Sir Orfeo and the Power of the Harp

This website examines a passage from the Middle English Breton Lay Sir Orfeo, both as a work of literature and as a physical text.

Sir Orfeo's Harp

Perhaps the most prominent symbol in Sir Orfeo, a Middle English Breton lay written by an unknown author in a dialect from the Westminster-Middlesex area in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, is the harp. Orfeo's harp playing has a magical power to console him when he has lost his wife and left his kingdom to become an itinerant beggar and minstrel. Orfeo's harp attracts and calms wild beasts, is powerful enough to persuade the King of the Fairies to return Heurodis from the Otherworld to Orfeo, and helps Orfeo test the faithfulness of his steward. The foregrounding of the harp in the lay also calls attention to the author and performer of the poem, that is, the singer and harper of the lay. The passage in lines 267 to 280, in miniature, contains this nexus of themes and ideas regarding the harp.

This passage occurs towards the middle of the lay. So far we have learned that Orfeo is not an ordinary man in ordinary circumstances. He is a king of Winchester (which the author tells us was called Thrace back then) who loves harping: "Orfeo mest of ani thing / Lovede the gle of harping." (25-26). He is self-taught by his "wittes scharp" (30) and is the best harper anywhere, whose playing takes us "In on the joies of Paradis" (37). Orfeo has a good character: "A stalworth man and hardi bo; / Large and curteys he was also" (41-42). Orfeo's lineage is from the gods: "His fader was comen of King Pluto, / And his moder of King Juno" (43-44). Dame Heurodis dreams that the fairies will take her away, and they do. Orfeo, helpless and despairing, leaves his kingdom to his steward, dons a pilgrim's cloak and little else "Bot his harp he tok algate" (231). The passage in lines 267-280 shows Orfeo wandering in the wilderness of the woods, playing his harp to alleviate his grief:

His harp, whereon was al his gle,
He hidde in an holwe tre;
And when the weder was clere and bright,
He toke his harp to him wel right
And harped at his owhen wille.
Into all the wode the soun gan schille,
That alle the wilde bestes that there beth
For joie abouten him thai teth,
And alle the foules that there were
Come and sete on ich a brere
To here his harping a-fine --
So miche melody was therin;
And when he his harping lete wold,
No best bi him abide nold. (267-280)

My translation of the passage into Modern English, which tries to keep the spirit, rhyme, and meter in mind as much as possible, is as follows:

His harp was all his only glee,
He hid inside a hollow tree;
And when the weather was clear and bright,
He took his harp to him well right
And harped for his own pleasure till
Into all the woods did sound resound
That all the wild beasts that did abound
For joy they gathered him around
And all the fowls that were there
Came and sat on each a brier
To hear his harping so fine--
So much sweet music in each line;
And when he let his harping go,
No beast by him would remain so.

On a simple level, this passage shows Orfeo, whose only happiness now occurs when he plays his harp, making music in the woods. He hides in a hollow tree when the weather is clear and bright to play. This causes the sound to be loud, amplifying it throughout the woods. The music magically attracts the beasts and birds, which joyfully gather around him to listen. When his music stops, the beasts and birds are gone. However, despite the simple bouncy nature of the octosyllabic iambic couplets, which harks back to the lay's probable origins as a poem sung and performed by minstrels, Sir Orfeo has complexity. This passage foreshadows and parallels other parts of the poem.

First, his power is in his harp. It is the main item he prizes as both king and beggar. After all, he and his men could not save Heurodis from being abducted by the Fairy King. Orfeo does not know where to find her; nor can armies or physical strength fight incomprehensible, supernatural beings. After ten years of aimless, passive wandering Orfeo wins Heurodis back through disguise and music.

It is interesting that Orfeo "hidde in a holwe tre" (268). This parallels how Orfeo presents himself to the Fairy King and his court, Orfeo tells them to believe he is "bot a pover menstrel" (430). Orfeo disguises that he is the husband of Heurodis who has come to take her back. Later in the poem, when Orfeo returns to his own kingdom, he wears a beggar's clothes and tells his steward that he got Orfeo's harp after Orfeo had been torn apart by lions. The steward is so overcome by grief that he swoons on the ground, which allows Orfeo to know that "His steward was a trewe man" (554), faithful to his king.

The passage in lines 267-280 also shows how Orfeo's music brings forward and charms the beasts and birds, drawing them around him like courtiers. This parallels his playing before the Fairy King's entourage, where "That al that in the palays were/Com to him forto here, / And liggeth adoun to his fete" (439-441). It is also similar to the steward's court in Winchester: "In the castel the steward sate atte mete, / And mani lording was bi him sete" (519-520).

More important for the story, though, is the effect of Orfeo's harping. For it causes the Fairy King to make a rash promise to give Orfeo anything he asks for: "Now aske of me what it be, / Largelich ichil the pay" (450-451). Orfeo asks for Heurodis and successfully takes her and leaves the Otherworld. Orfeo's harping at the court in Winchester allows Orfeo to test his steward's faithfulness.

Lastly, the passage in lines 267-280 has the beast and birds vanish, disperse when Orfeo’s music finishes. This signals that the spell of his music is over and they go back to their real lives. This foregrounds the effect that art has on us in that we gather around the harper and singer of the lay and are entertained or spellbound until it finishes. We enter a world and then go back to our own. The recursiveness of singers and harpers telling a story of a singer and harper whose main strength and power is singing and harping is part of the complexity of Sir Orfeo. The poem begins with a harper and singer telling us of the nature of lays, which "Of al thinges that men seth, / Mest o love, forsothe, they beth" (11-12). The poem ends by telling us that "Harpours in Bretaine after than / Herd hou this mervaile bigan, / And made herof a lay of gode likeing" (597-599). The harper or performer of the lay is a character in the lay.

Orfeo’s harp is central to Sir Orfeo as a literary text. Orfeo's harp assuages his grief, tames beasts and birds, wins him back his wife, and restores his kingdom. Sir Orfeo is a subtle work, as just the examination of a few lines (that is, 267-280) shows how they are interwoven with the structure and themes of other parts of the text. As the harper of Sir Orfeo says, "swete is the note" (602).

Physical Description of Sir Orfeo in the Auchinleck Manuscript

Sir Orfeo from The Auchinleck Manuscript

Click on the image to view lines 267-280 from the Auchinleck Manuscript
(Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.21).
The lines are in the right-hand column about one-third down the page.

The lines from the passage being examined on this website appear on a page from The Auchinleck Manuscript. Scholars believe this manuscript produced some time between 1330 and 1340. Sir Orfeo appears in folios 299a-303ra.

What is the condition of this page?

The folios, including this page, are made from a good quality vellum. The page is now approximately 250 x 190 mm, probably trimmed from an original size of 264 x 203 mm. If one looks closely at the lefthand side of the page, one can see sewing holes from the original binding. (There have been a least three bindings of the Auchinleck Manuscript.) The first page of Sir Orfeo has been cut out, most likely because it contained a miniature excised by miniature hunters. This page is in good condition.

What is on the page?

The page consists of two colums of 44 rules lines each.It runs from lines 215 to 302 of the poem. The first letter of every line is isolated with a ruled line and is picked out in red. There are two large initials that begin lines 219 and 281 that are blue and have some red ornamentation. (There are no catchwords or item numbers on this page as there are in other parts of the manuscript.) There is also a mark at the bottom of the page indicating that the manuscript belongs to the National Library of Scotland. The ruling and the text are written with brown ink. There is no punctuation, although there is a dot at the end of each line in the poem.

Who created this manuscript?

Scholars believe that the Auchinleck Manuscript was copied by six different scribes. They are anonymous, and there does not seem to have been a master scribe with assistants. There are differences in the handwriting, as some seem more formal, liturgical, squarer, or more similar to chancery script than others. It appears that the manuscript was a lay, commercial production rather than a monastic one.

Works Cited

The Auchinleck Manuscript. Eds. David Burnley and Alice Wiggins. 5 July 2003 version 1.1. National Library of Scotland. 1 October 2007 < >.

The Middle English Breton Lays. Eds. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. 1-60.

Jane Minogue is responsible for the contents of this website, with full rights reserved.
No one may quote or use the ideas stated herein without proper attribution.
This website was created expressly for the English 630ML: The Technology of Textuality class,
taught at California State University, Northridge (
Click here for information on the class.).