|Corot, 'Orpheus leidt Eurydice de Onderwereld uit', 1861|
The Middle English Romance Sir Orfeo presents us with a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which, as Kenneth Sisam says in his Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose, 'the Greek myth is almost lost in a tale of fairyland' (13). Tolkien, of course, knew both versions of the story quite well. Not only did he call his tale of Beren and Lúthien, 'a kind of Orpheus-legend in reverse' (Letters, no. 153), but he translated Sir Orfeo into modern English as well as producing his own edition of the original text (Hostetter 2004).
Among the many points of contact between the fairies of Sir Orfeo and the Elves of Tolkien, some of which I discuss here, is a connection between the behavior of the Fairy King and Thingol in The Silmarillion. Once Orfeo has performed before the Fairy King, the King promises to grant him any favor he wishes. Orfeo asks for Heroudis (Eurydice). Here is the scene as Tolkien rendered it:
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!'
A sorry pair ye'd make, ye two;
for thou are 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!'
In The Tale of Beren and Lúthien the contrast between the two lovers is also extreme. Lúthien is the 'the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar' (Silm 165), while Beren, after years of living rough in the forest, has come 'stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road' (165). And Thingol also finds the idea of Beren (or any man) with his daughter monstrous: 'Unhappy Men, children of little lords and brief kings, shall such as these lay hands on you, and yet live?' (167). The price for Lúthien's hand, he tells him, is one of the Silmarils: '[a]nd those that heard these words perceived that Thingol would save his oath, and yet send Beren to his death' (167). Now setting suitors impossible tasks is at least as old as The Odyssey, and the cleverness of the challenge, here as there, often has unexpected consequences. What is noteworthy in the context of Sir Orfeo is what follows:
Then at last Melian spoke, and she said to Thingol: 'O King, you have devised cunning counsel. But if my eyes have not lost their sight, it is ill for you, whether Beren fail in his errand, or achieve it. For you have doomed either your daughter, or yourself. And now is Doriath drawn within the fate of a mightier realm.' But Thingol answered: 'I sell not to Elves or Men those whom I love and cherish above all treasure. And if there were hope or fear that Beren should come ever back alive to Menegroth, he should not have looked again upon the light of heaven, though I had sworn it.'
But Lúthien was silent, and from that hour she sang not again in Doriath. A brooding silence fell upon the woods, and the shadows lengthened in the kingdom of Thingol.
Unlike the Fairy King, who accepts Orfeo's reproof without demur and calls him 'friend' as he sets Heroudis free, Thingol disregards the warnings of his farseeing wife, and scorns the obligations imposed upon him by his own oath. Instead, he openly avows oath-breaking and murder. Moreover, there's a progression from 'Melian spoke' through 'Thingol answered' to '[b]ut Lúthien was silent', which tightly binds Thingol's 'cunning counsel' and his appalling willingness to break his oath to Lúthien's songless silence and the shadows grown long in Doriath.
Thus both the taking of the oath by a fairy king and his willingness to be forsworn have consequences far beyond anything we moderns might at first suspect in Sir Orfeo, where it seems 'only' the Fairy King's honor is at stake. Yet the honor of the King of Faërie in a medieval Romance, or something modelled on one like The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, must be a serious matter. The Fairy King in Sir Orfeo certainly seems to think so, since his reluctance to keep his promise is overcome by a mere reminder of how 'foul' it would be for him to fail to do so. There is no question that he would shame himself if he denied his vow, and so he fulfills it. In Thingol, however, we see a character of greater moral complexity, but less intergrity, than the character on whom he is based. Of course, having children will do that to you.