MEDIEVAL MEETS MODERN: "Sir Orfeo" and the 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This video by Rachel Linn Shields juxtaposes two retellings of the story of Orpheus, the medieval romance poem "Sir Orfeo" alongside the 2019 French historical romance film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This comparison raises questions about what constitutes a happy ending—and can lead productive classroom discussions about how much our accustomed sense of “happily ever after” is often too simplistic.



SELECTION from “Sir Orfeo” (to accompany video)

The following selection is from the TEAMS text of “Sir Orfeo” edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salibury, and runs from lines 387 – 408 of the poem. In this scene, the title character encounters an enchanted fairy castle and finds many abducted humans there. The scene seems horrific from a human perspective, but the fairies are more interested in art than morality and, moreover, many of these humans have been “frozen” at the moment of death or near it. The poem asks this question: is it better to be kept in a state of stasis, like a portrait or photograph, or to truly die and disappear? Readers, like the women reading Ovid’s version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, will have differing opinions about this fate based on their own experiences and beliefs.

Than he gan bihold about al,   
And seighe liggeand within the wal   
Of folk that were thider y-brought
And thought dede, and nare nought.
Sum stode withouten hade,
And sum non armes nade,
And sum thurth the bodi hadde wounde,
And sum lay wode, y-bounde,
And sum armed on hors sete,
And sum astrangled as thai ete;
And sum were in water adreynt,
And sum with fire al forschreynt.
Wives ther lay on childe bedde,
Sum ded and sum awedde,
And wonder fele ther lay bisides
Right as thai slepe her undertides;
Eche was thus in this warld y-nome,
With fairi thider y-come.
Ther he seighe his owhen wiif,
Dame Heurodis, his lef liif,   
Slepe under an ympe-tre -
Bi her clothes he knewe that it was he.



Giorgis, Hannah. “How Portrait of a Lady on Fire Subverts the Artist-Muse Relationship.” The Atlantic, 11 Dec 2019,

Laskaya, Anne and Eve Salisbury, editors. “Sir Orfeo.” The Middle English Breton Lays, TEAMS Middle English Texts, University of Rochester, 1995,

Naso, P. Ovidius, “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Metamorphoses, transcribed by Hugo Magnus, translated by Arthur Golding, edited by Brookes More, Cornhill Publishing, 1922, Perseus,

Portrait of a Lady on Fire [Portrait de la jeune fille en feu]. Directed by Céline Sciamma, The Criterion Collection, 2019.

Shepard, Steven H.A. Middle English Romances: Authoritative Texts, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. Norton Critical Editions, W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.