are seen as pivots to society. What is at stake, ultimately, is society’s capacity to survive unchanged. 6

Orfeo’s first response is to forsake his kingdom and live alone in the wilderness. While in the wilderness, the audience is given a description of all that he left behind. The list of luxuries and kingly possessions sounds very like a list of the sorts of things the Faerie King would also have. In fact he, and his faerie kingdom, are almost a mirror image of King Orfeo and his `real’ kingdom. Both have “Rivers, forest, wood with flowers”, Queens that are “beautiful”, and retinues of knights and ladies of equivalent numbers. After the grimness of the ten years of Orfeo’s exile, which the audience has shared with him in part, the faerie kingdom looks fantastic and other-worldly. One suspects Orfeo’s own kingdom would also look fantastical in comparison to the wilderness.

This point of entry into the faerie kingdom, is where I believe the most important mystification of power takes place. The audience has been `taken’ into the romanticised world of Sir Orfeo, and then `taken’ into the enchanted world of the Faerie King7. This double distancing from the real world of the audience disguises and mystifies the significance of the power displayed within. Robert Longsworth phrases it this way:

Both formally and thematically, then, the poem portrays the unfamiliar hidden within the familiar, uncertainty concealed within certitude, and reality disguised by appearance – or vice versa. The manner, however, belongs to the magician rather than to the moralist. Playfulness is, after all, the driving spirit of the work. 8

A point made by Auden is that a realistic political system is impossible to convey in a romance, which would seem to suggest that the mystification of certain political elements would be the method of choice for an author wanting to imbue his story with a sense of political power relations at work in the world.

The … fairy story, [is] a secondary world of romantic knightly adventure, which … “it is impossible to fit into any actual or practically conceivable political system.” 9

The faerie kingdom, superficially, seems perfect. The castle is beautiful, it is always light, the grounds are a pastoral paradise. However, within the castle’s courtyard hides the grotesque. It poses the question: if Sir Orfeo’s kingdom is really a mirror of this one, does it too hide the grotesque acts of Medieval life? “So violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and roses”, wrote Huizinga about the society of the Middle Ages10. The tableaux in the courtyard is quite a comprehensive list of ‘unnatural’, bloody deaths likely to happen in this era.

Some stood there without a head,
And some others no arms they had,
And some through the body had a wound,
And some lay mad, and they were bound,
And some in arms on horse they sat,
And some were choked as they ate,
And some had been drowned in water
And some were all withered in the fire.
Wives lay there in childbed,

All of these `taken’ people are being mysteriously kept alive, and on display by faerie magic. What political comment could this be making? It would seem to be making comment on political power relations between a King and his subjects. The faerie kingdom seems to be representative of the worst of the Middle Ages. “In the feudal age the private wars between two families have no other discernible reason than rivalry of rank and covetousness of possessions”11. Heurodis was stolen for no given reason, other than that the Faerie King wanted to. The display of the mutilated `taken’ also seems horrible and pointless.

At one level, the two kingdoms seem strikingly similar in the ways they show an apparently decorous civilisation at work. At another level … fairy land promises violence and pain. … The fairy kings words pervert the rhetorical rituals and conventions of civilised life.12

This lack of honour on the part of the Faerie King, the perverted way he uses his powers, is the one real difference between to two kings. Orfeo’s triumph is one of honour rather than of physical or magical power. “It would be a much fouler thing / To hear a false word from your mouth”, states Orfeo to the Faerie King, when the Faerie King seems about to dishonour his kingly promise. By the success of this argument Orfeo wins back Heurodis.

The disruption of duty and love is reconciled when Orfeo successfully wins back Heurodis by honourable, un-magical means. From this point the narrative ignores the theme of personal love almost entirely, and concentrates on the theme of Orfeo’s resumption of his kingly duties.

It is interesting to observe that although the poem begins with the theme of romantic love seemingly dominant, it ends with the theme of kingly duty dominating. Heurodis’ most important act seems to be her magical abduction. We see the emotional attachment between Heurodis and Orfeo only in the light of her impending `doom’. The only glimpse we have of her power as a woman is in how her absence affects Orfeo.

In the poem King Horn, although the heroine, Rimenild, had little to do but wait for Horn to return to her, her presence is felt throughout the story by reference to the token she had given Horn – a magic ring13. In Sir Orfeo, Orfeo’s token of hope is his harp. Although the harp is a unifying feature of the poem, it is never related to Heurodis. In fact we are never even told that she has heard him play it.

Within Sir Orfeo, the mystification of sexual power relations is almost complete. Once Heurodis has been rescued, and the conflict of love and duty is resolved, she no longer seems to matter. We learn nothing of Heurodis’ frame of mind, opinions, or influence over Orfeo when they return from faerie land, except in the negative – she does not seem to object to anything that is happening to her. It suggests too, that her fidelity and love are more important than she is herself. The audience is left with little feeling for the place in society that Heurodis fills – she is not even a mother of Orfeo’s heirs at poem’s end. Nicholson comments that “the heroine of medieval romance often does seem to inhabit the margin of the text which records her tale, but Heurodis is given a place and then that place is denied her.”14

The audience is, however, quite sure of both Orfeo’s, and the loyal Steward’s places in society.

Now King Orfeo is newly crowned
And his Queen Heurodis,
And they lived long afterwards;
And then the steward was king.

Magic then, has disguised the villain of the piece as inhuman, and removed real Medieval atrocities to faerie land. But it has also shown the audience that “if [the hero] is willing to sacrifice for those he loves, is loyal to those he serves, humble and patient in his adversities, and grateful, not exultant, in his moments of triumph” all will end happily, and order will come of chaos15.

The definition Butler gives of magic, as “the art of causing changes in consciousness at will”16, describes well the impact magic has on those who are subject to it. In the case of Sir Orfeo, both Orfeo and the audience have their ideas and ideals affected by the magic of the Faerie King – Orfeo in his uses of physical, and artistic power; and the Medieval audience in their reaffirmation that the world is a place of meaning where human order and social norms can prevail.

Magic and enchantment are common elements of the romance. They add excitement and mystery to an adventure, making the story more interesting for the reader. No tale, however, is entirely free of social comment, by the very fact that all stories are social constructs, made to be read by members of society. I believe that magic and enchantment are often used to mystify political or sexual power relations in the romance, in order to make problems of the everyday world seem both exciting, and conquerable.

In Sir Orfeo, we, as audience, are `taken’ from our mundane, imperfect world, and with faerie magic brought into the wish fulfilling world of Romance.


Allen, D.
“Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken.” Medium Aevum, 33 (1964), 102-11.
Auden, W. H.
Secondary Worlds. London: Faber, 1967.
Beer, G.
The Romance: Critical Idiom Series. London: Methuen, 1970.
Butler, W. E.
Magic: Its Ritual, Power & Purpose. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1952.
Gros Louis, K. R. R.
“The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile.” RES, 18 (1967), 245-52.
Huizinga, J.
The Waning of the Middle Ages, trans. F. Hopman. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.
Lerer, S.
“Artifice and Artistry in Sir Orfeo.” Speculum, 60 (1985), 92-109.
Longsworth, R. M.
“Sir Orfeo, The Minstrel, and the Minstrel’s Art.” Studies in Philology, 79 (1), (1982), 1-11.
Lucas, P. J.
“An interpretation of Sir Orfeo.” Leeds Studies in English, 6 (1972), 1-9.
Lynch, A.
Translation of Sir Orfeo from K. Sisam (Ed.) Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921; reprinted with translation in English 214/314 Romance Reader (Nedlands: University of Western Australia, 1995), p. 39-53.
Macquarie Dictionary,
Revised Second Edition. Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1989.
Nicholson, R. H.
“Sir Orfeo: A `kynges noote’.” RES, 36 (1985), 161-79.

Secondary References

Crane, S.
Insular Romance: Politics, Faith and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1986, Introduction and Chapter One.
Friedman, J. B.
“Eurydice, Heurodis, and the Noon-Day Demon.” Speculum, 41 (1966), 22-29.
Keeble, N. H.
“The Narrative Achievement of Sir Orfeo.” English Studies, 56 (1975), 193-206.
Kinghorn, A. M.
“Human Interest in the Middle English Sir Orfeo.” Neophilologus, 50 (1966), 359-69.
Kneen, L.
English 214/314 Romance Tutorial. Given at the University of Western Australia on 13 March 1995.
Liuzza, R. M.
“Sir Orfeo: Sources, Traditions and the Poetics of Performance.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 21 (2), (1991), 269-84.
Lynch, A.
English 214/314 Romance Lecture. Given at the University of Western Australia on 13 March 1995.
Mitchell, B.
“The Faery World of Sir Orfeo.” Neophilologus, 48 (1964), 156-9.
Ronquist, E. C.
“The Powers of Poetry in Sir Orfeo.” Philological Quarterly, 64 (1985), 99-117.


  1. All text quoted from Sir Orfeo is taken from Andrew Lynch’s translation of the Middle English Sir Orfeo found in K. Sisam (Ed.) Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921; reprinted with translation in English 214/314 Romance Reader (Nedlands: University of Western Australia, 1995), p. 39-53.
  2. Gillian Beer, The Romance: The Critical Idiom Series (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 10.
  3. Essay question 10, handout 14/214/314/95, University of Western Australia English Department.
  4. “An interpretation of Sir Orfeo,” Leeds Studies in English 6 (1972), 4.
  5. Revised Second Edition (Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1989), p. 1039.
  6. Lucas, p. 7.
  7. The idea of being `taken’ alive to the fairy world, rather than dead to the underworld, is an issue discussed by Dorena Allen in her essay “Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken,” Medium Aevum, 33 (1964), 102-11.
  8. “Sir Orfeo, The Minstrel, and the Minstrel’s Art,” Studies in Philology 79 (1) (1982), p. 10.
  9. W. H. Auden, Secondary Worlds (London: Faber, 1967), p. 54. In the section that I have quoted, Auden is quoting Eric Auerbach.
  10. J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, trans. F. Hopman (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972), p.25.
  11. Huizinga, p. 21.
  12. Seth Lerer, “Artifice and Artistry in Sir Orfeo,” Speculum 60 (1985), p. 97.
  13. English 214/314 Romance Reader (Nedlands: University of Western Australia, 1995), p. 1-37.
  14. R. H. Nicholson, “Sir Orfeo: A `kynges noote’,” RES 36 (1985), p. 161.
  15. Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, “The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile,” RES 18 (1967), p. 252.
  16. W. E. Butler, Magic: Its Ritual, Power & Purpose (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1952), p. 12.

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