The Harper in Fairlyand

A Story from Celtic sources
As retold by Beth Vaughan

The King, Sir Orfeo, could play the harp like no one else. When he played, birds stopped singing, just to listen. It was a small harp, one he could tuck under his arm and take with him wherever wanted.

On afternoons when the weather was sunny and fair, he and his queen, the Lady Heurodis would go into the palace garden. They would spread a blanket to sit upon, lean against a tree and eat their mid-day meal. Then he would play his harp and she— and the birds —would listen.

One such a day they seated themselves beneath an apple tree and leaning as usual against the trunk. Its blossoms were open, with the sweet smell pouring out. The Lady fell asleep. The king called two servants to come and guard her. “Protect her well”, he whispered, then went back to the palace to do the things that kings must do.

The servants stood under the apple tree, one on each side of The Lady, when at once, both at the same moment, they sneezed. When the sneeze happened, they both blinked. Their eyes closed for just an instant — there was no stopping it — and when they opened their eyes, she was gone. In just that instant, she was gone. The servants looked behind the trees, the bushes, the flowers, inside the palace and out. She was nowhere.

There was no way out of it, they must tell the king.

“What do you mean, gone?” he said. “How could that be? Tell me what happened!”

The servants told about the sneeze and the blink. As he listened to them finish the story, Sir Orfeo was already taking off his crown. “I know what’s happened. It’s the Fairy Folk. They have taken The Lady. When they see something they want, they make you sneeze, and in that blink, the Fairy Folk take what they want. My Lady has been taken by the Fairy Folk. Well, I don’t want to sit on the throne without her beside me”. As he took off the royal shoes, he called for the Lord Counselor. “I’m going away to find the Lady Heurodis. I want you to lead the country until I come back. And I won’t come back, until she is with me”.

He took off the clothes that made him look like the king that he was, and put on the ordinary clothes of a peasant. He took no bundle of food or weapons. All he took was his harp, tucked under his arm, as he walked away from that place.

For days, weeks, months, he walked and he looked. He ate only the nuts and berries he could find. He washed in the streams, he slept on the ground. He lived the way an ordinary traveling peasant would do. But each night, before sleeping, he’d lean against a tree and play his harp. The wild creatures would come to listen, the furry ones and the feathered ones. They were his only companions in all that time.

One morning, as he was still on the ground, just waking, he heard, then he saw, 50 horses walking by. Sitting on each horse, was a beautiful lady. He knew by the way they sat, so still, that they were the ladies of the Fairy Folk. In the midst of them, was his own Lady. He moved to wave, so she would see him. But he forgot how he looked. In all that time, no one had cut his hair, nor trimmed his beard. His clothes were torn from the briars. He did not look like the king that he was. And, she did not know him by the way that he looked.

He picked up his harp and began to play. She knew at once the music, knew it was him. But a spell was on her and she could not wave nor even smile. As the horses moved on, he followed after, hiding from bush to tree. They came to a mountain, and he thought they would go one way or the other. But no, a tunnel opened into the mountain, and the horses moved on into that tunnel. It was so dark, nothing could be seen — not even a hand before the face. Sir Orfeo followed the sound of horse’s hooves on the stone floor and he ran his hands along the cool, damp stone walls of the tunnel.

When he came out of the darkness, he was in the land of the Fairy Folk.

As beautiful as ever it is imagined to be, that's how beautiful it was to Sir Orfeo. There, across a meadow, he saw the castle of the King and Queen of the Fairy Folk. Around the castle was a garden, and sitting on the ground, leaning against an apple tree was his Lady, sleeping, just the way she was when she'd been taken. He tried to speak to her, to touch her, but the spell was still on her. So he went right into the castle, walked right up to the King and Queen of the Fairy Folk, and without even being asked, began to play his harp.

His music was so grand, that the King and Queen stopped what they were doing, to listen. From all over the land, Fairy Folk came to listen. Sir Orfeo played happy music, for he had found his Lady. He played sad music, for he had no idea how he would get her from there. When he stopped, all the Fairy Folk were silent for a moment. Then as if they were one, they took in a deep breath, and let out a sigh of satisfaction.

The queen of fairies, leaned toward the king of mortals and said, "Sir, we have never heard anything so lovely. We hear fairy music, and yours is even more grand." She looked at her King. They nodded to each other, as if speaking without words. Together, they said, "We want to give you a reward for playing that music. Just ask for what you want. We will grant any wish, we promise".

Without a moment to hesitate, Sir Orfeo said, "I know what I want. There is a beautiful lady sleeping under an apple tree outside your castle. I'd like her to come away with me."

The Queen sat back. She looked at the King. They both looked hard at Sir Orfeo and they both said, "No!" The Queen explained, "You, sir, looking the way you do, all tattered, scraggy - no, I don't think so". Sir Orfeo reached up to feel his mussed, tangled hair and he looked down at his torn, dirty clothes. The King of the Fairy Folk said, "A beautiful lady like her to go away with one looking like you….that wouldn't be right now, would it?"

Sir Orfeo looked into the eyes of the King, then the Queen, and said right back at them, "You made a promise. And for you to go back on your promise - that wouldn't be right now, would it?" And so his wish was granted.

He went out of the castle, right to the garden, right to the apple tree. The spell was gone now, and he could touch her on the shoulder. She opened her eyes and took his hand as she stood. Together they walked across the meadow, away from the Land of the Fairy Folk. In the tunnel, they listened to their shoes on the stone floor and felt with their hands, the cool, damp walls, 'til, there they were, back in their own land again.

To their own castle they went - walking and talking - telling each other of their adventures in all that time. There in the garden, their apple tree was still standing. Its branches were so full, the apples nearly touched the ground. Even so, they tip-toed past it, being careful not to sneeze.

As luck would have it, the Lord Counselor was standing outside the castle. "Welcome, Lady Heurodis! Welcome back. You, all tattered and scraggy, you go around to the back door." Sir Orfeo played his harp, and the Lord Counselor knew that sound. "Oh, your majesty, I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you, but I know your music. Welcome back, your majesty."

Sir Orfeo went into his rooms. He washed, the barber came to trim his hair and shape his beard. He put on the clothes that made him look like the King that he truly was.

From that day on, Sir Orfeo and Lady Heurodis ruled wisely and carefully, together. But never again did either of them sleep under an apple tree.


My theater background led me to teaching and directing using the techniques of creative drama to develop original improvisational performances.

Folktales can be a good starting point for such work. There is usually a single story and time line, a flexible number of towns people, specific settings, clearly defined characters …

When I find a tale that seems to fit the needs of a particular group, I will do the usual research for cultural connections and thematic variations. Then I will tell my own interpretation of the story. The oral delivery— as opposed to reading of fixed text from a book — offers the actors more freedom to imagine details of setting, charracter, etc..

The story I call "Harper in Fairy Land" is an original adaptation, based on a story found in a collection of Medieval Tales [see Source below]. Unlike the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, from which it evolved, "Harper" has a happy ending. But like so many stories, its source is not certain. There are connections to Celtic Brittany and to Medieval England. In Celtic traditions, trees were used as one of the pathways by which mortal and fairy beings could travel between this world and the Other.

I have used the Harper story as the springboard for three different kinds of workshop. Each begins with involved listening – just listening – not listening for a particular reason. I tell in a simple style to give the listeners room to imagine. And at the same time I try to offer enough particulars in voice and descriptive details to jump-start the improvisational work. Below are notes of each approach. One is primarily an exploration in creative dramatics; another is an introduction to storytelling methods; a third approach provides a doorway to introspective thinking.


Workshop #1 - “Listen, then…Become” – a creative drama adventure

(This workshop is designed for 2nd grade and up.)

Following the storytelling performance, I meet with small groups of people to begin to ‘work the story’. I point out that in "Harper" Fairy Land is a place where violence doesn’t happen, and also that the character types with their environments (royal mortals in a castle and Fairy Folk in Fairy Land) are far from everyday life.

Possible opening script for a class:

Facilitator: " As you listened to the story, did pictures come to your mind?"

A. [some form of, ‘of course’]

Facilitator: Tell me one.

A. (for example) The queen asleep and the guards

Facilitator: All of you sitting where you are, make a statue of yourself, and the name of the statue is “Royal person, sitting”. Sit as if you are someone royal. Think about your back, your elbows, your eyebrow. Are you sitting on a chair? Are there arms on the chair? Think about your knees, your ankles…

3-2-1– freeze, make your body as hard as a piece of marble...hold it, hold it. Let go. Talk to someone near you. Tell each other what you did. Show your partner your statue. I am going to sit down now, but when I stand, you stop talking, and look at me.

[Depending on the size of the group, all, or a few, demonstrate to the whole group.]

[Do a few more ‘moment statues’ - different characters, and/or environments. ]

Listen to this piece of music – how might it be part of the story? (There are many excellent CD's of Celtic harp available on the market.)

Facilitator: What else is in the story that is really important, that is not a person – royal or fairy?

Sooner or later someone will answer: The Tree

Facilitator: What might a tree think when the royal person leans on it? Gets its apples picked? Try on the character, Tree. Feet tucked into the earth, middle part stiff, branches that bend, leaves that flutter – how much can a tree move? Is the middle part straight or bent from the wind? I am going to play the music again and do a slow count to 7 – slowly let your body grow from who you are, into the character, Tree.

[when all are ready]

Is your tree young or old? Show that. Is it a girl, a woman, a boy, a man… What is the weather like – show what happens in the rain…in wind…on a sunny day

Does the tree see the fairy folk? Does the tree know what is going to happen? Does the tree try to warn the servants? Or not?

[Give time, again, for discussion of what just happened]

New Exercise

[ After a demonstratation of how a piece of cloth can become a dusting cloth or a cape or a table cover – how a metal bowl can be a hat or the container for grapes, or a swimming pool. I invite the class to look at my collection of props and lengths of fabric.]

Facilitator: Look at everything, then choose some that could be in the life of one of the characters, something the character might wear, or use, or that is part of the place where the character lives. Be sure you know why you make your choices. I’ll use this sound maker, (demonstrate) when I want you to listen to me again.

[This part of the process takes 5 to 10 noisy minutes depending on the depth of participant’s involvement. I do a lot of ‘side-coaching’ to keep everyone on task.

After responding to the sound, I continue...

Facilitator: Talk to a partner, show what you chose and how you used it and why you chose it.

[Depending on the size of the group, all, or a few demonstrate to the whole group.]

From this point it is a short jump to small group work to select a short scene from the story and to ‘bring it to life’.


Workshop #2 - ‘Storytelling - How to Get Started, then Start”

This workshop focuses on helping people 3rd grade and up to know more than the words of a story. After ‘playing in the story’, the way we did in Workshop #1 above, a student’s imagination will create original details of character and setting. Though the exercises lead participants through only a part of the story, they will have learned how to search for an inner landscape while still being true to the essence of the plot of the story. Working with just a partner, a beginning storyteller may now be ready to try to tell the story. Gentle coaching will encourage a Teller to tell to larger audiences.


Workshop #3 – For introspective thinking and group discussion.

(This workshop is for older teens and adults. )

After telling the story and some ‘playing in the story’, the way we did in Workshop #1 above, I distribute a paper and invite participants to free write, based on some questions that are on the paper. Participants think and write alone, then share their thoughts, or not - depending on the purpose and focus of the group….. Here is an example of the kind of questions I might offer:

The King lost The Lady – I remember that I lost____________

The King went looking for what was lost – I remember that I ____________

If I lost _______, I would ___________

To re-gain The Lady, the King played his harp. I might have to _________

I would not be willing to ______________

On his quest, the King took his harp – I would take ________

I would not take __________

My Fairy World must have _________

As the story ends, the King and the Queen seem to look like and be like the people they were when the story started.

At this retreat I hope that I will _________

These notes on various workshops show how one story can have many different uses and applications. I hope that my examples will inspire further delving and innovative exploration into the rich territory of folktales.

Sources Bibliography:

My retelling of "Harper" is based on "Sir Orfeo" in Medieval Tales, trans. and adapted by Jennifer Westwood. Coward-McCann, Inc. - 1968.

Further Sources for Creative Dramatics include: 
Creative Play Acting by Isabel Berger 
The Ronald Press

Improvisation with Fairy Tales by Ruth Beall Heinig 

Creative Dramatics in the Classroom by Nellie McCaslin 
Players Press

Playmaking with Children by Winifred Ward 
Appleton-Centry-Crofs-Meredith Corp.


Beth Vaughan came to storytelling with a background in theater, as performer, teacher and director. Her style of telling reflects that training and experience.

Her personal cultural background comes from the Celtic countries, and her choice of story material reflects that heritage. With her workshop residencies – “Listen, then…Become,”.she combines theater and storytelling with her passion for the value of the imagination in educating children.

Beth is included in the Maryland State Arts Council roster of Artist's in Education. She is also the founder/director of Upper Nodd Players, a summer theater program, "by children – for children" and teaches a Towson University course, “Literacy Enhancement through Storytelling and the Theater Arts”.
[contact information below]

Sometimes Beth tells through the voice of “Biddy O’Byrne – Medieval Time Traveler from Ireland”. Biddy tells folktales and myths as if they are ‘the news of the day’.

Three CDs available: 
1. Four Favorites

2.Biddy O’Byrne, from Time Medieval; 
(contains The Harper in Fairyland)

3. Chedlau Gan y Delyn – Welsh folktales 
(contains the story that won 1st prize at the Welsh National Gymanva Ganu 
Storytelling Eisteddfod in Harrisburg, PA in 2002)

CDs may be purchased by contacting: 
Beth Vaughan 
2718 Bradenbaugh Rd. 
White Hall, MD 21161