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Triumphant Orpheus: Orphic Platonism and Sir Orfeo

Verity Walsh

Stanford University

In an early study of the 14th-century English romance Sir Orfeo, Kittredge wrote that despite the poem’s evident basis on the accounts of Orpheus and Eurydice as found in Virgil and Ovid, ‘so different is the romance from any known version of this story that, if the English minstrel had not called his hero and heroine Orfeo and Heurodys, his indebtedness to the ancients would be hard to prove.’ Scholars in the more-than-century since Kittredge have continued to struggle at synthesizing the poem’s classical and medieval-romantic elements into a unified reading (Dronke; Friedman; Lerer). Due largely to its happy ending, which sees the hero successfully rescue his wife, Sir Orfeo has been called a Greek myth ‘lost in fairyland’—a poem whose eclectic mix of Celtic fairy lore and classical legend makes it at best a ‘hybrid super-myth’ and at worst a ‘sugar-candied, bowdlerized variant’ of the familiar story (Sisam; Rider; Falk). These statements are representative of a common and enduring scholarly trend, which reads Sir Orfeo as primarily a Celtic fairy tale whose use of classical materials is little more than ornamental—that is, as a relatively weak case of ‘reception.’

I argue, in contrast to these views, that the poem's reception of myth is essential rather than circumstantial, and that the usual interpretation of Orfeo’s successful rescue of his wife as a popular and/or Celticising invention of the medieval period—as a rejection, essentially, of the classics—relies on an incomplete understanding of Orpheus’ ancient sources. Most source studies of Sir Orfeo note the striking differences between the lay and its presumed Virgilian and Ovidian roots (Georgics IV and Metamorphoses X) but do not consider whether classical sources outside the Roman canon may have influenced the poet; critics have therefore concluded that classical myth, which insists on Orpheus’ failure, is of little importance to the poem relative to medieval romance and Celtic legend, which allow for his success. The classical tradition, however, is rich in examples of a successful Orpheus. An analysis of Orpheus’ pre-Virgilian appearances in literature shows that he was, from his earliest origins, associated with the triumphant deliverance of souls from the underworld, and that it was not until the Georgics that his fortunes were reversed. Under this model, the Orfeo-poet’s deviation from Virgil and Ovid is not an innovation informed by Celtic folklore, as virtually all critics approaching from the angle of medieval studies have claimed, but a return to a different sort of classicism—namely, the Greek-inspired Christian-Platonic worldview in which the earthly and divine realms are interconnected (cf. Guthrie; Robbins; West; Gersh; Bernabé and Casadesús; Edmonds).

I argue that this older, Greek strand of myth, in which Orpheus mediates triumphantly between worlds, influenced and was ultimately subsumed by Platonism and then Christian Neoplatonism, that it survived in this form into the Middle Ages, and that it is alive in Sir Orfeo. I briefly discuss the early origins of the triumphant Orpheus myth, its adoption by Plato and the late-antique Neoplatonists, and its use both in and against the medieval allegorical commentary tradition. Many aspects of Sir Orfeo—its depiction of a universe in which the human and divine realms are linked, in which transference between the two is physically possible and spiritually significant, which champions the restoration of cosmic and social order via ritual practices of asceticism and purification, and in which Orpheus is an agent of such order—are reminiscent of the sort of Neoplatonic ideas that derive ultimately from early Orphism. After tracing the medieval-literary transmission of these tropes, I then consider certain features of Orfeo that have commonly been taken as evidence for the dominant influence of popular medieval folk culture (e.g. the exile/return motif, music and courtly love) and read them, instead, as enactments of Orphic-informed Neoplatonic philosophy—a classical tradition distinct from the favored medieval canon of Virgil and Ovid and one whose significance to the romance has, to this point, been largely unexplored.  

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