(links to free online copies of the stories referenced in this essay are at the end of the post)
An interesting parallel between various Medieval texts is that, despite the fact that Christianity is the reigning religion in Europe at this time, the influence of the Greek and Roman myths are strong, even before the Renaissance (a period of the ‘rebirth’ of the Greek and Roman classics) started. Whether having gods mentioned directly in the story as characters or having similar plots to ancient myths, Medieval texts such as The Madness of Tristan, Sir Orfeo, and the Parliament of Fowls are filled with mythical allusions. What makes these allusions even more fascinating is the fact that each story and character that the authors are borrowing from are romance-based and the fact that in their writing, these authors are ultimately undermining the Ancient Greek and Roman ideals of romance by setting up a new system of romantic ideals.
In The Madness of Tristan, there is a clear parallel between Tristan and the myth of the Odyssey. In Tristan’s case, he has returned to England and chose to disguise himself as a poor man so that no one will recognize him; this is similar to Odysseus who was the King of Ithaca, returning home after years of being away. Both of them were well known and were returning to see the women they loved, but chose to disguise themselves as poor men so as to sneak inside the palace/court. Of course, Tristan disguises himself in numerous ways while Odysseus only does it that one time for a longer duration and Odysseus is the king of the island while Tristan is not, but they both hold power and both love the Queen of the land. They are both, before their reveal, recognized only by one person- a nurse for Odysseus and a maidservant for Tristan.
The Odyssey is a story about the strong and persevering love between Odysseus and Penelope. The reader feels inspired by their dedication to one another throughout the story and is sorrowful when things get in the way of their reunion. The story of The Madness of Tristan takes this story and interpretation and flips it on its head, as shown in the title. Tristan believes that this is the way to go about in reuniting with Ysolt, but he goes to such long lengths that it becomes almost comical. Ysolt’s determination to disbelieve that this dirty man was her Tristan almost leads the readers to question her love as no matter what Tristan says or how emotional his words are, she cannot get over his appearance or the tone of his voice. Even the maidservant who at one point believed that this man truly was Tristan, after a few words from Ysolt about his awful appearance, instantly changes her mind and believes that he is a messenger sent by Tristan. It is only when Tristan spoke in his usual tone and cleaned up that she truly believed it was him. This rings with the impression that the love between Tristan and Ysolt is ‘Cupiditas’ and not ‘Caritas’; it is a physical impulse and attraction and not one of true love and charity. Through the clear parallels drawn here between the two stories, this questioning leads us to even wonder about the love between Odysseus and Penelope, bringing up mental pictures of his tryst with Circe (as a fall into Cupiditas).
In Sir Orfeo, there is a clear connection with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Sir Orfeo follows this myth completely, but with a few name changes: Orpheus is Orfeo, Eurydice is Herodis, and Orpheus’ opponent is the fairy king, not Pluto. Herodis is taken away and Orfeo leaves his home to rescue her. Herodis’ capture also resembles the story of the Rape of Persephone as she was taken away from her home and family to a different realm like Persephone was. In response to this, Orfeo is like Odysseus in that he is away from his crown for ten years in his quest and is determined to be reunited with his wife to the point that he even dresses up like a beggar like Odysseus did to get her. When in the fairy realm, he plays music (as Orpheus did) for the fairy king who is so pleased that he grants him one request, similar to how Pluto granted Orpheus’ request. The request that Orfeo asks for is to take Herodis with him. This is where the two stories diverge as Orpheus and Eurydice becomes a tragedy due to Orpheus losing his wife while Sir Orfeo becomes a perfect romance as he succeeds in saving his wife and bringing her back home. Like Odysseus, he returns home and stays in a disguise before approaching his castle to see if they were all loyal to him. When it appears that they were (a completely different outcome from what Odysseus found), he reveals himself. It’s fascinating that there were allusions to three separate Greek and Roman myths in this story. It’s a rewrite of all of these myths to make the story a happy romance.
This story completely subverts all of the ideals of these story, changing the endings from what many considered tragic (Orpheus giving into temptation and losing his wife; Persephone eating the pomegranate and having to stay in the underworld half the year and her mother Demeter cursing the earth to six months of fall/winter; Odysseus’ tryst with Circe and then returning home to find the treachery of the men trying to court his wife and killing them) and making them into ‘happily ever after’ stories where the various lovers are free to be with one another, no one dies or is lost, and no kingdom has been taken over by traitors. This story effectively takes the romances of all three of these myths and rewrites them to fit a different narrative of love: one of true devotion to one another and of one’s own choice in who they are to love and be with; of love having power over all things, even death. There is an enormous change made here in terms of the positive nature of the story. The realm of the underworld and all the death that goes along with it is changed into the world of wonder that is the Fairy Realm.
In the Parliament of Fowls, we are introduced to various Roman gods and goddesses who play a role in the meaning of this story. The story takes place in Scipio’s dream where there is a beautiful land with a temple of brass within it. On the outer edge of the temple is the sphere of Cupid- of the type of love that is infatuation driven by sexual impulse and visual attraction. The temple itself is made of brass and it is where Scipio sees ‘Citherea’ or as she is popularly known as- Venus, the goddess of love. Venus’ realm is merely an imitation of true love, though it is higher than Cupid’s version of love. Priapus also dwells here as the embodiment of the necessary physicality of love in all of its forms. Over all of this, though, it is Natura that reigns.
This is a complete upheaval of the role that the Roman goddess Venus and the gods Cupid and Priapus hold in the realm of love as Chaucer is denouncing these forms of love as lesser and incomplete- as imitations of the real love that Natura (Nature) holds. The courtly love that is upheld in Chaucer’s time is connected to the love of Cupid’s realm (Cupiditas) while the love of Natura is Caritas- true love, full of charity and equality. In this story, Chaucer is completely denying and destroying the ideas of love and romance that Venus, Cupid, and Priapus uphold and is trying to push forward a new kind of love as the most natural, true, and complete form.
In his essay ‘The Affirmation of Love and Loyalty in Sir Orfeo’, William J. Connelly writes about how the author is subverting the ancient myth due to their addition of “…folk traditions, especially in Celtic faery lore, which he used not only to contrive a happy ending for the Orpheus story but also to embellish it with a Celtic political and social context that emphasizes the importance of Orfeo’s queen, Dame Heurodis, to the political stability and well-being of the kingdom”. With this addition in mind, this story rings with similar ideas that Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls held (both stories written in the 14th century) in that the author is adding these new views of equality of the woman in the romance in her ability to be with the one she loves and has chosen. In the Parliament of Fowls, the female tercel has the ability to choose her mate. In Sir Orfeo, Herodis has already chosen Orfeo as her mate and love and yet was stolen away from that choice. In this story, the author is merely setting things right in terms of these ideas, allowing Herodis’ choice to be restored once again in the newly written happy ending and yet ultimately undermining the conclusion of the original ancient myth.
The Madness of Tristan, Sir Orfeo, and the Parliament of Fowls are all medieval romance stories that borrow various Greek and Roman myths and characters in their writings so as to make statements on what true and complete love really is. Each of these three stories subverts the ideals of love upheld in this story: The Madness of Tristan makes the love between Odysseus and Penelope seem almost comical and partly Cupiditas when paralleled with the same actions that Tristan and Ysolt’s love story takes, especially considering Odysseus’ tryst with Circe and Penelope nearly giving up on her husband ever returning- enough to challenge the suitors to a contest for her hand. Sir Orfeo changes the realm of the Underworld to the Fairy realm and changes it to a ‘happily ever after’ conclusion, pushing the idea that the balance of love is maintained now that Herodis’ previous choice of mate is reestablished. The Parliament of Fowls analyzes the three main Roman gods and goddesses of love and denounces them in favor of the true and complete love that is reigned over by Natura (Nature). It is in this subversion of the Ancient Roman form of love that a new type of love is uplifted; one of happiness and balance, of equality and choice as shown in both Sir Orfeo and Parliament of Fowls. It is a love beyond the simple realm of physical love as shown and made satirical in The Madness of Tristan. It is truly this form of love that reigns supreme in the modern sense of love.
Online Links to the Stories Referenced Here
Specifically, the section entitled ‘The Madness of Tristan’, a part of the overall story of ‘The Romance of Tristan and Iseult’. Free to read to anyone that wishes to enjoy it!
This is a free Modern English Translation of Sir Orfeo, done by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.
This is the one from my book in Middle English. It’s really cool to look at and try to read(especially if you are fascinated by the evolution of languages over time), but if you are not used to Middle English texts, it can be confusing and headache-inducing.
This is a free Modern English Translation of The Parliament of Fowls, translated by A.S. Kline.
This is the free Middle English version written by Geoffrey Chaucer himself in the late 1300s. Same as with Sir Orfeo above, it can be really cool to look at and read(to see how English has changed since then), but it is quite the brain-teaser if you are not used to Middle English texts.
This is the ebook text of The Odyssey by Homer in Modern English, free for anyone to read. Such a cool story to read and enjoy if you haven’t before or just want to read it again!
This is the best copy of The Rape of Persephone that I could find online free to read.
Here is a copy of The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice, free to read for anyone!
Connelly, William J. “The Affirmation of Love and Loyalty in Sir Orfeo.” Medieval Perspectives, vol. 7, Jan. 1992, pp. 34–43. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=hus&AN=55620033&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Greenblatt, Stephen, M. H. Abrams, James Simpson, Deidre Lynch, Catherine Robson, Jahan Ramazani, George M. Logan, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and James Noggle. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. A. 10th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.