Professor Michael Van Dussen
1st March 2012
The Fey Threat in Sir Orfeo: The Shadowy Mirror behind the Courtly Dance
Sir Orfeo is a text driven by an anxiety to define inner goodness and truth beyond man-made signifiers of beauty and wealth. The depiction of Sir Orfeo’s kingdom as an earthly paradise seems to ground identity within an eternal fountain of goodness. However, this stability is abruptly shaken by the eruption of Herodis’s hysteria, as the actual breaks into the seeable, bringing to light a realm of inscrutable motivations beyond the earthly veil. This newly uncovered dimension- exemplified by the entrance of a fey realm- is in surfeit of perceived reality and has to be, by Sir Orfeo’s music, woven into a constructed scheme-of-things. Sir Orfeo, in order to accomplish this, has to retreat into the wilderness, shedding all human-constructed systems in order to redefine reality upon the eternal values of love and loyalty. Herodis, in the text, functions as the vehicle for this interior grisly aspect of humanity to manifest within Sir Orfeo’s court. In her irrational display of emotion, she questions the validity of all outward performances of inner virtue in chivalric codes and courtly conduct.
The introduction of the faerie kingdom provides an alternate mode of existence, in which things are all surface, although, ironically, the kingdom is also embedded within the 'essence'of things, in a rock. When Sir Orfeo enters into the faerie world, he enters into an uncanny mirror of his world wherein ambiguity has been grafted onto the fabric of the landscape and the palace. Beauty, in the fey kingdom, is hollow, needing to be ‘filled in’ by the spirit of Sir Orfeo’s music. Moreover, the place of the faerie kingdom within the rock- an object oft-overlooked- points to the fragility of all vision, and the continual, ongoing need to found society on enduring virtues that lie beyond social constructions. Sir Orfeo’s harping, within this scheme, is the bridge that enables this. His harp reconciles the natural with the man-made. By playing his music, he enraptures both the faerie folk and natural beasts, causing them to forgo their differences by paying attention to the transcendent, holistic realm found in music. He masters the natural world and the breach in understanding the fey represent, metaphorically filling these symbolic crevices and gaps with the depth of his music, which is beautiful both in spirit and form.
From the start, the poem prepares the listener for the opening of a realm beyond the seeable by highlighting the transcendent power of Sir Orfeo’s music, which the poet likens to being “on of the joies of Paradis” (35). The beauty of Sir Orfeo’s harping is placed before the descriptions of his kingly station and the magnificence of his kingdom. “her nothing was”, the poet tells us, “a better harpour in no plas/ in al the warld was no man bore/ that ones Orfeo sat bifore” (31-33). ‘al the warld’ in the poem alludes not only to earthly kingdoms, but includes the tense fey realm that lies between natural wilderness and human civilization. By being ‘bifore’ all things both symbolically and structurally within the poem, Sir Orfeo’s harping founds his social identity and his kingdom upon a transcendental beauty. It also enables him to master the fey realm that opens up within his kingdom when Herodis is struck with hysteria: his music becomes the main instrument weaving all inner inconsistencies into a harmonious whole. The poet, thus, emphasizes the transience of earthly splendor, and the fallibility of all human-constructed structures that we envelop our reality with. The performance of the lay echoes this, reminding the listener in its very deliverance that all outward forms and actions have to be constantly redeemed by the beauty of music, just as one’s goodness has to be constantly founded upon inner virtue, and not only on outward displays of wealth and prosperity.
Within Sir Orfeo’s kingdom, there lies certain liminal points that serve as gateways through which an inner, ungraspable realm can erupt into the present. These points can be identified by their classifiable ambiguity. For example, the grafted tree and the garden mingle the artificial with the natural, emphasizing a permeability within groupings. By falling asleep at such a location at noon- a time in which one shouldn’t be asleep- Dame Herodis commits an unnatural act, paving the way for the entrance of the fey. She is, subsequently, struck insane as the fey realm erupts through the gaps and crannies between the seeable and the unseen. She is whisked away in this temporary lacunae that opens up within the text. When she returns, she is ravaged by an irrational despair. Dame Herodis’s unprecedented hysteria introduces a tension between outward beauty of Sir Orfeo’s kingdom and inward virtue of spirit: do outward displays of nobility found in decorum, gentility and courtly etiquette consistently reflect inner goodness?
The description of Sir Orfeo’s kingdom in the beginning depicts a pastoral idyll full of upright citizens. We are told, “everi feld is ful of flours/ and blosme breme on everi bough”. Maidens “of priis” (64) gather around Dame Herodis while she “play(s) by an orchardside/ to the floures sprede and spring” (66-7). These passages paint a harmonious portrait of a prospering kingdom in which the human and the natural are in sync, and outer beauty of form reflects inner virtue. However, this Edenic capsule is shortly after pierced by Herodis’s cry of horror as she wakes from her noonday nap after her brush with the fey. She proceeds to “crached hir visage” till “it beld wete”, tearing “hir riche robe hye al to-rett” (80-1). The entrance of an foreign, fey element through Herodis causes an ‘awakening’ of the spirit, in which Herodis’s body appears to go out-of-control, becoming a slave to inscrutable interior forces.
The destruction of physical indicators of goodness- Herodis’s ‘fair’ countenance and her ‘riche robe’- creates an anxiety around all appearances of goodness. The skin is literally torn open to uncover flesh. Herodis’s malady can be seen as symptomatic of a deeper anxiety within Sir Orfeo’s country: the skin/surface is proven to be an inadequate arbiter of inner nature. If such a grisly dimension exists underneath all appearance, can goodness still exist in the light of this unsightly interior realm?
The court’s reaction to Herodis’s irrational behaviour is to say she has “awede wold” (87). That is to say, she has shed the skins of civility, having been overtaken by an inner, wilder nature. This unleashing of a natural force cannot be quelled by physical comforts or bound by military effort. Even though they lay her in a “chaumber” (100) in an attempt to soothe her, she is inconsolable. Moreover, when Sir Orfeo arrives at her bedside, she mistakes him for a “fo” (112). Herodis’s confusion of Sir Orfeo points to a flimsiness within all socially constructed identities. Having been confronted with the alternate reality of the faerie world where appearance doesn’t reflect nature (the faerie king is deceptively beautiful, but his intentions are malicious), Herodis loses faith in the security of all external reality, mistaking her beloved husband for her mortal enemy.
Moreover, Herodis’s hysterical symptoms seem to come out-of-the-blue. This is reflected structurally in the narrative: Herodis’s journey happens within the diegesis, yet the content of what actually occurs is obscured. When the fey folk abduct Herodis, she literally disappears “ac yete amiddes hem ful right” (191): within their full sight. Reality is not only affected by exterior forces, but also deeper psychological undercurrents. At any moment, the fey- representative of an interior dimension of shadowy forces- can erupt into Sir Orfeo’s kingdom in random irrational events. Herodis’s sudden madness, overall, can be read as a signal to an inner rift between appearance and reality that occurs on the foundational level: the exterior crystalline shell of kingly splendor has been pierced, and ‘goodness’ will henceforth need to be redefined by the king upon something more essential than aesthetic beauty.
Sir Orfeo’s outburst of loyalty when he proclaims to Herodis that “whider y go, thou schalt with me” (130), likewise, points to another misreading: he mistakes the faerie kingdom for an earthly locale that can be reached. Moreover, he thinks he can prevent Herodis’s abduction using physical prowess. Hence, he sends for his knights in a comical scene in line 185, and they sit around the orchard waiting for the faerie king. Inevitably, they fail because the faerie kingdom lies within the physical realm in those slips that evade human perception, in what one cannot see.
Hereafter, Sir Orfeo realizes the need for a supernatural solution to what is essentially a metaphysical problem around signification: can courtly decorum hide inner malice? As a result, he calls himself to exile “into wilderness ichil te/ and live ther evermore” (213). This line parallels the faerie king’s declaration in lines 167-8 that Herodis would “schalt with ous go/ and live with ous evermo”. However, the hardships that accompany Sir Orfeo’s exile in the wild are in stark contrast to the faerie king’s suggestion of an eternal paradise. The poet’s mirroring of these two lines, here, implies that they are more similar than they seem: perhaps Sir Orfeo, by leaving civilization, obtains the longer-lasting joy of self-recognition. Sir Orfeo also proclaims himself dead, saying “ye understond that y be spent” (215), just as Herodis is described as “al wan, as thou were ded” (108). His newly acquired status mirrors Herodis’s in another way: by leaving their kingdom, one voluntary and one not, they become metaphorically dead to their people. Furthermore, Sir Orfeo’s exile into the forest shows a deeper disillusionment: he realizes that the cause of Herodis’s insanity may lie in a preternatural wildness beneath all forms of civility. In order to integrate this aspect of humanity, he has to retreat into the wild in order to better possess it. He attempts to descend to the root of things, depriving himself to the point he appears close to Herodis’s hysterical state. Only after he has literally ‘awede wold’ like Herodis can he penetrate into the faerie king’s country. The liminal status Sir Orfeo acquires of his own will enables him to follow Herodis figuratively into an underworld of another kind- that of his own psyche.
In order to recover Herodis, Sir Orfeo will have to descend into the cavities of his consciousness and shine a light upon it with his music. The description of Sir Orfeo’s exile puts an emphasis on his abandoning of courtly comforts for an existence as a wild man of the woods. We are told that before he “hadde had castels and tours/ river forest, frith with flours” (246), “fowe and griis” “purper biis” (239-40) and “river, forest, frith and flours”- all pleasant sights and visual signifiers of physical prosperity. However, after his exile, his retinue of knights is gone, replaced by “wilde wormes” (253). Repeatedly, the poem contrasts what Sir Orfeo had before and what he loses after. Even his appearance deteriorates: his beard grows “blac and rowe” (265), mirroring Herodis’s destruction of her face and body. The only signifier of civilization he retains is his harp, with which he plays his music. He keeps his harp in a hollow tree and “harped at his owhen wille” (271). On the personal level, his music tides him through his troubles by reminding him of a transcendent realm. On the symbolic level, his harp signifies mastery through a human-constructed instrument used for good- to create harmony; it is integrated metonymically into the landscape within ‘a hollow’, representing a reconciliation between the artificial and the natural. Additionally, Sir Orfeo’s playing also charms all the beasts of the forest, so much so they forget their innermost wild natures and gather about him irregardless of the natural order. As Sir Orfeo’s music originates from a source that supersedes human and natural structures, it is able to knit all differences into a melodious song, making even wild beasts forget their savage instincts.
The faerie king’s kingdom is in stark contrast to Sir Orfeo’s wild state, but uncannily similar to the descriptions of his kingdom. Like Sir Orfeo’s kingdom, it is likened to “the proude court of Paradis” (376). However, in the faerie realm, physical beauty does not signify anything outside itself. Even though its towers are “clerer and schine as cristal” (258), the physical clarity of crystals doesn’t ‘reflect’ an inner discerning sight. Moreover, the artificial brightness of the crystals replaces the noon sun, saturating all in a daylight that is purely aesthetic. However, the eternal summer daylight of the fey is not paradisal, but frightening. Rather than being a product of an inner harmony between man and nature, the faerie kingdom is completely out-of-sync with the cyclical changing of the seasons. The artificial crystals, palaces and jewels of the fey exist at the violation of the natural; as such, they represent the complete abandoning of the natural for a humanly constructed paradise.
Sir Orfeo, initially, runs the risk of mistaking the faerie kingdom’s outward splendor as a good thing, until he encounters the tableau of the dead in lines 390-400. The Edenic stasis of the faerie world, here, is equated to an unnatural eternal stasis in which one is “thought dede, and nare nought” (390). The descriptions of the ‘zombied’ victims awakens Sir Orfeo to the true significance of the faerie kingdom’s beauty, and its place outside the natural flow and progression of life.
Having uncovered the true appearance of the faerie kingdom, Sir Orfeo puts on a disguise: he goes under the cover of a humble minstrel in order to play his songs to the faerie king. His music has a profound effect. Like the beasts in the forest, “all that in the palays were/ com to him forto here,/ and liggeth adoun to his fete- hem thanketh his melody so swete.” (440-3). Here, Sir Orfeo’s music is proven to be transcendent over not only wild beasts but also the overly civilized society of the fey. The faerie folk recognize that their beauty has an intrinsic hollowness only the depth of Sir Orfeo’s music can fill. Even the faerie king is so enraptured by Sir Orfeo’s music he promises Sir Orfeo anything he wants. When Sir Orfeo asks for Herodis, however, the faerie king’s objection is purely aesthetic: he tells Sir Orfeo that they’d make an ugly couple. Sir Orfeo retorts that it would be a “fouler thing/ to here a lessing of thi mouthe!” (464-6). Even though the faerie king does not possess the same morals as Sir Orfeo, even he has to abide by the courtly rules he has created. This also justifies Sir Orfeo’s use of disguise and lies: if unseemly deeds are done for the right motives, they are permissible, even beneficial.
When Sir Orfeo returns to his kingdom, his citizens have a similar aesthetic objection to his appearance as the faerie king, stating that “he is y-clongen also a tre!” (508). This reveals a predisposition in human nature to judge by appearance, normalizing the faerie king’s actions- perhaps his is a case in which a human tendency is exaggerated so it becomes the rule. However, when they learn he is a harper, they celebrate him in the king’s memory by bringing him into the steward’s court. In doing so, they show an understanding of the harper’s importance as the guardian of an art of which effects are not visually manifested: the beauty of music has no direct monetary value. His people’s recognition of Sir Orfeo through his harping also reveals how his music is a fundamental part of his kingship. For his people, Sir Orfeo’s music is more than just an alluring tune (as it is for the fey and the beasts), but a signifier to his identity. As the king who, socially, defines the values, customs and rules of his people, it is Sir Orfeo’s job to ensure that his people are loyal to him not only in action, but in spirit. His citizens’ recognition of their king through his music, thus, this reflects the citizen’s virtue: they are able to see beyond Sir Orfeo’s ugly appearance to his rightfulness as king. Appearance and reality have been reconciled through the medium of Sir Orfeo’s harping, which serves not only as an aesthetic instrument creating harmony, but a socially integrative tool creating a cohesive collective identity.
Sir Orfeo’s abdication of his kingly station and his descent into the wild implies that all cultivated societies need an occasional invigoration of ‘wildness’ in order to remind themselves of the existence of a realm of inscrutable instincts beneath all civility. Sir Orfeo realizes that there is a gap that opens up when one uses aesthetics, conduct and performance as the sole arbiter of virtue. Just as the hollowness of the tree trunk has to be filled with the harp, this potential deceitful aspect of reality- embodied by the fey- has to be filled with the depth of Orfeo’s music. By delving into the heart of nature, like Orpheus, and enthralling both the natural and fey world with his music, he weaves all existing and potential differences into a harmonious melody.
Moreover, the immortalization of Sir Orfeo’s song at the end makes such a social renewal possible through the very act of listening: the lay is mobile, being able to be played at any historical moment. With each performance, the fey threat is continually kept at bay, as listeners are reminded of Sir Orfeo’s journey ‘there and back again’. Immortalized within the lay like a jeweled core, here, is a stability of virtue that is able to contest the mobility of actual life, allowing redemption through each instance of reading or listening.
1 I use Nietzsche’s term ‘essence’ loosely, which he uses in an attempt to define a deeper, eternal consistent reality beyond all appearance.
2 These inconsistencies include those within the self that manifests with Herodis’s psychological breakdown after the fey enter. The breach that allows the fey to break in reveals a fragility not only of materiality, but of the psyche.
3 Such as language, class, customs and social etiquette. These components structure our reality, enabling a smooth functioning of society. However, an over-privileging of them can lead to hubris, a crime Sir Orfeo is in danger of, being the king of a prosperous kingdom.
4 Herodis’s hysteria is reminiscent of public acts of mourning in certain cultures, or the Victorian ‘disease’ of hysteria, in which the female body goes out of control. This brings about another question: is she prematurely mourning her own death?
5 Herodis slips into the fey world during liminal circumstances that come about seemingly by chance. Sir Orfeo’s liminality, however, is that of his identity. This integration of otherness into his self enables him to possess and triumph over the fey threat.
"Sir Orfeo." River Campus Libraries. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/orfeofrm.htm>.