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The Faerie King's 'Kunstkammer': Imperial Discourse and the Wondrous in 'Sir Orfeo'

By Anne Marie D'Arcy


The meaning and composition of the figures that litter the forecourt of the Faerie King's palace in the Auchinleck Manuscript version of Sir Orfeo have been the topic of considerable debate. This article suggests that the full effect of this Kunstkammer can only be understood in the light of the persistent, mistrustful distaste for sculpture in the round, which is rooted in patristic writings and popular belief, but also informed by contemporary ideological clashes between the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire and the English state. The numinous power of this outdoor sculptural gallery — which seems measureless to man and includes Orfeo's wife — is palpable, but whereas Orfeo feels wonder, the modern reader's response tends to be refracted through the lens of organic body horror, or a seemingly obscure sense of Das Unheimliche. It is, however, in combination with a number of other telling features of the Faerie King's framing of himself, an important part of a series of demonic simulacra referring simultaneously to both the pretensions of the devil and the pretensions of more earthly powers — imperial and papal. All the artifice of the Faerie King's seat creates a deep disquietude, arising from the ultimate nature of its causation. It is not created out of love as is God's creation made manifest in the poet's vision of Winchester, but as an assertion of power by which the beautiful is sundered from the good in the spectacula, or works and pomps, of this tyrannical, demonic usurper. The Faerie King's crown of one stone, with its conscious debt to the orphan stone motif, even the tabernacular niche in which he sits, recall the imperial and the papal in contexts which stress the overreaching corruptibility of power in the recent past of the Auchinleck narrator

Year: 2007
DOI identifier: 10.1093/res
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