A Selfless Act of Love: The Critical Nature of Asceticism in “Sir Orfeo”

In his prideful attempt to control the outcome of events that are beyond his control, Orfeo loses the thing which means most to him in the world—his true love. His unwillingness to heed Heurodis’ warnings about the danger and futility of trying to save her from the fairy king leads to his ultimate downfall. Orfeo’s ascetic retreat from the world, rather than a self-imposed penance for the sin of pride, is the ultimate act of unconditional love and teaches him the importance of humility in his roles as husband and king.

When he fails to protect Heurodis from the fairy king, Orfeo is beside himself with grief and cannot foresee that there will ever be another woman who could possibly take the place of his queen. He cries to his courtiers:

Never eft y nil no woman se.
Into wilderness ichil te
And live ther evermore
With wilde bestes in holtes hore (211-214)

Orfeo is bereft of any hope for finding love again. Heurodis is the most beautiful woman who ever lived (210) and he does not see that there is any possibility that he will find a woman to fill her place. Orfeo exiles himself to live in the wilderness for the remainder of hisorfeo life. He will live in a place that is the complete opposite of his life as king. In the wilderness there is no opulence or comfort. The wilderness is symbolic of the grief he feels at the loss of his beloved. There is nothing even approaching not only Heurodis’ beauty, but also nothing which approaches the beauty of their love and life together. The wilderness is stark and gray, much like the way Orfeo feels at his loss. He will live not only with the beasts of the wilderness, but he will live as they do. He takes nothing with him which will offer any sort of convenience. It is his pride that interfered with the events which were beyond his control, so the only response he can make is to strip himself of the trappings of that pride and be genuinely humbled in his grief. The significance of his act of self-exile is not found so much in the act itself, but in the motivation behind it. Orfeo does not go into the wilderness intending to win back his love; nor does he go in an act of penance. He never cites a quest to rescue Heurodis as the impetus for his decision to leave. Orfeo’s act is one of unconditional love. If he cannot be with the most beautiful woman ever born; if he cannot have his true love, then he must have nothing else of beauty or comfort. He chooses to spend the rest of his life alone. In his article “The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile,” Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis explains, “[Orfeo] obviously does not expect any change in his fortune; that is, he does not expect to find Heurodis” (246). Instead, he expects to spend the remainder of his life in the wilderness. Orfeo’s motivation is not to rescue his wife, or to punish him. His motivation is to live in a way that reflects the depth of his love and loss which lends considerable weight to the significance of the manner in which he lives during his decade-long exile.

Orfeo’s existence in the wilderness can be described as, at best, ascetic which is crucial to his discovery that his life and relationship with Heurodis, and with his people, does not depend on opulence and physical power. He is completely self-reliant. He has no servants or cooks. There is no one to entertain or encourage him. He keeps no company but his own and finds sustenance in what the wilderness provides throughout the year. The poet writes:

In somer he liveth bi wild frut,
And berien bot gode lite;
In winter may he nothing finde
Bot rote, grases, and the rinde (257-60).

Orfeo’s diet does not resemble that of his former life in any way. He lives on fruits and berries (of little value) in the summertime when the weather is good. Even in the most plentiful time of the year, he does not try to hunt for meat or fish. He eats only the fruits and berries that he finds around him. For Orfeo, there is no season for happiness. Even in the warmth and plenty of summer, he denies himself comfort because he has lost the one person who ever provided him true happiness and comfort to begin with. The foods he eats in the wilderness provide little, if any, real nourishment; and, there is nothing in his heart to provide spiritual nourishment. Orfeo becomes only a shadow of his former self, but it is a necessary transformation. He must learn the truth that the love he has with and from Heurodis was not dependent on his physical prowess. It is not dependent on his ability to rule or to protect. Instead, Heurodis’ love for Orfeo is pure and free of any conditions. Their love for one another need only rely on what each can offer to the other “in plenty or in want.”  Louis posits, “[Orfeo’s] sacrifice for Heurodis, for which he expects neither praise nor reward, asserts to the universe the dignity of man and the strength of man’s love—love based not on passion, but on charity” (249). In the end, it is Orfeo’s assumption of humility and lack which reveals the true depth of his love for Heurodis. He is willing to sacrifice everything and everyone that makes King Orfeo who he is without any expectations or conditions. His act is one of unconditional love. His choice to live without all of the trappings of kingship without hope for anything in return is what makes him worthy of regaining Heurodis and his crown. He learns the frailty of the human condition, but he also learns the power of man’s ability to redeem himself, not through the intervention of some supernatural force, but in finding the core virtues that make him who he is truly meant to be. Orfeo finds humility through his self-imposed ten year exile in the wilderness living the most basic existence.

Annotated Reference

Gros Louis, Kenneth R.R. “The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile.”   The Review of English Studies 18.71 (1967): 245-252. PDF.

Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis argues against the traditional interpretation of Sir Orfeo’s self-imposed exile in the wilderness which suggests that it is a search for Heurodis in the hopes of rescuing her from the clutches of the fairy king. Louis contends that this is a flawed reading of the poem, ignoring the fact that neither Orfeo, nor any other character ever suggests such a quest. Instead, Louis provides an analysis of the text which bestowed upon the king an even nobler motive. He interprets Orfeo’s self-exile as an act of unconditional love, motivated not by the hope of finding Heurodis, nor by the expectation of praise or reward, nor by the need to punish himself for sin. Louis surmises that Orfeo’s act is motivated only by love and the loss of that love, and that through his exile he learns to be truly humble in his power.


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