"Orfeo out of Care"

The Reception of the Classical Myth of Orpheus from Sir Orfeo to Tolkien

Keywords: Orpheus and Eurydice, Sir Orfeo, Reception, Tolkien, Beren and Lúthien


The paper focuses on an example of multiple-step reception: the contribution of the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice and the mediaeval lay Sir Orfeo to Tolkien’s work.

In the first part, I compare the lay with Virgilian and Ovidian versions of Orpheus’ myth. This comparison shows the anonymous author’s deep knowledge of the ancient texts and complex way of rewriting them through stealing and hybridization.

The lay was highly esteemed by Tolkien, who translated it and took inspiration from it while describing the Elven kingdom in The Hobbit and building the storyline of Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion. Through this key tale, Orpheus/Orfeo’s romance has a deep influence also on Aragorn and Arwen’s story in The Lord of the Rings. The most important element that Tolkien takes from the Sir Orfeo figuration of the ancient story is undoubtedly the insertion of political theme: the link established between the recovery of the main character’s beloved and the return to royal responsability.

The second part of the paper is, thus, dedicated to the reception of Sir Orfeo and the classical myth in Tolkien. It shows how in his work the different steps of the tradition of Orpheus’ story are co-present, creating an inextricable substrate of inspiration that nourishes his imagination.