“King Orfeo”


The wife of (King) Orfeo, perhaps in a fit of madness, flees from him and his court. Orfeo sets out to find her. Encountering her under guard in a high hall, he plays his pipes so well that his wife is returned to him.


Loosely based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Observe, however, that "King Orfeo" has a happy endings: Orfeo and the Euridice figure are successfully reunited.

The same is true of what may be the direct source of this piece, the Middle English romance "Sir Orfeo."

The interesting question is how "Sir Orfeo" evolved the ending it did. Of the 50-odd Middle English romances, it is generally considered the best not by Chaucer or the Gawain-Poet or Marie of France ("Sir Orfeo," like the works of Marie, is considered a "Breton Lei").

The story of Orpheus was known in the Middle Ages (from Virgil's Georgics and from Ovid -- indeed, it seems to have been better known from Latin than Greek sources), but it's not clear how it was converted to a romance, or how the ending changed. It has been theorized that there is a lost French version, but if so, it's definitely lost.

"Sir Orfeo" is now found in 3 MSS, with the earliest and best, the Auchinlek MS., from about 1330; the others, Harley 3810 and Ashmole 61, are of the fifteenth century. The language of this piece appears to be SW English but with some northern forms, perhaps introduced by a northern copyist; the whole is perhaps from a French or Breton original).

Sir Orfeo is, incidentally, one of the few Middle English romances to be generally praised by critics, for both its plot and for its well-handled poetry. It is #3868 in the Brown and Robbins Middle English Index.

A full apparatus criticus for "Sir Orfeo" has been published by A. J. Bliss. A critical text of the romance is available in Kenneth Sisam's _Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose_. (604 lines) Unfortunately, it is not glossed (though the book has a complete glossary by J. R. R. Tolkien). A glossed version is available in Donald B. Sands, _Middle English Verse Romances_ (580 lines). Tolkien later published a modernized verse version following the same lineation as Sisam (though it is not just a crib; it's a true translation, using almost none of the language of the original); it is available in the volume _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight * Pearl * Sir Orfeo_.

Several other ballads also derive loosely or from Middle English romance, or from the legends that underly it, examples being:

* "Hind Horn" [Child 17], from "King Horn" (3 MSS., including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "Floris and Blancheflour")

* "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" [Child 31], from "The Weddynge of Sir Gawe and Dame Ragnell" (1 defective MS, Bodleian MS Rawlinson C 86)

* "Blancheflour and Jellyflorice" [Child 300], from "Floris and Blancheflour" (4 MSS, including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "King Horn," and the Auchinlek MS, which also contains "Sir Orfeo") - RBW


  • John Stickle, "King Orfeo" (on FSB4, FSBBAL1)


  1. Child 19, "King Orfeo" (1 text)
  2. Bronson 19, "King Orfeo" (1 version plus 1 in addenda)
  3. Davis-More 11, pp. 79-80, "King Orfeo," comments only
  4. OBB 15, "King Orfeo (A Shetland Ballad)" (1 text)
  5. DT 19, KNGORFEO*
  6. Roud #136
  7. BI, C019


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1880
Found in: Britain(Hebr)