The Heroism of Heurodis: Self-Mutilation and Restoration in Sir Orfeo

By Caldwell, Ellen M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Heroism of Heurodis: Self-Mutilation and Restoration in Sir Orfeo


Caldwell, Ellen M., Papers on Language & Literature


Although the most telling difference between the fourteenthcentury anonymous poem Sir Orfeo and its Boethian, Ovidian, and Virgilian sources is the "happy ending" that reunites Orfeo with Heurodis and returns them safely from the fairy world to their own kingdom, (1) other features in the medieval poem that emphasize psychological and political messages substantially revise the argument of the classical story. Along with the private dimension of spouses reunited is the political reading that links the loss of Heurodis to the loss of Orfeo's kingdom, the restoration of Orfeo's lands dependent upon her recovery. The key to reading Sir Orfeo, thus, is written on the mutilated body of Orfeo's queen, Heurodis.

Heurodis's self-mutilation, which she performs after she awakens from the dream that foretells her abduction by the fairy king, connects her to a tradition of holy and chaste women in the early Middle Ages who disfigured themselves in order to appear unappealing to would-be attackers. Heurodis's self-mutilation, similarly, is an attempt to preserve her chastity to her spouse Orfeo. Her disfiguring wounds and her relationship to Orfeo's political sovereignty also place Heurodis in the surprising company of the "loathly lady," usually a misshapen hag, whom a knight must marry. If the knight promises sovereignty to this woman, however, she is magically transformed to a beautiful lady, and the man gains sovereignty of the kingdom she represents.(2) Heurodis's self-mutilation, then, also tests whether Orfeo will prove faithful to his wife and a worthy ruler of his realm.(3)

In Celtic versions of the loathly lady story, the husband who possesses the "old hag" gains sovereignty of the kingdom. Similarly, as long as Orfeo possesses Heurodis, he maintains control of his kingdom. When she is abducted, he surrenders his authority and retires in grief to a solitary life in the woods. The pursuit of Heurodis to the fairy world and her subsequent recovery is Orfeo's answer to the fairy king's challenge of his political as well as marital authority.(4) The medieval revision of the Orpheus myth links married love with political governance; it highlights the couple's stalwart constancy and validates the marriage of a sovereign to his land in this classical tale couched in Celtic folklore. Later versions of the Orfeo story--the sixteenth-century Scottish poem Sir Orphius and the ballad "King Orfeo"--highlight the role of Orfeo's wife, giving her a new name and linking her to the tradition of the faithful, longsuffering spouse whose patience and fidelity serve as models for her husband. This reworking of the classical legend, thus, makes use of hagiographic features, of the Celtic loathly lady/sovereignty folk tradition, and of reference to contemporary historical personages, King Edward II and Queen Isabella, to rewrite the story of Heurodis. Her abduction tests Orfeo's fidelity; his winning of her signals the restoration of his kingship and of the marriage. Although she speaks minimally in the romance, Heurodis's actions and her character are at the center of the text's meaning.

The setting of Heurodis's abduction is a familiar locus for danger, the garden, where Heurodis falls asleep and dreams of a fairy king who threatens to abduct her. Penelope Doob likens Heurodis's behavior to "spiritual drunkenness [that] leads to sleep, a deeper state of sloth" (177). J.B. Friedman associates the appearance of the fairy king with the noonday demon.(5) Both Friedman and Doob read Heurodis's "fall" as a moral fault. Yet the Eve parallel these critics assert for Heurodis is not a convincing explanation for her brutal self-mutilation upon awakening from her nightmare:

   Ac, as sone as sche gan awake,
   Sche crid, & lothli bere gan make:
   Sche froted hir honden & hir fet,
   & crached hir visage--it bled wete;
   Hir riche robe hye al to-rett,
   & was reueyd out of hir witt. (77-82)

The word "reueyd" derives from reuen, "to rob or plunder. …

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