- Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, and Consolation in Sir Orfeo:The Medieval Foundations of Tolkienian Fantasy
A king in exile, having spent years in the wilderness, asks for the hand of his beloved lady from the king of Fairy, is finally re-united with her and, after testing the loyalty of his steward, re-claims his throne and lives ever happily with his queen to the end of his days.
What reads like a somewhat modified account of Aragorn's career as found in The Lord of the Rings, is actually an accurate though simplified summary of the plot of the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.1 Professor Tolkien knew the poem intimately and made it repeatedly the subject of his studies,2 although his scholarly influence was (as so often) exerted through the work of his students (notably Alan J. Bliss) rather than through his own publications—of which there were none on Sir Orfeo during his lifetime. Tolkien's contribution to the scholarship on the poem is thus difficult to assess. The poem's importance for students of Tolkien's fiction and its influence on his works have been easier to trace. Even so, it has as yet been overlooked that Sir Orfeo is likely to have shaped the development of Tolkien's central theoretical concepts of Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Enchantment, Eucatastrophe, and Consolation, as discussed in "On Fairy-stories"3—and thus exerted (indirectly) a profound influence on Tolkien's own literary writings, and on those of his successors.
Sir Orfeo and Tolkien Studies
So far, Sir Orfeo has received some attention in Tolkien studies mostly because it provides an important source for the professor's depiction of the elves and the land of Faërie.4 Thus, Orfeo's vision of the king of Faërie's hunting-party has been (rightly) identified as a likely source for Tolkien's wood-elves as they occur for the first time in The Hobbit. The relevant passage in Sir Orfeo reads as follows: "He miƷte se him bisides / oft in hote vndertides / the king of Faierie with his route / cömen hunten him al aboute, / with dim cri and blowinge, / and houndes also berkinge; / ac no best thai neuer nome, no neuer he niste whider thai bicome."5 (ll. 281-88, TS 2004, 96). Other encounters with the inhabitants of Faërie show clear parallels to passages in Smith of Wootton Major, such as Smith's vision of the elven mariners "tall and terrible; their swords shone and their spears glinted and a piercing light was in their eyes" (SWM 26), which corresponds to lines 289-96 in Sir Orfeo (TS, 97): "And other while he miƷte him se / as a gret ost bi him te / wel atourned ten hundred [End Page 117] kniƷtes, / ich y-armed to his riƷtes, / of cuntenaunce stout and fers, / with manie desplayed baners, / and ich his swerd ydrawen holde; / ac neuer he niste whider thai wolde."6 Furthermore, Smith's encounter with the dancing elves ("… he heard elven voices singing, and on a lawn beside a river bright with lilies he came upon many maidens dancing. The speed and the grace and the ever-changing modes of their movements enchanted him, . …" SWM 31) has a counterpart in lines 297-302 of Sir Orfeo (TS 2004, 97): "And other while he seiƷ other thing: / kniƷtes and leuedis come dauncing / in queinte atire, gisely, / queinte pas and softely: / tabours and trumpes Ʒede hem bi / and al manere menstraci."7 Also, the description of Orfeo's journey to the land of Faërie through a long subterranean passageway as well as the description of the land itself (TS 2004, 98, ll. 349-76) is strongly reminiscent of the access to the elven realm of Gondolin and Gondolin itself (see "Of Tuor and his coming to Gondolin" in UT 58-67). And lastly, I may point to the parallels between King Thingol's reaction to Beren's request for the hand of Lúthien (S 166-67) and that of the king of Faërie on hearing Orfeo's wish to take with him the beautiful (and presumably unchanged) Heurodis...