The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near



The Thracian story of Orpheus and Eurydice was known in medieval Britain via the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But there were a number of native tales, ranging from written lays such as Sir Orfeo (13th century), folk tales, and ballads including one in dialect from the Shetland Isles. What follows is my own distillation of these native sources.

Orfeo was a harper of renown. One day while he was practising his harp, his wife Heurodis went into the orchard with her two young children to enjoy the fine weather and view the flowers of May. As the children played she lay down under a tree and soon fell into a slumber. Suddenly the children heard her screaming and tearing at her clothes. They couldn’t get her to pay them any attention and so ran for help. Orfeo came only to see her fade before his eyes and disappear. Pointing to the tree the children said she had lain under, Orfeo realised it was an ympe tree, grafted with another strain, liable to enchantment by the faërie folk. In those days harping was one of the magic arts so he played a tune of discovery and awaited the expected response. In answer a voice sang softly through the trees:

The King of Faery with his dart
Has pierced your lady through the heart

She had been spirited away to the Otherworld. Orfeo was stricken with grief. He left his children with their grandparents and went off to become a wandering minstrel, seeking in every place where there might be a way into the faërie realm. He lived like this for ten years, sometimes gaining accommodation where he was engaged to play, at other times sleeping in the woods and wild places. His beard grew long and his body lean. His only solace was his harp.
One day while sitting on a mossy stump, about to pluck the strings of his harp, he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. He watched carefully and listened through his harp strings until a sight he had sought for ten years came into focus. He knew that if he moved or looked too directly he would see nothing. So he sat stone-still and watched with a sideways look through the harp strings as the faërie company moved through the trees.
Then he saw something that nearly spoiled his resolve to watch in this careful way. Heurodis was among them! She glided softly with the others as if no feet touched the ground, and yet they trod the ground as any man or woman would. As they passed he looked at Heurodis wistfully and she returned his look with the barest flicker of recognition. But it was enough. When they had passed he followed and saw them disappear into the roots of a great oak tree.
He approached the tree but could find no way in. So he played a spell of opening and saw, clearly before him, a way leading off at an angle that had to be viewed with the same sideways look - as if not looking at all - that he had used to watch the faërie company. Doing this, and touching the harp strings all the way, he followed the dim passage, fearing that if he lost the view of the passage he would be buried underground. Eventually he came through to a forested plain with a castle standing upon a hill in the near distance.
So he went there and knocked at the gate. The porter came and asked what he wanted. So he played him a tune of welcoming. He was taken to a hall in which there were many ympe trees, each with a woman slumbering beneath them. Under one such tree he saw Heurodis. But he made no sign and she appeared as if she were not present in her slumbering body. He was brought before the King who said
‘Who art thou? I never sent for thee’.
Orfeo replied
‘I am a poor minstrel’
and he began to play. The tune he played came from dexterous fingers, but also from his heart and his soul and his craft as he filled the hall with enchantment. Everyone fell silent and listened to the music he played. Notes fell from the strings like flakes of gold and shimmered around the hall like the light of the Moon on the quivering surface of a lake.
When he had finished there was silence for a good while as the notes echoed in the inner ears of the listeners. Then the King said
‘Such music must be rewarded, ask and you shall have your wish’.
‘That lady there under the ympe tree’, said Orfeo, pointing at Heurodis.
‘Nay’ said the King, ‘She is a fine lady and you are rough and unworthy. It would be loathsome to see you together’.
‘It would be loathsome for you to break your word’, said Orfeo.
‘Take her then’, said the King.
So he brought her back to her home and her children and they began a new life together and put that sadness into the past and left it behind them and never looked back or remembered it.

There is no hint in the British versions of the tragic Greek ending in which Orpheus is told he must not look back as Eurydice follows him from Hades. He cannot resist making sure she is behind him, and looks, only to lose her forever as she slips back into the darkness. I have, nevertheless, hinted at this indirectly.