King Orfeo

King Orfeo
Der lived a king inta da aste,
Scowan ürla grün
Der lived a lady in da wast.
Whar giorten han grün oarlac
Child has a single version A of King Orfeo. However, the ballad has been rediscovered from recent oral tradition in Shetland and these texts with tunes are included in Bronson and given here as Bronson 1 and 2. The ballad is also still to be found in the oral tradition in Norway.

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Try this [ LINK ] to traditional versions from the archives.

We have here in traditional song the story of the justly admired mediæval romance of Orpheus, in which fairy-land supplants Tartarus, faithful love is rewarded, and Eurydice (Heurodis, Erodys, Eroudys) is retrieved. This tale has come down to us in three versions: A, in the Auchinleck MS., dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century, Advocates Library, Edinburgh, printed in Laing’s Select Remains of the Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland, ‘Orfeo and Heurodis,’ No 3; B, Ashmole MS., 61, Bodleian Library, of the first half of the fifteenth century, printed in Halliwell’s Illustrations of Fairy Mythology, ‘Kyng Orfew,’ p. 37;* C, Harleian MS., 3810, British Museum, printed by Ritson, Metrical Romanceës, ii, 248, ‘Sir Orpheo;’ lately edited by Dr Oscar Zielke: Sir Orfeo, ein englisches Feenmärchen aus dem Mittelalter, mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen, Breslau, 1880. At the end of the Auchinleck copy we are told that harpers in Britain heard this marvel, and made a lay thereof, which they called, after the king, ‘Lay Orfeo.’ The other two copies also, but in verses which are a repetition of the introduction to ‘Lay le Freine,’ call this a Breton lay.†

The story is this (A). Orfeo was a king [and so good a harper never none was, B]. One day in May his queen went out to a garden with two maidens, and fell asleep under an “ympe” tree. When she waked she shrieked, tore her clothes, and acted very wildly. Her maidens ran to the palace and called for help, for the queen would go mad. Knights and ladies went to the queen, took her away, and put her to bed; but still the excitement continued. The king, in great affliction, besought her to tell him what was the matter, and what he could do. Alas! she said, I have loved thee as my life, and thou me, but now we must part. As she slept knights had come to her and had bidden her come speak with their king. Upon her refusal, the king himself came, with a company of knights and damsels, all on snow-white steeds, and made her ride on a palfrey by his side, and, after he had shown her his palace, brought her back and said: Look thou be under this ympe tree tomorrow, to go with us; and if thou makest us any let, we will take thee by force, wherever thou be. The next day Orfeo took the queen to the tree under guard of a thousand knights, all resolved to die before they would give her up: but she was spirited away right from the midst of them, no one knew whither.

The king all but died of grief, but it was no boot. He gave his kingdom in charge to his high steward, told his barons to choose a new king when they should learn that he was dead, put on a sclavin and nothing else, took his harp, and went barefoot out at the gate. Ten years he lived in the woods and on the heath; his body wasted away, his beard grew to his girdle. His only solace was in his harp, and, when the weather was bright, he would play, and all the beasts and birds would flock to him. Often at hot noonday he would see the king of fairy hunting with his rout, or an armed host would go by him with banners displayed, or knights and ladies would come dancing; but whither they went he could not tell. One day he descried sixty ladies who were hawking. He went towards them and saw that one of them was Heurodis. He looked at her wistfully, and she at him; neither spoke a word, but tears fell from her eyes, and the ladies hurried her away. He followed, and spared neither stub nor stem. They went in at a rock, and he after. They alighted at a superb castle; he knocked at the gate, told the porter he was a minstrel, and was let in. There he saw Heurodis, sleeping under an ympe tree.

Orfeo went into the hall, and saw a king and queen, sitting in a tabernacle. He kneeled down before the king. What man art thou? said the king. I never sent for thee, and never found I man so bold as to come here unbidden. Lord, quoth Orfeo, I am but a poor minstrel, and it is a way of ours to seek many a lord’s house, though we be not welcome. Without more words he took his harp and began to play. All the palace came to listen, and lay down at his feet. The king sat still and was glad to hear, and, when the harping was done, said, Minstrel, ask of me whatever it be; I will pay thee largely. “Sir,” said Orfeo, “I beseech thee give me the lady that sleepeth under the ympe tree.” “Nay,” quoth the king, “ye were a sorry couple; for thou art lean and rough and black, and she is lovely and has no lack. A lothly thing were it to see her in thy company.” “Gentle king,” replied the harper, “it were a fouler thing to hear a lie from thy mouth.” “Take her, then, and be blithe of her,” said the king.

Orfeo now turned homewards, but first presented himself to the steward alone, and in beggar’s clothes, as a harper from heathendom, to see if he were a true man. The loyal steward was ready to welcome every good harper for love of his lord. King Orfeo made himself known; the steward threw over the table, and fell down at his feet, and so did all the lords. They brought the queen to the town. Orfeo and Heurodis were crowned anew, and lived long afterward.

The Scandinavian burden was, perhaps, no more intelligible to the singer than “Hey non nonny” is to us. The first line seems to be Unst for Danish Skoven årle grön (Early green’s the wood). The sense of the other line is not so obvious. Professor Grundtvig has suggested to me, Hvor hjorten han går årlig (Where the hart goes early).* The relations of the Danish ‘Harpens Kraft,’ and incidentally those of this ballad, to the English romance are discussed, with his usual acuteness, by Professor Sophus Bugge in Arkiv för nordisk Filologi, VII, 97ff, 1891. See ‘Glasgerion,’ No 67 of this collection. * The first half of the Norse burden is more likely to have been, originally, what would correspond to the Danish Skoven [er] herlig grön, or, Skoven herlig grönnes. In the other half, grün forbids us to look for hjort in giorten, where we are rather to see Danish urt (English wort), Icelandic jurt: so that this would be, in Danish, Hvor urten hun grönnes herlig. (Note of Mr Axel Olrik.) [217]

Version A.[ TOP ]

The Leisure Hour, February 14, 1880, No 1468, p. 109. Obtained from the singing of Andrew Coutts, an old man in Unst, Shetland, by Mr Biot Edmondston.

1 Der lived a king inta da aste,
Scowan ürla grün
Der lived a lady in da wast.
Whar giorten han grün oarlac

2 Dis king he has a huntin gaen,
He’s left his Lady Isabel alane.

3 ‘Oh I wis ye’d never gaen away,
For at your hame is döl an wae.

4 ‘For da king o Ferrie we his daert,
Has pierced your lady to da hert.’

5 And aifter dem da king has gaen,
But whan he cam it was a grey stane.

6 Dan he took oot his pipes ta play,
Bit sair his hert wi döl an wae.

7 And first he played da notes o noy,
An dan he played da notes o joy.

8 An dan he played da göd gabber reel,
Dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale.

9 ‘Noo come ye in inta wir ha,
An come ye in among wis a’.’

10 Now he’s gaen in inta der ha,
An he’s gaen in among dem a’.

11 Dan he took out his pipes to play,
Bit sair his hert wi döl an wae.

12 An first he played da notes o noy,
An dan he played da notes o joy.

13 An dan he played da göd gabber reel,
Dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale.

14 ‘Noo tell to us what ye will hae:
What sall we gie you for your play?

15 ‘What I will hae I will you tell,
An dat’s me Lady Isabel.’

16 ‘Yees tak your lady, an yees gaeng hame,
An yees be king ower a’ your ain.’

17 He’s taen his lady, an he’s gaen hame,
An noo he’s king ower a’ his ain.

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