by J. R. R. Tolkien
We often read and written find,
as learned men do us remind,
that lays that now the harpers sing
are wrought of many a marvellous thing.
Some are of weal, and some of woe,
and some do joy and gladness know;
in some are guile and treachery told,
in some the deeds that chanced of old;
some are of jests and ribaldry,
and some are tales of Faërie.
Of all the things that men may heed
'tis most of love they sing indeed.
In Britain all these lays are writ,
there issued first in rhyming fit,
concerning adventures in those days
whereof the Britons made their lays;
for when they heard men anywhere
tell of adventures that there were,
they took their harps in their delight
and made a lay and named it right.
Of adventures that did once befall
some can I tell you, but not all.
Listen now, lordings good and true,
and 'Orfeo' I will sing to you.
Sir Orfeo was a king of old,
in England lordship high did hold;
valour he had and hardihood,
a courteous king whose gifts were good.
His father from King Pluto came,
his mother from Juno, king of fame,
who once of old as gods were named
for mighty deeds they did and claimed.
Sir Orfeo, too, all things beyond
of harping's sweet delight was fond,
and sure were all good harpers there
of him to earn them honour fair;
himself he loved to touch the harp
and pluck the strings with fingers sharp.
He played so well, beneath the sun
a better harper was there none;
no man hath in this world been born
who would not, hearing him, have sworn
that as before him Orfeo played
to joy of Paradise he had strayed
and sound of harpers heavenly,
such joy was there and melody.
This king abode in Tracience,
a city proud of stout defence;
for Winchester, 'tis certain, then
as Tracience was known to men.
There dwelt his queen in fairest bliss,
whom men called Lady Heurodis,
of ladies then the one most fair
who ever flesh and blood did wear;
in her did grace and goodness dwell,
but none her loveliness can tell.
It so did chance in early May,
when glad and warm doth shine the day,
and gone are bitter winter showers,
and every field is filled with flowers,
on every branch the blossom blows,
in glory and in gladness grows,
the lady Heurodis, the queen,
two maidens fair to garden green
with her she took at drowsy tide
of noon to stroll by orchard-side,
to see the flowers there spread and spring
and hear the birds on branches sing.
There down in shade they sat all three
beneath a fair young grafted tree;
and soon it chanced the gentle queen
fell there asleep upon the green.
Her maidens durst her not awake,
but let her lie, her rest to take;
and so she slept, till midday soon
was passed, and come was afternoon.
Then suddenly they heard her wake,
and cry, and grievous clamour make;
she writhed with limb, her hands she wrung,
she tore her face till blood there sprung,
her raiment rich in pieces rent;
thus sudden out of mind she went.
Her maidens two then by her side
no longer durst with her abide,
but to the palace swiftly ran
and told there knight and squire and man
their green, it seemed, was sudden mad;
'Go and restrain her,' they them bade.
Both knights and ladies thither sped,
and more than sixty damsels fled;
to the orchard to the queen they went,
with arms to lift her down they bent,
and brought her to her bed at last,
and raving there they held her fast;
but ceaselessly she still would cry,
and ever strove to rise and fly.
When Orfeo heard these tidings sad,
more grief than ever in life he had;
and swiftly with ten knights he sped
to bower, and stood before her bed,
and looking on her ruefully,
'Dear life,' he said, 'what troubles thee,
who ever quiet hast been and sweet,
why dost thou now so shrilly greet?
Thy body that peerless white was born
is now by cruel nails all torn.
Alas! thy cheeks that were so red
are now as wan as thou wert dead;
thy fingers too, so small and slim,
are stained with blood, their hue is dim.
Alas! thy lovely eyes in woe
now stare on me as on a foe.
A! lady, mercy I implore.
These piteous cries, come, cry no more,
but tell me what thee grieves, and how,
and say what may thee comfort now.'
Then, lo! at last she lay there still,
and many bitter tears did spill,
and thus unto the king she spake:
'Alas! my lord, my heart will break.
Since first together came our life,
between us ne'er was wrath nor strife,
but I have ever so loved thee
as very life, and so thou me.
Yet now we must be torn in twain,
and go I must, for all thy pain.'
'Alas!' said he, 'then dark my doom.
Where wilt thou go, and go to whom?
But where thou goest, I come with thee,
and where I go, thou shalt with me.'
'Nay, nay, sir, words avail thee naught.
I will tell thee how this woe was wrought:
as I lay in the quiet noontide
and slept beneath our orchard-side,
there came two noble knights to me
arrayed in armour gallantly.
"We come," they said, "thee swift to bring
to meeting with our lord and king."
Then answered I both bold and true
that dared I not, and would not do.
They spurred then back on swiftest steed;
then came their king himself with speed;
a hundred knights with him and more,
and damsels, too, were many a score,
all riding there on snow-white steeds,
and white as milk were all their weeds;
I saw not ever anywhere
a folk so peerless and so fair.
The king was crowned with crown of light,
not of red gold nor silver white,
but of one single gem 'twas hewn
that shone as bright as sun at noon.
And coming, straightway he me sought,
and would I or no, he up me caught,
and made me by him swiftly ride
upon a palfrey at his side;
and to his palace thus me brought,
a dwelling fair and wondrous wrought.
He castles showed me there and towers,
Water and wild, and woods, and flowers,
and pastures rich upon the plain;
and then he brought me home again,
and to our orchard he me led,
and then at parting this he said:
"See, lady, tomorrow thou must be
right here beneath this grafted tree,
and then beside us thou shalt ride,
and with us evermore abide.
If let or hindrance thou dost make,
where'er thou be, we shall thee take,
and all thy limbs shall rend and tear --
no aid of man shall help thee there;
and even so, all rent and torn,
thou shalt away with us be borne."'
When all those tidings Orfeo heard,
then spake he many a bitter word:
'Alas! I had liever lose my life
than those thee thus, my queen and wife!'
He counsel find him help or plan.
On the morrow, when the noon drew near,
in arms did Orfeo appear,
and full ten hundred knights with him,
all stoutly armed, all stern and grim;
and with their queen now went that band
beneath the grafted tree to stand.
A serried rank on every side
they made, and vowed there to abide,
and die there sooner for her sake
than let men thence their lady take.
And yet from midst of that array
the queen was sudden snatched away;
by magic was she from them caught,
and none knew whither she was brought.
Then was there wailing, tears, and woe;
the king did to his chamber go,
and oft he swooned on floor of stone,
and such lament he made and moan
that nigh his life then came to end;
and nothing could his grief amend.
His barons he summoned to his board,
each mighty earl and famous lord,
and when they all together came,
'My lords,' he said, 'I here do name
my steward high before you all
to keep my realm, whate'er befall,
to hold my place instead of me
and keep my lands where'er they be.
For now that I have lost my queen,
the fairest lady men have seen,
I wish not woman more to see.
Into the wilderness I will flee,
and there will live for evermore
with the wild beasts in forests hoar.
But when ye learn my days are spent,
then summon ye a parliament,
and choose ye there a king anew.
With all I have now deal ye true.'
Then weeping was there in the hall,
and great lament there made they all,
and hardly there might old or young
for weeping utter word with tongue.
They knelt them down in company,
and prayed, if so his will might be,
that never should he from them go.
'Have done!' said he. 'It must be so.'
Now all his kingdom he forsook.
Only a beggar's cloak he took;
he had no kirtle and no hood,
no shirt, nor other raiment good.
His harp yet bore he even so,
and barefoot from the gate did go;
no man might keep him on the way.
A me! the weeping woe that day,
when he that had been king with crown
went thus beggarly out of town!
Through wood and over moorland bleak
he now the wilderness doth seek,
and nothing finds to make him glad,
but ever liveth lone and sad.
He once had ermine worn and vair,
on bed had purple linen fair,
now on the heather hard doth lie,
in leaves is wrapped and grasses dry.
He once had castles owned and towers,
water and wild, and woods, and flowers,
now though it turn to frost or snow,
this king with moss his bed must strow.
He once had many a noble knight
before him kneeling, ladies bright,
now nought to please him doth he keep;
only wild serpents by him creep.
He that once had in plenty sweet
all dainties for his drink and meat,
now he must grub and dig all day,
with roots his hunger to allay.
In summer on wildwood fruit he feeds,
or berries poor to serve his needs;
in winter nothing can he find
save roots and herbs and bitter rind.
All his body was wasted thin
by hardship, and all cracked his skin.
A Lord! who can recount the woe
for ten long years that king did know?
His hair and beard all black and rank
down to his waist hung long and lank.
His harp wherein was his delight
in hollow tree he hid from sight;
when weather clear was in the land
his harp he took then in his hand
and harped thereon at his sweet will.
Through all the wood the sound did thrill,
and all the wild beasts that there are
in joy approached him from afar;
and all the birds that might be found
there perched on bough and bramble round
to hear his harping to the end,
such melodies he there did blend;
and when he laid his harp aside,
no bird or beast would near him bide.
There often by him would he see,
when noon was hot on leaf and tree,
the king of Faërie with his rout
came hunting in the woods about
with blowing far and crying dim,
and barking hounds that were with him;
yet never a beast they took nor slew,
and where they went he never knew.
At other times he would descry
a mighty host, it seemed, go by,
ten hundred knights all fair arrayed
with many a banner proud displayed.
Each face and mien was fierce and bold,
each knight a drawn sword there did hold,
and all were armed in harness fair
and marching on he knew not where.
Or a sight more strange would meet his eye:
knights and ladies came dancing by
in rich array and raiment meet,
softly stepping with skilful feet;
tabour and trumpet went along,
and marvellous minstrelsy and song.
And one fair day he at his side
saw sixty ladies on horses ride,
each fair and free as bird on spray,
and nnever a man with them that day.
There each on hand a falcon bore,
riding a-hawking by river-shore.
Those haunts with game in plenty teem,
cormorant, heron, and duck in stream;
there off the water fowl arise,
and every falcon them descries;
each falcon stooping slew his prey,
and Orfeo laughing loud did say:
'Behold, in faith, this sport is fair!
Fore Heaven, I will betake me there!
I once was wont to see such play.'
He rose and thither made his way,
and to a lady came with speed,
and looked at her, and took good heed,
and saw as sure as once in life
'twas Heurodis, his queen and wife.
Intent he gazed, and so did she,
but no word spake; no word said he.
For hardship that she saw him bear,
who had been royal, and high, and fair,
then from her eyes the tears there fell.
The other ladies marked it well,
and away they made her swiftly ride;
no longer might she near him bide.
'Alas!' said he, 'unhappy day!
Why will not now my death me slay?
Alas! unhappy man, ah why
may I not, seeing her, now die?
Alas! too long hath lasted life,
when I dare not with mine own wife
to speak a word, nor she with me.
Alas! my heart should break,' said he.
'And yet, fore Heaven, tide what betide,
and whithersoever these ladies ride,
that road I will follow they now fare;
for life or death no more I care.'
His beggar's cloak he on him flung,
his harp upon his back he hung;
with right good will his feet he sped,
for stock nor stone he stayed his tread.
Right into a rock the ladies rode,
and in behind he fearless strode.
He went into that rocky hill
a good three miles or more, until
he came into a country fair
as bright as sun in summer air.
Level and smooth it was and green,
and hill nor valley there was seen.
A castle he saw amid the land
princely and proud and lofty stand;
the outer wall around it laid
of shining crystal clear was made.
A hundred towers were raised about
with cunning wrought, embattled stout;
and from the moat each buttress bold
in arches sprang of rich red gold.
The vault was carven and adorned
with beasts and birds and figures horned;
within were halls and chambers wide
all made of jewels and gems of pride;
the poorest pillar to behold
was builded all of burnished gold.
And all that land was ever light,
for when it came to dusk of night
from precious stones there issued soon
a light as bright as sun at noon.
No man may tell nor think in thought
how rich the works that there were wrought;
indeed it seemed he gazed with eyes
on the proud court of Paradise.
The ladies to that castle passed.
Behind them Orfeo followed fast.
There knocked he loud upon the gate;
the porter came, and did not wait,
but asked him what might be his will.
'In faith, I have a minstrel's skill
with mirth and music, if he please,
thy lord to cheer, and him to ease.'
The porter swift did then unpin
the castle gates, and let him in.
Then he began to gaze about,
and saw within the walls a rout
of folk that were thither drawn below,
and mourned as dead, but were not so.
For some there stood who had no head,
and some no arms, nor feet; some bled
and through their bodies wounds were set,
and some were strangled as they ate,
and some lay raving, chained and bound,
and some in water had been drowned;
and some were withered in the fire,
and some on horse, in war's attire,
and wives there lay in their childbed,
and mad were some, and some were dead;
and passing many there lay beside
as though they slept at quiet noon-tide.
Thus in the world was each one caught
and thither by fairy magic brought.
There too he saw his own sweet wife,
Queen Heurodis, his joy and life,
asleep beneath a grafted tree:
by her attire he knew 'twas she.
When he had marked these marvels all,
he went before the king in hall,
and there a joyous sight did see,
a shining throne and canopy.
Their king and lord there held his seat
beside their lady fair and sweet.
Their crowns and clothes so brightly shone
that scarce his eyes might look thereon.
When he had marked this wondrous thing,
he knelt him down before the king:
'O lord,' said he, 'if it be thy will,
now shalt thou hear my minstrel's skill.'
The king replied: 'What man art thou
that hither darest venture now?
Not I nor any here with me
have ever sent to summon thee,
and since here first my reign began
I have never found so rash a man
that he to us would dare to wend,
unless I first for him should send.'
'My lord,' said he, 'I thee assure,
I am but a wandering minstrel poor;
and, sir, this custom use we all
at the house of many a lord to call,
and little though our welcome be,
to offer there our minstrelsy.'
Before the king upon the ground
he sat, and touched his harp to sound;
his harp he tuned as well he could,
glad notes began and music good,
and all who were in palace found
came unto him to hear the sound,
and lay before his very feet,
they thought his melody so sweet.
He played, and silent sat the king
for great delight in listening;
great joy this minstrelsy he deemed,
and joy to his noble queen it seemed.
At last when he his harping stayed,
this speech the king to him then made:
'Minstrel, thy music pleaseth me.
Come, ask of me whate'er it be,
and rich reward I will thee pay.
Come, speak, and prove now what I say!'
'Good sir,' he said, 'I beg of thee
that this thing thou wouldst give to me,
that very lady fair to see
who sleeps beneath the grafted tree.'
'Nay,' said the king, 'that would not do!
for thou art black, and rough, and lean,
and she is faultless, fair and clean.
A monstrous thing then would it be
to see her in thy company.'
'O sir,' he said, 'O gracious king,
but it would be a fouler thing
from mouth of thine to hear a lie.
Thy vow, sir, thou canst not deny,
Whate'er I asked, that should I gain,
and thou must needs thy word maintain.'
The king then said: 'Since that is so,
now take her hand in thine, and go;
I wish thee joy of her, my friend!'
He thanked him well, on knees did bend;
his wife he took then by the hand,
and departed swiftly from that land,
and from that country went in haste;
the way he came he now retraced.
Long was the road. The journey passed;
to Winchester he came at last,
his own beloved city free;
but no man knew that it was he.
Beyond the town's end yet to fare,
lest men them knew, he did not dare;
but in a beggar's narrow cot
a lowly lodging there he got
both for himself and for his wife,
as a minstrel poor of wandering life.
He asked for tidings in the land,
and who that kingdom held in hand;
the beggar poor him answered well
and told all things that there befell:
how fairies stole their queen away
ten years before, in time of May;
and how in exile went their king
in unknown countries wandering,
while still the steward rule did hold;
and many things beside he told.
Next day, when hour of noon was near,
he bade his wife await him here;
the beggar's rags he on him flung,
his harp upon his back he hung,
and went into the city's ways
for men to look and on him gaze.
Him earl and lord and baron bold,
lady and burgess, did behold.
'O look! O what a man!' they said,
'How long the hair hands from his head!
His beard is dangling to his knee!
He is gnarled and knotted like a tree!'
Then as he walked along the street
He chanced his steward there to meet,
and after him aloud cried he:
'Mercy, sir steward, have on me!
A harper I am from Heathenesse;
to thee I turn in my distress.'
The steward said: 'Come with me, come!
Of what I have thou shalt have some.
All harpers good I welcome make
For my dear lord Sir Orfeo's sake.'
The steward in castle sat at meat,
and many a lord there had his seat;
trumpeters, tabourers there played
harpers and fiddlers music made.
Many a melody made they all,
but Orfeo silent sat in hall
and listened. And when they all were still
he took his harp and tuned it shrill.
Then notes he harped more glad and clear
than ever a man hath heard with ear;
his music delighted all those men.
The steward looked and looked again;
the harp in hand at once he knew,
'Minstrel,' he said, 'come, tell me true,
whence came this harp to thee, and how?
I pray thee, tell me plainly now.'
'My lord,' said he, 'in lands unknown
I walked a wilderness alone,
and there I found in dale forlorn
a man by lions to pieces torn,
by wolves devoured with teeth so sharp;
by him I found this very harp,
and that is full ten years ago.'
'Ah!' said the steward, 'news of woe!
'Twas Orfeo, my master true.
Alas! poor wretch, what shall I do,
who must so dear a master mourn?
A! woe is me that I was born,
for him so hard a fate designed,
a death so vile that he should find!'
Then on the ground he fell in swoon;
his barons stooping raised him soon
and bade him think how all must end -
for death of man no man can mend.
King Orfeo now had proved and knew
his steward was both loyal and true,
and loved him as he duly should.
'Lo!' then he cried, and up he stood,
'Steward, now to my words give ear!
If thy king, Orfeo, were here,
and had in wilderness full long
suffered great hardship sore and strong,
had won his queen by his own hand
out of the deeps of fairy land,
and led at last his lady dear
right hither to the town's end near,
and lodged her in a beggar's cot;
if I were he, whom ye knew not,
thus come among you, poor and ill,
in secret to prove thy faith and will,
if then I thee had found so true,
thy loyalty never shouldst thou rue:
nay, certainly, tide what betide,
thou shouldst be king when Orfeo died.
Hadst thou rejoiced to hear my fate,
I would have thrust thee from the gate.'
Then clearly knew they in the hall
that Orfeo stood before them all.
The steward understood at last;
in his haste the table down he cast
and flung himself before his feet,
and each lord likewise left his seat,
and this one cry they all let ring:
'Ye are our lord, sir, and our king!'
To know he lived so glad they were.
To his chamber soon they brought him there;
they bathed him and they shaved his beard,
and robed him, till royal he appeared;
and brought them in procession long
the queen to town with merry song,
with many a sound of minstrelsy.
A Lord! how great the melody!
For joy the tears were falling fast
of those who saw them safe at last.
Now was King Orfeo crowned anew,
and Heurodis his lady too;
and long they lived, till they were dead,
and king was the steward in their stead.
Harpers in Britain in aftertime
these marvels heard, and in their rhyme
a lay they made of fair delight,
and after the king it named aright,
'Orfeo' called it, as was meet:
good is the lay, the music sweet.
Thus came Sir Orfeo out of care.
God grant that well we all may fare!
Last updated January 14, 2019