King Orfeo is a happy-ending version of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, with fairies in place of… well, death.
Child only collected one version, which can be found here, and there are several large portions missing. The notes explain that this is because the man who served as the source couldn’t remember them.
Mr Edmondston, from whose memory this ballad was derived, notes that though stanzas are probably lost after the first which would give some account of the king in the east wooing the lady in the west, no such verses were sung by him.
The king goes hunting and leaves his wife, Lady Isobel, at home. When he returns, he is told by someone that:
“…da king o Ferrie we his dart,
Has pierced your lady to da hert.”
Here there are some verses missing.
He had forgotten some stanzas after the fourth, of which the substance was that the lady was carried off by fairies; the king went in quest of her, and one day saw a company passing along a hillside, among whom he recognized his lost wife. The troop went to what seemed a great “ha-house” or castle, on the hillside.
The ballad picks up again when the king is chasing the company:
And aifter dem da king has gaen,
but when he came it was a grey stane.
He takes out his pipes to play some tunes. He is apparently very good.
And first he played da notes o noy,
An dan he played da notes o joy.
An dan he played do göd gadder reel,
Dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale.
The book indicates that there are some more verses missing here. The notes explain:
Stanzas after the eighth were also forgotten, the purport being that a messenger from behind the grey stane appeared and invited the king in.
It picks up again as someone is telling him to come into the hall and play for everyone. He plays the same tunes he did before, and an unidentified person asks him what he wants in return for his music.
‘What I will hae I will you tell,
An dat’s me Lady Isabel.’
The unidentified person agrees and the ballad ends with a surprising lack of conflict.
Child cites three sources from which more complete versions of this story can be found.
In Child’s summary of these ballads, king Orfeo is a great harper. One day, after taking an nap under a “ympe” tree, his wife Heurodis starts freaking out because she has had a nightmare in which another king insisted that she would come with him to his castle the next day. Orfeo tries to prevent this from happening by sending a thousand knights to guard her, but she simply disappears.
The king is so sad that he leaves his high steward in charge of his kingdom and goes to live in the wilderness for ten years.
His only solace was in his harp, and, when the weather was bright, he would play, and the beasts and birds would flock to him. Often at hot noon-day he would see the king of fairy hunting with his rout, or an armed host would go by him with banners displayed, or knights and ladies would come dancing; but whither they went he could not tell.
One day he sees a group of fairy women hunting, and Heurodis is with them. Orfeo follows the party into a rock, and sees them go into a castle. He gains entry to the castle by telling the porter that he is a minstrel. Inside the gate, he sees Heurodis sleeping under another “ympe” tree.
He plays for the king of fairy, and the king likes his playing so much that he promises Orfeo anything he asks for. He asks for “the lady tat sleepeth under the ympe tree.”
“Nay,” quoth the king, “ye were a sorry couple; for thou art lean and rough and black, and she is lovely and has no lack. A lothly thing were it to see her in thy company.” “Gentle king,” replied the harper, it were a fouler thing to hear a lie from thy mouth.” “Take her, then, and be blithe of her,” said the king.
Orfeo goes back home, but decides to test his steward by presenting himself as a homeless traveling minstrel to see if he is welcomed.
The loyal steward was ready to welcome every good harper for love of his lord. King Orfeo made himself known; the steward threw over the table, and fell down at his feet, and so did all the lords. Orfeo and Heurodis were crowned, and lived long afterward.
For a ballad with only one version collected and a good deal of the story missing, there are quite a few recordings of this one. Mainly Norfolk has a small overview of the various recordings and their history.
Some artists choose to record the exact words of the version that Child collected, missing chunks of the story and all:
Others fill in more of the story. This version, written by Fay Hield and Jon Boden based on a translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, uses every opportunity for drama and conflict that never appears in the traditional lyrics:
In this version recorded by Malinky the queen appears to die at the beginning, but then her corpse gets up and leaves during the night. The king seems to know that this will happen and trys to prevent it, but it is never explained why. It ends the same as the other versions with the queen being rescued from fairyland.
Harpans Kraft, or “The Power of the Harp,” is also listed here as a version of King Orfeo. The story is different from “King Orfeo,” but has many similarities. In this story a knight finds his bride crying on the way to their wedding because she knows that she is about to be kidnapped by a water spirit that has previously kidnapped her sisters. The groom does everything he can to prevent this from happening but she is unable to escape her fate. He then brings out his golden harp and plays so skillfully that the water spirit is forced to give back the bride as well as her sisters.
In most of the English translations that I’ve found, such as the Golden Bough recording linked above, this translation on Sacred Texts, this translation by George Borrow, and the translation in Lord Peter and Little Kerstin, there is a happy ending and the bride is recovered alive, possibly with her long-lost sisters. According to Wikipedia, there is also a tragic version of the story where only her body is recovered.