In changing the world that the main character travels to from the Underworld to the Fairy Realm, the author of ‘Sir Orfeo’ is trying to lighten the atmosphere of the story as well as put distance between the second realm and the mortal realm.
‘Sir Orfeo’ is a story that has taken such a well-known Greek myth and turned its meaning, atmosphere, and ending on its head. In the original myth, Orpheus’ wife Eurydice dies which leads Orpheus to go on a quest to the Underworld to save her. In ‘Sir Orfeo’, Orfeo’s wife Herodis catches the interest of the Fairy King who decides to take her away into the fairy realm as his, leading Orfeo to travel to the Fairy Realm to save her. The change from the setting of the Underworld to the setting of a Fairy Realm brings a new atmosphere and meaning to the story itself.
Changing the enemy’s setting so drastically, takes this Ancient Grecian myth and places it firmly in fourteenth century England where stories of fairies and magical realms and the beings who live there are prevalent. The author is rewriting this story so that it fits a more modern audience and what they are more familiar with. In both stories, the mortal realm is what is being messed with and yet the implications of the two different enemy realms are incredibly opposite. The Underworld is directly connected to the lives and well-beings of the people in the mortal realm. Death is a constant thing that exists in the natural order of the universe- sooner or later, everything dies. Humans have always feared the mystery of death and what it means to them as every human in some way or another is affected by death throughout their lives until their own end. This setting immediately brings a darker and more somber atmosphere to this story as well as changing the view of just what Orpheus is doing. In trying to save his wife, he is going against the very rules of nature- he is not accepting the death of his wife and goes on a quest to save her. He almost saves her, but in the end is merely a human and so fails and nature continues its course from before.
With the Fairy Realm, this is often seen as a realm of power and chaos- connected to nature often, but not in a constant and inevitable way as death is. The Fairy Realms brings with it a sense of mystery, yes, but also a sense of awe, wonder, and magic. It is connected to the human world, but in a more distant way than the Underworld is; death touches every human’s life, but the Fairy Realm does not. In changing the enemy’s home, the author of ‘Sir Orfeo’ is completely changing the meaning of Orfeo’s actions. Instead of going against the rules of nature, he is instead fighting against the chaos and wilderness that inhabits the Fairy Realm, trying to bring true order, peace, and balance back to the mortal realm. He is a noble figure trying to fulfill his duties in protecting his wife: he is being a chivalric hero. This switch gives the reader a completely different view and perspective on the main character. Readers feel for Orpheus and his loss, yet know that death is an inevitable thing that really can’t be stopped and so, in going on this quest, Orpheus is breaking that. This makes the reader an almost hesitant supporter for Orpheus’ actions- especially in a world where death is seen as part of God’s will. The author wanted this story to have a happy ending and so, to achieve that in a respectable way, they got rid of this breaking of the rules of nature by changing the Underworld into the Fairy Realm. With ‘Sir Orfeo’, the readers have nothing stopping them from cheering him on in saving his wife from her kidnapper.
In this story, the transition from the Underworld to the Fairy Realm completely changes the undertones of this story. It makes a somber story about the inevitability of death into a story about a chivalric hero saving their beloved from her kidnapper. Death is a constant and necessary part of nature and in a fourteenth century atmosphere of religiosity, to go against the rules of death is to defy God himself. The author wanted a happy ending to this story, for the romance to continue on rather than end in tragedy and so, to achieve this goal, the author made the enemy’s realm into the Fairy Realm. In this transition, the reader is completely comfortable to cheer Orfeo on in saving his wife as he is instead fighting against the chaos and wilderness of the Fairy Realm rather than going against the very rules of nature itself. ‘Sir Orfeo’ through this change is a much lighter and honestly happier story than the myth it is based on. In the end, Orfeo confronts the Fairy King and succeeds in saving his wife and returning back to their peaceful nation to rule together, making this a medieval romance story by definition and setting it in the time frame of fourteenth century England that the author is writing it in.
Links to the Story
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.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.