Sir Orfeo


Cover of the 1944 pamphlet - Image from the Bodleian Library, Oxford

The plot is very familiar to Tolkien readers. Sir Orfeo is the King, whose wife disappears. He leaves his kingdom to try and find her, and travels to Faerie. He finds his wife and travels back to his kingdom.

It cannot be said where or when Sir Orfeo was composed with any more precision than probably in the south-east of England in the latter part of the thirteenth century, or early in the fourteenth; and it seems at any rate more probable than not that it was translated from a French original.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien

1944 edition

This is a very rare publication, and to date only five copies are known to exist. The small number of surviving copies may be down to the fact that Tolkien's name does not appear on the pamphlet.

A note inside the Bodleian Library copy indicates that the booklet was reproduced by the University (by mimeograph) before the text, set for English Schools, was formally printed from type. However, the booklet seems to have been the only printing of this text. Another copy, in the English Faculty library at Oxford, contains a note, reported to be in Tolkien's hand, which states that this edition of 'Sir Orfeo' was prepared for the navel cadets' course in English, which Tolkien organized in January 1943 and directed until the end of March 1944.

J.R.R. Tolkien A Descriptive Bibliography Wayne G. Hammond with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson B18

Fortunately, Tolkien Studies Volume 1 (2004) has an article Sir Orfeo: A middle-English Version By J.R.R. Tolkien (Carl F. Hostetter), which contains the whole of Tolkien's transcription and his notes from the pamphlet, along with some excellent background to the poem. A highly recommended read.

In the MS. Tolkien A33/1 (1) Folios i - 22 at the Bodleian Library are the notes and some typed pages of Tolkien's middle-English version of the poem. The printed notes at the end of the pamphlet are typed in italics. The typed version includes line numbers but the printed pamphlet does not include the line numbers, so was possibly not proofed by Tolkien, as he needed the line numbers to talk about the poem. The numbers were pencilled in or Tolkien's copy.

There are some typed notes on the back of one page of the original typed manuscript, which give an indication that Tolkien may not have liked the poem as much as other middle-English poems.


Academic Copying Office, Oxford - Image from the Bodleian Library, Oxford

A.J. Bliss 1954 edition

An edition of Sir Orfeo was published in 1954 edited by Alan Bliss as part of Oxford English Monographs series of which J.R.R. Tolkien was a general editor. Bliss also thanks Tolkien for his assistance in the book.

Alan Bliss.jpg
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Sir Orfeo A.J. Bliss London: Oxford University Press - From the Library of Mr. Underhill

1975 edition


Proof edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien - George Allen & Unwin 1975

In 1975 George Allen & Unwin published Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien.

In the Preface

His version of Sir Orfeo was also made many years ago, and had been (I believe) for long laid aside; but he certainly wished to see it published.

I was not able to discover any writing by my father on the subject of Sir Orfeo. Here therefore, in keeping with my general intentions for the book, I have restricted myself to a very brief factual note on the text

Christopher Tolkien, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien - George Allen & Unwin 1975

The obvious difference between the 1944 and 1975 editions are that the 1975 publication is Tolkien's translation to modern English. See page 23 in the Introduction for Christopher's notes.

Further Reading and References