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From Early English Romances: Done Into Modern English by Edith Rickert: Romances of Love, Chatto and Windus: London, Duffield & Co.: London, 1908; pp. 32-46, 180-182.



Often we read and in writing find
And likewise clerks put us in mind,
Of lays
2 that be made for harping,
Of many a strange and ferly thing:
Some be of weal and some of woe,
And some of joy and mirth also,
Some of treachery, some of guile,
And some of haps that fell erewhile,
Some of jest and ribaldry,
And some there be of the Faërie,
33 Of all things that men may see,
But most of love, forsooth, they be.
All those lays were found and written
First, and spread abroad in Britain,
Of old adventures, bygone days,
Whereof the Britons made these lays,
When they might hear anywhere
Of adventures that there were,
They took their harps with glee and game,3
To make these lays, and gave them name.
Of old haps that once befell,
Some, not all, I can you tell.
Hearken, lordings that be true,
And I will speak of Orfeo.

HE was a king, stalwart and bold, courteous and free of his gifts. His father came of the race of King Pluto, and his mother of King Juno, who were sometime held as gods for the adventures they did and told.

Now Orfeo loved most of anything glee of the harp; and every good harper was certain to have much honour at his hands. He himself loved playing, and so laid his keen wits to it and learned, that in all the world was no better harper. There was never a man born who sat by him and listened to his playing but thought himself in one of the joys of Paradise, such was the melody of his music.


He dwelled in Traciens,4 a city of noble defence, with his gentle queen, Heurodis,5 the fairest lady of that time, and full of love and goodness. Of her beauty no man could tell.

Now it chanced that in the beginning of May, when the days are merry and hot, and winter rains are done, when every field is full of flowers, and blossoms hang on every bough, and the earth over all waxeth gay enough, this Queen Heurodis, taking two of her fair maidens, went early in the morning into an orchard, to see the flowers spring up and grow, and to hear the birds singing.

They sat them down all three together under a fair imp-tree;6 and presently the fair queen fell asleep on the grass. Her maidens durst not awaken her, but let her lie and take her rest; and so she slept through undern7 until the afternoon.

But as soon as she awoke, she cried out and made a great moaning, and twisted her hands and feet, and scratched her face until it bled, and tore her rich robe, so clearly out of her wits that the maids by her side durst stay with her no longer, but ran to the palace straightway and told knight and squire that the queen would away, and bade them go and restrain her.

Knights ran and ladies also, sixty and more damsels 35together; so came to the queen in the orchard, took her up in their arms, carried her to her bed, and there held her safe, though ever she went on crying, and would be up and away.

When Orfeo heard these tidings, he was more grieved than ever before in his life, and came with ten knights into the queen’s chamber, and beheld her, and said with great pity:

“O dear life, what ails thee? Thou hast ever been so still, and now dost greet8 with shrill crying! And thy fair body is all torn with thy nails, thy once rosy face is as wan as thou were dead, and thy small fingers are all pale and bleeding! Alas, thy lovesome een stare as a man’s on his foe! Ah, lady, have pity! Let be this rueful crying, and tell me what aileth thee, and how and in what wise I may thee help!”

Then she lay still at last, and fell into swift weeping, and said to the king: “Alas, my lord, Sir Orfeo, since we were first married, never once have we been wroth with each other, but ever I have loved thee as my life, and so thou me; but now we must part — do thy best, still must I go!”

“Alas!” quoth he, “I am forlorn! Whither wilt thou go, and to whom? Where thou goest, I will with thee, and where I go, thou shalt!”

‘Nay, nay, sir, that may not be! I will tell thee how 36 it is. This underntide, as I lay asleep in our orchard, there appeared to me two fair armed knights who bade me come at once and speak with their lord and king; and when I answered with bold words that I neither durst nor would, they pricked away as fast as they might spur, and quickly returned with him. He was followed by an hundred men and more, and an hundred damsels all on snow-white steeds, in garments white as milk. Never in my life have I seen such beautiful creatures!

“The king had on his head a crown not of silver or of red gold, but of a single precious gem that shone like the sun. As soon as he was come to me, he caught me up, whether I would or no, and set me on a palfrey by his side, and took me to his splendid palace. Castles he showed me, and towers, rivers, forests, and flowery glades, and all his rich steadings; and at last he brought me home again to our own orchard, and said to me after: ‘Look, dame, that thou be to-morrow here under this imp-tree; and then thou shalt come to dwell with us for ever. If thou makest any hindrance, thou shalt be fetched, wheresoever thou art, and all thy limbs so torn that nothing shall avail thee, and even in that state we shall bear thee away with us!”

When Orfeo heard this, he cried: “Alas, alas! I would rather lose my life than thee, my wife and queen!”

He asked counsel of all his men, but none could help him.

On the morrow, when undern was come, he took his 37 weapons, and with well ten hundred knights armed stout and grim, he went with the queen right unto that imp-tree. They kept guard on every side, and said that they would stay there and die ere the queen should be taken from them. But yet from full in the midst of them all she was snatched away by the fairies, and men wist never where she was gone.

Then was there bitter weeping and woe. The king went into his chamber and swooned on the stones, and made such dole and such moan that his life was near spent, and there was no help for him. Soon he called together his barons, earls, and other lords of renown, and when they were all come, he said: “Lords, in your presence, I ordain my high steward to govern all my kingdom in my stead, and to keep my lands withal, for now that I have lost my queen, the fairest lady ever born, never again will I look upon any woman! I shall go into the wilderness, and dwell henceforth with the wild beasts in the hoary woods. And when ye know that my life is spent, then make a parliament and choose you a new king; so do your best with all that is mine.”

Then was there weeping in the hall, and great outcry among young and old, who could scarce find a word to their tongues for sorrow. But they all kneeled down together, and prayed him, if it were his will, not to leave them.

“Away!” he said. “It shall be so.”


So he forsook his kingdom, and taking with him nor kirtle, nor hood, nor shirt nor other goods, but only a palmer’s cloak, and his harp, he passed barefoot and alone from the gates; for no man would he allow to go with him.

Ah, but there was weeping and woe, when he that had been their crownèd king went thus poorly out of town!

Through wood he passed, and over heath into the wilderness, and found nowhere comfort, but eve lived in great malease. He that had once worn rich grey fur and slept in a bed of purple pall, now lay on the hard heath with leaves and grass for his covering. He that had once owned castles, towers, rivers, forests and flowery glades, now even in frost and snow must make his bed on the moss. He that had once seen knights of prowess kneeling before him, and ladies as well, now finds naught to his liking among the wild serpent-kind. He that once had plenty of meat and drink and all things dainty, now must daily grub and dig to find his fill of roots. In summer, he lived upon wild fruits and berries but little good; in winter, he could find nothing but roots and grasses and bark. So he continued till his body was shrunken for misease, and he was all a-cough, and his beard, black and shaggy, was grown to his girdle. Lord, who may tell what sorrow this king suffered for ten years and more!

His harp, wherein was all his joy, he hid in a hollow tree; and when the weather was clear and bright, he took it to

Image from a manuscript of a man with short hair in a dark robe playing harp and surrounded by animals with some trees behind him.

“All the wild beasts ......... gathered round him for delight.”


him and played at his own will. The sound of his harping shrilled throughout the woods, so that all the wild beasts that were there gathered round him for delight; and all the birds that were there came and sat on every briar to hear his sweet playing, so much melody was therein. But as soon as he ceased to harp no beast would stay near him.

Often in the hot underntide, he saw the King of Faërie with his rout come hunting all about him with dun9 cries and horn-blowings, and the barking of hounds. But they never took any beast, and never might he know whither they went.

At other times, he would see, as a great host, fully armed knights, well turned ten hundred, with fierce, bold faces, and with many banners displayed, and each knight holding a drawn sword; but he wist never where they went.

And at other times he saw other things, knights and ladies come a-dancing, in quaint attire disguised, with quaint steps and soft. And they had with them tabours10 and trumpets, and all manner minstrelsy.

And on a day he saw beside him sixty ladies on horseback, as gentle and jolly11 as birds on a bough; and there was no man among them. And each bore a falcon on her hand, and so they went a-hawking by the river, and found good haunts of game — mallard and heron and cormorant. 40 As the water-fowl arose, each falcon bore him well and seized his prey.

When Orfeo saw that he laughed. “I’ faith!” quoth he, “I will thither, in God’s name! That is a fair sport, and I was ever wont to see such work.”

He rose and went up to one of the ladies, and beheld by marks that it was his own queen, Heurodis. Yearningly he gazed on her and she on him; but neither spoke a word to other.

Tears fell from her een when she saw him so poor that had been once so rich and high; but when the other ladies beheld him, they made her ride away, so that she might dwell with him no longer.

“Alas!” he cried. “Now woe is me! Why will not death slay me? Alas, poor wretch, that I may not die after this sight! Alas, my life endures too long, when I may not speak with my queen, nor she with me, one word! Why will not my heart break? Parfay,” quoth he, “tide what may betide, I will go the same way that these ladies have taken! I reck not of life or death!”

Thus saying, he put on his palmer’s cloak, and hung his harp on his back; and, having good will to go, he spared for neither stub nor stone. The ladies rode into a rock,12 and he followed after without delay; and when he had gone three miles or more in the rock, he came to a fair country, as bright as the sun on a summer’s day, smooth and level, 41 and all green, without sign of hill or dale. In the midst of the land he saw a castle, rich and royal and wondrous high. All the outermost wall was clear and shone like crystal, and an hundred towers were set about it of quaint fashion and stoutly embattled; and the buttresses rising above the dyke were of red gold richly arched. The great hall within was adorned with divers animals; and there were wide dwellings all of precious stones. Even the worst pillar there was made of burnished gold.

All that land was ever in light, for when dark evening came the rich stones reflected rays as bright as the noon-day sun.13 No man might tell or even think of all the splendid work there wrought; and by all marks it seemed to be the proud court of Paradise.

At this castle the ladies dismounted, and Orfeo, following eagerly, knocked at the gate; whereupon the porter was ready, and asked what he would have.

Parfay,” quoth he, “lo! I am a minstrel come to comfort your lord with my music, if it be his sweet will.”

The porter undid the gate anon, and let him into the castle. He looked about, and saw lying there within the wall a crowd of folk that had been brought thither, and were thought to be dead but were not.14 Some were headless, others without arms, some had wounds through the body, some lay mad and bound, some sat armed on horseback, some had been strangled as they ate, some had been drowned 42 and others all shrivelled up by fire. Wives lay there in childbed, some dead and some raving mad; and wonder many lay there right as they were taken by the fairies from the world, while they slept at underntide. Among them he saw his own wife, Heurodis, asleep under an imp-tree, for he knew her by her clothes.

When he had beheld all these marvels, he went to the king’s hall wherein stood a splendid canopy, under which sat the king and his fair, sweet queen. Their crowns and their garments shone so dazzling bright that he could scarce bear to look at them.

When he had seen all these things, he kneeled before the king and said: “O lord, if it be thy will, thou shalt hear my minstrelsy.”

“What man art thou?” answered the king. “I know that none of my people have sent for thee; and never since I first reigned here, have I found any man so foolhardy that he durst come hither to us unless I sent for him.”

“Lord,” answered Orfeo, “trow ye, I am but a poor minstrel; and, sir, it is the manner of us to proffer our music in many a lord’s house where we be unwelcome.”15

He sat down before the king, and as he well could, took and tuned his merry-sounding harp. And after, he drew forth such blissful notes that all the folk in the palace came to listen to him and lay down at his feet, so dulcet they found his melody.


The king sat full still, and gladly hearkened to the music that so enchanted him and his queen; and when Orfeo came to an end, he said: “Minstrel, meliketh well thy glee! Ask of me whatso thou wilt. Speak now and try thy power, and I will pay thee right royally for thy music!”

“Sir,” answered Orfeo, “I beseech thee to give me that lady bright of face who sleeps beneath the imp-tree.”

“Nay,” quoth the king, “that will I not! A sorry couple ye would make, for thou art lean and rough and black, and she is most lovesome. It were a loathly thing to see her in thy company!”

“O sir,” cried Orfeo, “gentle king! Yet were it a thing more loathly to hear a lie fall from thy lips! So, sir, as thou saidst even now, that what I asked for I should have, thou must needs keep thy word!”

“Since that is so,” said the king, “take her by the hand and depart. I wish you joy of her!”

Orfeo kneeled down and thanked him with all his heart. Then holding his wife by the hand, he passed quickly out of that place, and away from that people, by the same way that he had come.

So long they journeyed till they arrived at Traciens, his own city; but at first he went no further than the town’s end. No man knew that it was he, and as a poor minstrel he with his wife took lodging with a beggar but narrowly 44 housed. There he asked tiding of his land, and who held the kingdom. The beggar in his cot told him every deal, how the queen had been stolen away by fairies ten years before, and how the king had gone into exile, no man knew where, and how the steward governed the land, and many other things.

On the morrow at noontide, leaving his wife in that place, and borrowing the beggar’s clothes, he took his harp on his back and went into the city, so that men might behold him. And earls and bold barons, burgesses and ladies, ran to see.

“Lo,” they said, “such a man! How long is his hair! And look, his beard hangeth to his knee! Like a withered tree, he is all shrunken!”

As he passed along the street, he met his steward, and cried aloud: “Sir steward, mercy! I am a harper of heathendom16 — help me now in my distress!”

“Come with me,” answered the steward. “In all that I have thou shalt share, for every good harper is welcome to me for love of my lord, Sir Orfeo!”

In the hall the steward sat with the other barons at meat: and there were trumpeters and tabourers and many harpers and fiddlers. While they were all making melody, Orfeo held him still and hearkened; and when all were quiet, he took his harp and tuned it shrill, and played the sweetest notes that ever man heard. All the people loved 45 well his music, and the steward looked, and straightway he knew that harp.

“Minstrel,” he said, “as thou hopest to thrive, how didst thou obtain this harp? I prithee, tell me.”

“Lord,” quoth he, “as I went through a wilderness in a strange land, I found in a hollow a man torn to pieces by lions, and wolves gnawing him with their sharp teeth. It is well ten years ago.”

“Oh,” cried the steward, “now woe is me! That was my lord, Sir Orfeo. Alas, wretch, what shall I do who have lost such a lord? Away that ever I was born! Alas, that such scant grace was his, and that he was fore-doomed to such a vile death!”

With this he fell a-swooning to the ground; and the barons raised him up, and told him how it is that there is no help for a man’s death.

Thereupon King Orfeo knew well that his steward was a true man and loved him as well as he deserved, and standing up, he spake as follows: “Lo, now, sir steward, hearken to this thing. If I were King Orfeo and had suffered bitterly in the wilderness, and had won my queen away out of Fairyland, and had brought my sweet lady right here to the town’s end and left here there with a beggar, and were myself come hither to assay thy good will, and had found thee thus true, surely thou shouldst never rue it, but for love of this love of thine, I should make thee king after my day; but if thou hadst been glad of my 46 death, thou shouldst straightway have been driven into exile!”

Then all that sat there understood that it was King Orfeo himself. And the steward knew him well, and flung over the boards,17 and fell down at his feet, and so did all the other lords, and said at once: “Ye be our lord, sir, and our king!”

They rejoiced that he was still alive, and anon led him to his chamber, and bathed him, and shaved his beard, and attired him fittingly as a king.

Then in a great procession, and with all manner minstrelsy — Lord, what melody was there! — they brought the queen into the town. And all those that saw the king and queen safe and sound, wept for joy.

Now is King Orfeo crowned anew, and also his dame, Queen Heurodis. They lived long after, and when their time was past, the steward was king.

And presently harpers in Britain heard of this marvel, and made it into a lay of good liking, and named it after King Orfeo. It is a pleasant lay and sweet of note.

Thus came King Orfeo out of his care;
God grant us all as well to fare!


1 Orpheus. See note.

2 See note.

3 Music and mirth.

4 Thrace. See note.

5 Eurydice.

6 A grafted tree. See note.

7 Nine to twelve A. M. See note.

8 Weep.

9 Literally, dull of colour; here, faint of sound.

10 Drums.

11 French joli, pretty.

12 See note.

13 See note.

14 See note.

15 See note.

16 Probably, on trestles.




p. 1. This lay (602 lines) is found in four MSS., of which th Auchinleck is again the oldest. One was printed by Ritson, in his Ancient Engleish Metrical Romancës, 1802; a second by Laing, Select Remains of the Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland, 1822; the third by Halliwell in his Illustrations of the Fairy Mytholody of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1845; while a separate critical edition is mady by Zielke in 1880, MS. Digby, 86, is still unpublished. In a study in the American Journal of Philology, vol. viii., Prof. Kittredge points out the Celtic modifications of the classic myth. Although the original of this poem is lost, it is undoubtedly a translation. A French lai ofOrphée is several times referred to in the twelfth century.

p. 32. Orfeo. A claim has been made for an Italian source on the strength of this form, but other evidence is lacking.

p. 32. Of lays, &c. The introduction which I have here kept in verse is found almost identical in the Lay of the Ash, p. 47, where I have rendered the text into prose. It is impossible to say with certainty for which poem, if for either, it was originally intended. The presumption is in favour of Orfeo, in tha t nothing of the sort occurs in the French original of the Lay of the Ash.


p. 33. King Juno. doubtless the o was evidence of masculinity to this scribe. The Harley MS. says that Orfeo’s parents were Pilato and Yno.

p. 34. Traciens. The Auchinleck MS. adds a couplet to the effect that Winchester was so called formerly.

p. 134. Under a fair imp-tree. Cf. Child’s Ballads (1886), vol. i., 340, for references to the supposed danger of falling asleep under special trees, usually fruit-trees, and among them, the apple. In Greek superstition, summer-noon is the most dangerous season.

p. 40. Rode into a rock. The Celtic Other-World was reached sometimes across the sea, again through a dense forest, and still again, as here, through a cavern. For references, see Kittredge’s article mentioned above. The rock entrance is found also in Teutonic and in classical mythology.

p. 41. Without . . . hill or dale. According to medieval ideas, this was a beautiful landscape. What we call picturesque country was at that time associated with terror of supernatural creatures, and sometimes of lawless human beings.

p. 41. As bright as the noonday sun. In the Middle Ages gems were commonly supposed to be a source of light. See the note on carbuncle-stone, p. 179.

p. 41. Thought to be dead, &c. The fairies were commonly looked upon as dethroned pagan gods, who were therefore active for evil. Chaucer called Pluto king of the fairies. Like the devils, with whom they are sometimes confused, they have power under certain conditions, as, for instance, over people who have forgotten to protect themselves by the sign of the cross, though that is not indicated in this poem. The description of the victims shows little if any influence from the classical conception of Hades.

p. 42. Where we be unwelcome. A singularly vivid touch, 182 showing the trials of the wandering minstrel even at that early date.

p. 44. A harper of heathendom. The pagan Orpheus here becomes a Christian king pretending to be a pagan.


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