``Sir Orfeo'': A study in interpretive contexts and twelfth-century French generic conventions

Date of Completion

January 1998


Literature, Medieval|Literature, Romance|Literature, English




This study considers the fourteenth-century Middle English romance Sir Orfeo from a new critical perspective; it examines the poem within its generic context as a Breton lay. An analysis of Sir Orfeo that takes into account the rhetorical style and conventional motifs and topoi of the Breton lay helps us interpret what most modern readers agree is an artful but enigmatic poem. Linguistic evidence as well as corroborative allusions from other romances suggest that Sir Orfeo is likely a close translation of its Old French antecedent, the Lai d'Orphev. Although the Lai d'Orphev is no longer extant, one might deduce some of its characteristics by referring to its nearest generic relations, the twelfth-century Breton lays of Marie de France. By comparing Marie's Lanval and Le Fresne with their Middle English translations, Sir Landevale and Lav le Freine, we might recover some of the characteristics shared by Sir Orfeo and its antecedent. For example, Sir Orfeo, like Marie's lays, explores the internal anatomy of love and the consequences of lovers' inappropriate behavior. Like Marie's lays, too, Sir Orfeo is characterized by an economical poetic style that relies on formulaic language and rhetorical constructions to create images that are emblematic of complex ideas or internal experience. Such correspondences help us to interpret problematic passages and images in Sir Orfeo.^ Acknowledging the Lai d'Orphev's legacy in the composition of Sir Orfeo also emphasizes the significance of the poem's sources. Although most scholars assume Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Latin myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, few recognize the contribution of Celtic analogues to the tale. In fact, Celtic myth contributes details to Sir Orfeo that align it with twelfth-century French chivalric romances and their emphasis on the tension between public and private concerns, as exemplified in the conflict between Orfeo's responsibilities as king and his desire to be with his wife. While Sir Orfeo retains its distinctive Middle English characteristics, many of its narrative cruces may be clarified by inspecting them within the context of twelfth-century French generic conventions. ^