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The Literary Groong - 01/21/2006

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`Sir Orfeo' is an English poem in the tradition of a Breton Lay.  In
its day, it was probably performed orally to music as well as read.
The author of the poem is unknown.  The oldest copy of `Sir Orfeo' is
found in the Auchinleck manuscript which dates to around 1330-1340 A.D.
As its title suggests, the poem is an English adaptation and reworking
of the popular Orpheus myth, the most famous version of which is found
in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  There are some changes made in the English
version, for example Orpheus is a king and not a shepherd. But Sir
Orfeo, like Ovid's Orpheus, is a very talented musician who travels
into a foreign realm (in Ovid it is the underworld, in `Sir Orfeo' it
is the land of the fairies) in order to save his love Eurydice.
Unlike Ovid's version, Orfeo saves his queen and all conflicts'and
potential conflicts'are resolved in the English version.  In this
translation, I tried to take as few liberties as I possibly could in
order to stay as true to the ambiguity and mystery found in the Middle
English original.


	Translated by Sos Bagramyan

	We often read and find it written,
	And scholars know of this well,
	Verses that are set to music
	The content of which are marvelous things:
	Some concern war and some concern woe
	Some concern joy and mirth also,
	And some concern treachery and guile
	Of old adventures once upon a time,
	Some concern jokes and ribaldry
	And many are set in the lands of fairies.
	Of all things that men relate,
	Most of them, in truth, concern love.
	In Brittany were these songs first wrought,
	Set to music and then forth brought.
	They concern adventures set in the olden days
	Whereof ancient Bretons made their lays.
	Kings, at times, might hear a tale
	Concerning marvelous things,
	Then take up the harp and minstrelsy
	And write a lay and give it a name.
	Of these adventures that have taken place, 
	I can tell you some but not all.
	Now listen, lords and ladies true,
	I shall tell you the tale of `Sir Orfeo.'

	More than anything in this world
	Orfeo loved the joy of music.
	Such was it that every good mistral
	Paid much homage to Sir Orfeo.
	Orfeo set his keen, sharp wits
	Upon teaching himself to play the harp.
	He taught himself so well that no one could find
	A better mistral than Sir Orfeo.
	There was not a man born of this world
	Who sat before Sir Orfeo
	And head him playing on his harp
	But that he should think that he was
	Reveling in the joys of Paradise;
	Such was the melody of his music.

	Orfeo was a king
	Of England and help high honor;
	He was a man both brave and strong
	And also elegant and generous.
	His father was a descendant of King Pluto,
	And his mother of King Juno,
	Who at one time were considered gods
	Because of their deeds that were put to song.
	This king held court in Traciens,
	Which was a city with great fortifications.
	Also know that without a doubt Winchester
	Was once called Traciens.

	This kind had an excellent queen
	Who was named Dame Eurydice.
	She was indeed the fairest lady
	That ever graced the earth in human form.
	She was full of love and goodness,
	And her beauty surpassed the spoken words of any man.

	In the beginning of May it so befell
	On a pleasant and hot day,
	That was away from the winters showers 
	And every field was full of flowers
	And blossoms beamed on every bough
	And beautiful plants everywhere did grow,
	That this very queen, Dame Eurydice,
	Took two of her most excellent maidens
	During the late morning hour
	To enjoy the pleasantries of her orchard;
	To see flowers spread across the field
	And to hear the morning birds sing.
	All three set themselves down
	Under a beautiful impe-tree[1]    
	And very quickly this fair queen
	Fell fast asleep upon the green.
	The maidens dared not disturb her or wake her up
	But let her lay there in her sleep.
	So she slept till the morning passed
	And the day slipped into the afternoon,
	But as soon as she began to wake
	She cried, oh a most loathsome cry.
	She rubbed her hands and also her feet
	And scratched her face till it was wet with blood,
	She tore her rich robes into tiny bits
	And was driven out of her wits.
	The two maidens who were beside her
	Dared not stay with her any longer
	But rather immediately ran to the palace
	And told both squires and knights
	That the queen had gone raving mad
	And bade them to go and retrieve the queen.
	Over sixty knights, and ladies too,
	Went out to retrieve the queen.
	They quickly came to the orchard and the queen,
	Took her by the arms, raised her up
	And, at last, brought her back to her home
	And fastened her safely to her bed.
	But she persisted in her cries
	And wished to get up and run away.

	When Orfeo heard the news of his queen
	He was taken with grief as never before.
	With ten knights he came
	To the bedchamber, right before the queen,
	Beheld her state and with great sorrow said,
	`Oh Dear Life, what are thee?
	One that yet had been so calm
	Now strangely cries cries so shrill?
	Your body, that was so exquisitely white,
	Is now with your own nails torn to shreds.
	Alas!  Your face, that was once so red,
	Is now pale as if you were dead.
	And also, your slim, slender fingers
	Are bathed in blood and are all pale.
	Alas!  Your two lovely eyes
	Look at me as a man looks upon his foe!
	Ah, dame, I beseech thee, mercy!
	Let go of this rueful crying
	And tell me what is disturbing you, and how,
	And also what I can do to help you now.'
	Then at last she lay still
	And quickly began to weep very hard
	And said thusly to the king:
	`Alas, my lord, Sir Orfeo!
	Since the first time we've been together
	We've never once been angry with each other;
	I have ever since loved you as my life
	And you have loved me so as well
	But now we must separate.
	Take care of yourself, for I must go.'
	`Alas!' he said, `I am forlorn and lost!
	Where will you go?  And to whom?
	Wherever you go, I will go with you
	And wherever I go, you shall go with me.'
	`No, no sir, that cannot be.
	I shall tell you all why that cannot be:
	This morning as I lay
	And slept in our orchard
	There came to me two well armed 
	And handsome knights.
	They came in haste and bade me
	To speak with their lord the king.
	And I boldly answered that
	I dared not do so, nor did I want to.
	Then they rode off as fast as they could
	And returned, just as quickly, with their king.
	More than one hundred knights,
	And also one hundred damsels,
	All riding on snow white steeds;
	And their garments too were as white as milk.
	I had never yet seen
	Creatures as exquisite as these before.
	The king wore a crown upon his head;
	It was not made of silver not of red gold
	But rather of a precious stone'
	And as bright as the sun it shone!
	And as soon as he came to me
	He took me, whether I wished it or not,
	And made me ride with him
	Upon a palfrey that stood by his side.
	He brought me to his palace.
	It was well adorned in every way
	He showed me castles and towers
	Rivers, forests filled with flowers
	And every single one of his gorgeous steeds.
	Afterwards he brought me home,
	Back into our very own orchard
	And then said this to me,
	`Listen, lady, tomorrow you shall be
	Back right here under this impe-tree
	And then you shall go with us
	And live with us evermore.
	If you hinder this command
	Know that I'll find you wherever you go,
	And I shall tear you limb from limb
	And no one will be able to help you.
	Although you will be this dismembered 
	You will nonetheless be carried back with us.'
	When king Orfeo heard this news,
	`O woe!' he cried, `Alas, alas!
	I would rather give up my own life
	Than to lose my queen, my wife!'
	He asked for counsel from each of his men
	But no one could offer him any advice.
	When high noon came the next day
	Orfeo had ridden out with his army
	Numbering ten hundred knights,
	Each well armed, stout, strong and grim;
	And so he rode with his queen
	Right to the impe-tree.
	He placed a row of men on each side of the tree
	And each man said that they would
	Stand their ground and die
	Before they'd let anyone take the queen
	And yet amid their guard the queen
	Was snatched up straight away
	And abducted through enchantment.
	The men never knew where she had gone.
	Then there was much crying, weep and woe!
	The king went into his chamber
	And swooned and fell upon the floor
	And cried such cries, and moaned such moans
	That he almost spent all his life force'
	There was no remedy for his pain.
	He called together his barons,
	Earls and renowned lords,
	And when they all arrived
	He said, `dear lords, before you here
	I ordain my high steward
	To rule my kingdom henceforth;
	In my place he shall
	Keep watch over all my lands.
	For now I have lost my queen,
	The fairest lady who was ever born,
	Never again will I be with another woman.
	Into the wilderness I shall go
	And live there evermore
	With the wild beasts of the gray woods.
	When you learn of my death
	Call together a parliament
	And choose for yourselves a new king.
	Now, do your best with all of my affairs.'

	Then there was great weeping in the hall 
	And great crying among all who were present
	There was such weeping that both old and young
	Could not utter a single word from off their tongue.
	They all kneeled down together
	And begged him, if it were his will,
	To stay and not go far from them.
	`Enough!' he said, `It shall be so!'
	He forsook his entire kingdom
	Only taking with him a pilgrim's mantle.
	He had neither tunic not hood,
	No shirt or another other goods
	But he only took with him his harp
	And passed barefoot through the gates
	To a place no man would with him go.
	Oh woe!  There was such weeping and sadness
	When he who had been king with crown
	Went so impoverished out of his town.
	Through woods and over heaths
	Into the wilderness he went.
	He found nothing there to comfort him
	But rather he lived in great distress.
	He who once wore pied and gray fur
	And lay on a bed of purple linen
	Now lay upon the harsh, hard heath
	With only leaves and grass to cover him.
	He who had castles and towers, 
	Rivers, forests filled with flowers
	Now, as it began to snow and freeze,
	The king had to make his bed in moss.
	He who had excellent knights
	And ladies who kneeled before him
	Now saw nothing that brought him pleasure
	But rather wild snakes that struck at him.
	He that had everything in plenty:
	Of meat and drink and every delicacy
	Now had to dig and grab all day long
	Before he found his fill of roots.
	In summer he lived by wild fruit trees
	And common berries of little value;
	In winter he found nothing
	Except roots, grasses and barks of trees.
	His whole body wasted away
	Because of the hardships he had endured.
	Lord!  Who may tell of the sorrow
	That this king bore ten years and more?
	The hair of his beard, both black and rough,
	Grew down to his waist.
	His harp, which was his only pleasure, 
	He had hid in a hollow tree,
	And when the weather was clear and bright
	He took up his harp
	And played till his heart was content.
	The sound echoed throughout the woods
	And all the wild beasts that heard it
	For joy willingly gathered around him,
	And every bird that was in the forest
	Came and perched on each nearby brier
	To hear his delightful harping'
	There was so much melody therein!
	And when he ceased playing his harp
	All of the beasts left his side.

	Often in the hot evenings
	He might sometimes see nearby
	The king of the fairies and his company
	Come out to hunt in the forest
	With loud and boisterous hunting horns
	And many barking hunting hounds,
	But they never took home any game
	And Orfeo never knew where they went.
	At other times he might sometimes see
	A great army come marching by,
	Well equipped with ten hundred knights
	Each one of them well armed
	With a fierce and stout countenance
	Displaying many unfurled banners
	And each holding his drawn sword in hand'
	And he never knew which way they went.
	At other times he saw other things:
	Knights and ladies who came out dancing
	In elegant dress and skillful grace
	They danced about with seemly steps  
	Accompanied by drums and trumpets
	And all other manners of minstrelsy.

	And one day he happened to see 
	Sixty ladies riding their steeds
	As gentle and lively as birds on a bough;
	Not a single man was in their company.
	Each bore a falcon on her hand
	And rode hawking by the river.
	They hunted plentiful game:
	Mallards, herons and cormorants.
	The birds of the water rose
	And the falcons marked them well'
	Each falcon slew it's pray.
	When Orfeo saw this he laughed:
	`By my faith!' He said, `There is a sight.
	By God's name, I think I'll go over there.
	I have been lacking good sport.'
	He arose and went over to the ladies.
	As he approached one of the ladies 
	He beheld her face and was overcome
	And say, that of all the things on earth,
	It was his queen, Dame Eurydice.
	He beheld her as eagerly as she did him
	But neither to the other found words to speak.
	Because she saw him in such a sad state,
	He who had once been so rich and so high,
	Tears began to flow from her eyes.
	The other ladies saw this
	And rode away'
	She was lo longer by his side.

	`Alas!' he said, `Now I am in woe!
	Why will death not slay me now?
	Alas, wretch, that I will not 
	Die after seeing this sight!
	Alas!  My life lasts too long
	When I am no longer with my wife.
	She did not even speak to me.
	Alas! Will my heart not break?
	By my faith' he said, `let come what may,
	Wherever these ladies ride
	I shall ride there too,
	I do not care whether I live or die.'
	He quickly put on his pilgrim's shirt
	And hung his harp upon his back
	And felt a strong desire to move forward'
	He stumbled over neither stump nor stone.
	The ladies rode into a rock
	And he rode in right after them.

	When he had gone into the rock
	And rode about three miles or so,
	He came into a fair country
	As bright as the sun on a summer's day.
	Smooth and flat and all green'
	He could not see on hill or dale.
	Amid the land he saw a castle
	Rich and royal and wondrously high.
	All of the outermost wall
	Was clear and shone as if it were crystal.
	There were a hundred towers all about
	Beautiful and with stout battlements.
	The buttress came out of the moat
	And was made of rich, red gold.
	The vaulting was all adorned
	With every kind of enamel.
	Within the structure were spacious rooms,
	All made of precious stones;
	The worst pillar you would behold
	Was composed of bright, burnished gold.
	The whole country was ever in light,
	For when it would be dark and night
	The rich stones' light began to shine
	As bright as the sun at noon.
	No man may tell, nor can imagine,
	The exquisite work this land had wrought.
	By all accounts he though this was
	The proud court of paradise.
	In this castle the ladies dismounted
	And he wished to follow, if he could.
	Orfeo knocked at the gate,
	The porter was standing ready at his post
	And asked what he would have him do.
	`By my faith,' he said, `I am a minstrel.
	I wish to regale your lord with my songs
	If my words accord with his sweet will.'
	The porter soon unlocked the gate
	And let him enter the castle.

	Then he began to look about him
	And saw that the walls were lined
	With people who were to brought to this place
	And seemed dead, but in truth were not.
	Some stood with no head,
	And some had no arms,
	And some had impaling wounds,
	And some lay mad and bound,
	And some were armed and sat on horses,
	And some were choking as they ate,
	And some were drowned in water,
	And some were shriveled due to burning fire.
	Women lay in children's beds, 
	Some were dead, some had gone mad,
	And a great many fell and lay there
	Just as if they were asleep in the evening.
	Each was thus taken from their world
	And through enchantment were brought there.
	There he saw his own wife,
	Dame Eurydice, his dear life,
	Asleep under an impe-tree'
	By her clothes he knew it was she.

	And when he had beheld all of these marvels
	He made his way into the king's hall.
	Then he saw an amazing sight,
	A tabernacle blissful and bright,
	Therein sat the king
	And his queen, fair and sweet.
	Their crowns, their clothes all shined so bright
	That he could scarcely behold them in his sight.
	After he beheld all these things
	He kneeled down before the king.
	`O lord,' he said,  `If it is your will
	I shall play for you my minstrelsy.'
	The king answered, `What man are you
	That had been able to come into my land?
	Neither I nor anyone I know
	Has sent word out to beckon you.
	Since the beginning of my reign here  
	I have never sound such a foolish man
	Who dared come to my court
	Unless I summoned him myself.'
	`Lord,' he said, `Believe me full well
	I am but an impoverished minstrel
	And, sir, it is our custom
	To seek out the houses of many lords,
	Even though we may not be welcome
	We must offer our services with glee.'
	He sat down before the king
	To play a merry sound on his harp
	And struck his harp (which he could do well)
	And began to play such blissful notes
	That every person in the palace
	Gathered around to hear him play.
	They all lay down at his feet
	Because his melody was so sweet
	And the king listened quietly and sat still
	To hear Orfeo's song, and then he was in good spirits.
	He derived great pleasure from he song
	So much so that it pleased the splendid queen.
	When he stopped his harping
	The king said onto him,
	`Minstrel, I am very pleased with your songs.
	Now ask of me anything you wish
	And I will generously pay my debt.
	Now speak, id you wish to test my will.'
	`Sir,' he said, `I beseech you,
	Please give me
	That same lady with the bright complexion
	Who slept under the impe-tree.'
	`No!' cried the king, `That can never be!
	You two would make a sorry couple
	For you are lean, rough and dark,
	And she is beautiful, without fault.
	Therefore it would be a loathsome thing
	If I sent her into your company.'
	`O sir,' he said, `Gentle king,
	It would be a far more loathsome thing
	To hear a lie escape your mouth!
	So, sir, as you said just now
	That I would have whatever I wanted
	And you must stay true to your word.'
	The king replied, `Since it is so, 
	Take her by the hand and go;
	I hope you will be happy with her.'
	He quickly knelt down and thanked the king
	And took his wife by the hand
	And quickly rode out of that land.
	He went right out
	The way he came in.

	He rode the long path he had taken
	And came back to Winchester,
	Which was his own city,
	But no man knew that is was he.
	He went no further
	Than the town's end,
	For he did not wish to be recognized,
	And took up lodging 
	For him and his wife
	Inside a beggar's tiny house
	Just like a poor minstrel would
	And asked for passage into the land
	And asked who the ruler was.
	The poor beggar of the cottage
	Told him everything he knew:
	How their queen was stolen away
	Ten years ago by the fairies, 
	And how their king had gone into exile
	But no one knew to which country.
	And how the steward was now in charge;
	These were among the things he told.
	The next morning, around noon,
	He made his wife stay with the beggar.
	He also borrowed the beggar's clothes,
	Hung his harp upon his back
	And went into the city 
	So that the men would see him.
	Earls as well as barons bold,
	Burgesses and ladies did him behold.
	`Look there,' they said, `Who is that man?
	How long is the hair that hangs upon him!
	Look!  How his beard hangs to his knee!
	He is all gnarled like a tree!'
	And, as he walked along the street,
	With his steward he happed to meet, 
	And Orfeo began to loudly cry at him:
	`Sir steward!' he said, `Mercy!
	I am a harper from heathendom;
	Help me now in this distress!'
	The steward said, `Come with me, come;
	Of that which I have, you shall have some.
	Every good harper is welcome to me
	For love of my lord, Sir Orfeo.'

	In the castle, the steward sat at a table
	And many lords sat by his side;
	There were trumpets and drummers
	Many harpers and string players'
	They all made melodious music together.
	Orfeo sat still in the hall
	And listened.  When they all sat still
	He took his harp and played it loudly;
	The most blissful notes he harped there,
	Better than any man had heard with ear'
	Every man well liked his minstrelsy.
	The steward beheld and began to see
	And knew at once whose harp that was.
	`Minstrel!' he said, `If you wish to live
	Say where you got that harp, and how!
	I pray, you must answer right now.'
	`Lord,' he said, `In an unknown land
	As I went through the wilderness 
	There I found in a dale
	Visages of a man torn by lions
	And wolves, that ate him with teeth so sharp.
	By him I found this very harp;
	This was about ten years ago.'
	`O!' cried the steward, `I am in woe!
	That was my lord, Sir Orfeo!
	Alas, wretch, what shall I do
	Now that I've lost such a lord?
	O, woe the day that I was born!
	He was handed a bitter fate
	And vile Death had him marked.'
	He fainted and fell down to the ground
	And at that moment his barons took him up
	And told him how the world work'
	`There is no solvent for a man's death.'

	King Orfeo knew well by then
	That his steward was a loyal man
	And loved him as he aught to
	And stood up and said, `Look here,
	Steward, hear now this thing:
	If I were Orfeo the king
	And had suffered so long ago
	Such sorrows in the woods
	And had won my queen out of
	The land of the fairies 
	And had brought the gracious lady
	Right here to the town's end
	And had placed her with a beggar
	And came here myself
	In impoverished dress
	In order to test your good will
	And learned that you were true,
	You would have no reason to rue.
	Surely, for love or fear,
	You shall be king after I die
	And if you had regaled at my death
	You would have been banished without delay.

	Then all those who sat therein
	Recognized it was King Orfeo,
	And the steward knew him well too'
	Over one another the tables he threw
	And fell down at his feet;
	As did every other lord who sat there,
	And all said in one cry:
	`You are our lord, sir, and out king!'
	They were happy that he was alive;
	They took him to his chamber straight away
	And bathed him and shaved his beard,
	And clothed him as a king should be;
	And afterwards, with a great procession,
	They brought the queen into town
	With all manner befitting her grace'
	Lord!  There was a great music in the air!
	Tears of joy came from their eyes
	To see their king and queen return safely.
	Now, King Orfeo is newly crowned,
	With his queen, Dame Eurydice,   
	And lived long after that,
	And the steward was king afterwards.

	After that harpers in Brittany
	Heard how this marvelous tale
	And made a lay of great delight
	And named it after the king.
	That lay is called `Orfeo';
	And it is a good song, sweet in its notes.
	Thus was Orfeo delivered from his cares:
	May God grant us all so well to fare! Amen!


[1] Possibly a grafted tree

The translator, Sos Bagramyan was born in Masis, Armenia and
immigrated to the United States in 1988.  He is a recent graduate of
UCLA holding a double major in English and Comparative literature as
well as a minor in Armenian Studies.  His interests lie in all types
of literature, but he is particularly interested in the drama and
poetry of the English Renaissance.  The thing that spurred him to
translate this work of Middle English were the complex, and at times
revolutionary, ideas he discovered in the poem.

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