Comparison of Le Morte D’arthur and Sir Orfeo in Terms of Anagnorisis

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Words: 1315 |

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7 min read

Published: Apr 21, 2022

Words: 1315|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Apr 21, 2022

In medieval romances anagnorsis can be defined as: the sudden recognition of a person, family member, or loved one, Aristotle states “recognition is a change from ignorance into knowledge .” Therefore regarding the two medieval romances, Sir Orfeo, anonymous and Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory, we can see how anagnorisis is treated. Sir Orfeo survives in two fifteenth century manuscripts, the Harley 3810, and Ashmole 61, and a third the Auchinleck manuscript, it is dated back to around the 1320’s. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur appeared at Caxtons’s press in Westminster in 1485. Both texts can be considered medieval romances, but they explore the idea of anagnorisis in differing ways. This essay will explore the texts themselves and analyze the treatment of anagnorisis and explicate recognition and discovery with links to motifs, characters and the plot themselves.

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Sir Orfeo professes to be a Breton lay, which is a ‘sub-genre of romance .’ As the poem is anonymous, there is uncertainty to where the influence for the poem has come from, but it is thought that it may come from an old French Conte and a Celtic Lai. The poem also takes major classical influence from the classical matter of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice, told by Virgil and Ovid,’ but Orfeo is arranged in ‘rhyming couplets’ which reflects the oral tradition it stems from, the poem takes many influences and this is what makes it one of the most complex and recognizable romance texts.

In regards to anagnorisis in the poem, Orfeo has to un-recognise himself before he is able to be recognised. This unrecognizability comes at the point that Frye calls “the perilous journey ”. After losing his wife, Heurodis to the fairy king, he is self-exiled and leaves for the wilderness, in a search for her. Many other tales that Orfeo takes influence from, show the hero in search for their wives, in Orpheus he enters the underworld to attempt the recovery of Eurydice, who has been stung by a serpent, and the Celtic influences, like ‘the wooing of Etain’ Echaid leads an army to find his wife who has been taken by a fairy abductor. But in Sir Orfeo, Orfeo does not attempt to search for his wife at all. Orfeo rather spends ten years in the wilderness, grieving and playing his harp, surviving on wild berries taming the “wilde beasts ” and “alle pe foules ” with his music. But it is in doing this that he has completely given up the royal life he left behind “he no hadde birtle no hode/ no schert, no noper gode/bot his harp he toke algate .”

The ten years he spends in the wilderness prove that Orfeo has led a kind of repentance, and it is after this period where he is gifted with the sight of Heurodis; he sees her with a group of fairies, this point as Frye puts it is ‘the preliminary minor adventure .’ Orfeo has sacrificed everything, and when reunited with Heurodis he is able to bring her back to life. His great harping skills impress the fairy king, and therefore Orfeo is able to overcome the Fairy King’s power so can now successfully return to his kingdom.

When Orfeo finally returns to his kingdom he chooses to be disguised in ‘pe beggers clopes ’, and meets the Steward who has been in charge of the kingdom since his exile, once back Orfeo recognises a new type of power, he no longer cares about the power of ‘hundred kniztes and mo ” he once sought out to find Heurodis, he recognises the power of loyalty. Orfeo plays the harp for his Steward who immediately recognizes the instrument but is unable to recognize Orfeo, Orfeo tests the loyalty of the steward by claiming he found the harp “lying in a dale/ a man with lions totorn smale/ and wolves him frette with teeth so sharp/ by him I foond this eeche harp ,” in despair the steward falls to the ground, Orfeo realizes the faithfulness of the steward 'His steward was a trewe man ' and reveals his true identity. There is no one reason why Orfeo chooses to disguise himself, but it is a demonstration of Orfeo’s success as a monarch as he has inspired loyalty. This is especially prominent considering the disastrous results of the monarch succession in the 14th century, especially when looking at Edward II and Richard II, the poem is a good example of showing the positivity that can come from having a good leader. Peter J Lucas puts it thus: 'In Sir Orfeo the bonds of human society are tested, principally by a mysterious, external, supernatural agent .”

Anagnorisis is therefore treated as a way of Orfeo realizing the faithfulness of his people, much like Frye’s definition; now that the hero has proved himself, there is a “happy resolution instead of tragic.” As P. Beekman suggests the “Orfeo’s marriage to and then loss of Heurodis, his exile, and his recovery of his queen ” are the grounds of him becoming the hero.

Anagnorisis seems to take on a slightly different form in the Morte D’Arthur, this may be because although the Morte is considered a romance tale the instances of anagnorisis seen in the tale can also fall in to the category of tragedy, Aristotle establishes it as; the recognition of a friend or family member resulting in tragedy.

One of the earlier examples of anagnorisis results in the accidental conceiving of Mordred, between Arthur and his half-sister Morgause by his mother Igraine. In book one chapter nineteen, we are told the story of Arthur and Morgause. Arthur is attracted to the “fair lady ” and this woman is identified only as “King Lot's wife of Orkney ” and Arthur “knew not that king lot’s wife was his sister ,” and so he sleeps with her, not only is this incest but it is also adultery,

Mordred’s birth and character serves as a reminder of the futility of Arthur as a hero as he can’t resolve the issues he created, foreshadowing that the story will end in tragedy.

The second acknowledgement of anagnorisis seen within the Morte, is Launcelot’s disguise. Launcelot throughout the Morte “is presented as the type and ideal of the good knight ” he is known for never representing any woman in any battle, due to his devotion to the queen Guinevere, and yet in the tale of the Fair Maid of Asolot, Launcelot wears the token of the Fair Maid’s red sleeve, while he jousts against Arthur’s side. It is here while brandishing a different shield and the red sleeve, that his cousin Bors smites through his shield and wounds him badly. Bors quickly realises it was his uncle who he jousted against, and he would never intentionally injured Launcelot if he knew his true identity. Also when Guinevere recognises Launcelot has represented another woman she is furious, so she gives him her own gold sleeve so that he will now fight for her: by accepting her gold sleeve Launcelot is solidifying his love for her, as R.T Davies says their “adulterous love assignation ends in the complete destruction of the Round Table and the renunciation by Launcelot and Guinevere of an unstable world, a world of misfortune .” Their love affair shows the instability of Arthurs rule, as he fails to realise that his most ‘noble’ knight is deceiving him as well as exposing the flaws in chivalric values themselves, Launcelot is choosing to stay faithful to Guinevere but also faithful to his order therefore “Lancelot's tragic instability is rooted in the mixed nature of chivalry itself. ”

The recognition of Gareth is the only type of ‘romance’ anagnorisis seen in the Morte, as it is both comedic, and ends happily. Gareth knows his true noble identity from birth but decides to conceal it “in order to ‘prove’ to his public ” that he is in fact a “noble knight ,” he is constantly mocked and ridiculed but chooses still to keep his true identity a secret, and it is in several comedic recognition scenes where his family learn his true heritage. Gareth is the only knight who has truly earned his place as he is recognised as a true knight, by proving himself first, and this is why anagnorisis is treated in the romance form not tragic, as the hero has proved himself.

Therefore clearly anagnorisis in Le Morte D’Arthur is treated as a reminder of destruction, and an end to chivalric virtues. As E. Minaver suggests that tragedy is prevalent throughout the story because “the tragic destiny of Arthurian knighthood is divorced from the earlier account of how the ‘worldly’ knights failed in the quest for the grail, ” the knights even the strongest contenders like Launcelot are unable to see the grail and are clearly not the virtuous knights they claim to be, and this is what in turn sets up the tragic element of the tale, they are unable to be ‘true heroes’ because they have not proved themselves. “Much of the Morte D’arthur is thus concerned with revealing the corrupt reality beneath the fair chivalric surface… the book reveals the failure of chivalry to provide in fact the standards it in theory advocates .”

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Anagnorisis in Sir Orfeo follows conventional romance ideas of the word, it ends happily and the hero has proved himself to be a hero, while Le Morte D’Arthur, follows a tragic view of anagnorisis, the knights and hero’s show futility as they can’t prove themselves to be true heroes, but this may be because Le Morte D’Arthur is concerned with more realistic outlooks of the world, Sir Orfeo is a fairy tale it is riddled with folklore elements which is what makes it a conventional romance text, but Le Morte the “fairy-tale and folklore matter is mingled with contemporary reality. ”

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Comparison of Le Morte D’Arthur and Sir Orfeo in Terms Of Anagnorisis. (2022, April 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
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