Sunday, January 16, 2011

Two tellings

Here is the complete story of Orpheus as told by the D’Aulaires:
Orpheus’ music was joyful and gay, for he was in love with Euridice, a sweet young maiden, and she loved him in return. On the day of their wedding, his songs swelled out, filled with happiness as his bride danced on her light feet through the meadow. Suddenly, she trod on a snake and sank to the ground, dead of its poisonous bite. Hermes gently closed her eyes and led her away to the underworld. No more songs came from Orpheus’ throat, no more tunes rang out from his lyre. All joy had gone out from his life. He had to have Euridice back.

Weeping and grieving, Orpheus wandered about searching for an entrance to Hades, and when at the end of the world he found it, he did what no living man had ever done before: he went down to the realm of the dead to beg for the return of his beloved. His music had the power to move hard rocks; it might also move the cold heart of Hades. Hope gave him back his songs, and, playing and singing, he walked down the dark, steep path.

His silvery voice floated down through the dark like a gentle summer breeze and its magic moved the iron gates of Hades. They sprang open and let him in, and Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog, lay down at his feet and let him pass. The whole dark underworld stilled and listened to Orpheus’ music as he entered the realm of the dead singing about his great love, begging to have Euridice back. The fluttering souls hushed. Those condemned to eternal pains stopped groaning, and their torturers, the avenging furies, the Erinyes, dropped their whips and wept tears of blood.

Hades, the pitiless king of the dead, sat on his black marble throne with Queen Persephone at his side. Even he was so moved by the music that tears rolled down his sallow cheeks and cold Persephone sobbed. Her heart was so touched that she turned to her husband and begged him to let Euridice go back to the sunny world above. Hades gave his consent, but he made one condition: Orpheus must not look at his bride before they reached the realm of the living. She would walk behind him, but if he turned, and looked at her, she must return to the underworld.

Overcome with joy, Orpheus started up the dark path, and as his music faded into the distance, gloom again descended over the underworld. The way was long, and as Orpheus walked on and on, doubt began to creep into his mind. Had Hades deceived him? Were the sounds he heard behind him really Euridice’s footsteps? He had almost reached the upper world, and could already see a dim light ahead, when he could bear his doubts no longer. He had to turn and see if she really was there. He saw her sweet face, but only for an instant, for again Hermes appeared at her side. He turned her about and led her back to the dark gloom below. Faintly, Orpheus heard her whisper farewell. He had lost her forever through his lack of faith.

Orpheus never again found joy on earth. He wandered into the wilderness to grieve in solitude. He sang, but now his songs were so mournful that tears trickled down the cheeks of wild beasts and the willows wept.

A band of wild nymphs stormed through the woods shouting to Orpheus to join them. They yelled and carried on so loudly that they could not hear his silvery voice and were not touched by its magic. They wanted him to dance with them, but he had not heart for their revelry, and in a fury they threw themselves over him. They tore him to pieces and tossed his body in a river. The river stopped its gurgling to listen, for the haunting voice of Orpheus still issued forth from his dead lips as he floated down to the open sea.

The Muses grieved over him. They searched the sea till they found his body on the shores of the island of Lesbos. There they gave him a proper funeral, and at last he could rejoin his beloved Euridice as a flitting ghost in the underworld.

For comparison, here is the story included in the liner notes of Hadestown (the words in braces are the titles of tracks on the album):
Hadestown begins in the open air, in a world of poverty. Eurydice asks her lover how he will provide for her in these dark times—Orpheus is sure that the world will provide {Wedding Song}. Orpheus sings, and his singing draws a crowd {Epic Part One}. An old train depot, and everyone’s talking about Hadestown, the walled city under the ground {Way Down Hadestown}. There’s Hermes, the hobo guide and messenger; Persephone, in transit, suitcases in tow; Eurydice, who is more than curious about Hadestown; and Orpheus, who wants no part. When Hades calls, Eurydice receives him {Hey, Little Songbird}. He seduces her: she should leave Orpheus and join him in the wealth and security of his underworld. Eurydice succumbs {Gone, I’m Gone}—was she pushed, or did she jump? The Fates provide an explanation {When the Chips Are Down}. Orpheus is determined to follow Eurydice, and Hermes gives directions {Wait For Me}. Meanwhile, in Hadestown, Hades indoctrinates his worker-citizens {Why We Build the Wall}. But when he turns his back, Persephone presents another side of the underworld, in a speakeasy where she plies her contraband and takes an interest in the newly arrived Orpheus {Our Lady of the Underground}. Eurydice, unaware that her lover is near, laments her decision {Flowers}. Orpheus moves toward her, but is intercepted by the Fates. The rules are the rules—there’s no going back for Eurydice—it’s better not to struggle {Nothing Changes}. Orpheus challenges the Fates {If It’s True}. A fight scene: Orpheus and the speakeasy are exposed {Papers}. In the royal bedroom, Persephone appeals to her husband on Orpheus’ behalf {How Long?}. Orpheus sings again, and this time, Hades hears him {Epic Part Two}. An uprising begins, in Hadestown and in the heart of the king {Lover’s Desire}. Hades comes up with a plan: Orpheus can have Eurydice back if he can walk out of the underworld a few paces ahead of her and not turn around to make sure she’s there {His Kiss, The Riot}. Orpheus and Eurydice begin their ascent {Doubt Comes In}. Later, Eurydice and Persephone sing a reverse elegy for Orpheus {I Raise My Cup To Him}.

The D’Aulaires’ illustrations to go with the story are of course beautiful. I will again emphasize that if you don’t have this book, you should. You can see some illustrations of the Hadestown characters here (also contains the above synopsis). The characters along the right, from top to bottom, are Eurydice, Orpheus, Persephone, Hermes, Hades, and the Fates. I’ll talk more about each of them later.

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