Review published on September 11, 2012.Reviewed by Julian Philpot
While he may not be a household name today, Orpheus is one of the defining figures in Western culture and thought. Was he a god, a man, or a collection of legends? And what is the reason for his enduring popularity?
Ann Wroe has an editorial role at The Economist, which is not the most obvious background for a writer with such talent. In this book she displays a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the classical world, its ancient Greek and Roman commentators, and its heritage right up to the present day. It would have been easy to set out this knowledge piece by piece, neatly arranged and tabulated, as an accountant might present the annual cash-flow figures. But Wroe makes the story sing – like the lyre of Orpheus, which she uses as a structure and a metaphor throughout.
Down the years the Orpheus myth has inspired composers, dramatists, painters and poets. Wroe focuses especially on Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’, written over a very short period and inspired by – what? A vision, an encounter with this mysterious figure? Throughout the book Orpheus is seen as a living force, a spiritual influence, someone who can be as real today as he may have been in the ancient world.
Chief among the gifts of Orpheus was his musical ability, both in singing and in playing. It was said that he could charm men, animals, even trees and rocks. Then, as now, music was an elemental part of the human experience. It accompanied the formal and the informal, the wedding, the funeral, the sacred offering; the shepherds calling to one another, the laundry-women at the stream, and the oarsmen rhythmically driving their vessel through the seas. No wonder he was a popular figure.
But he is best remembered for two journeys, both of which leave indelible trails in the human psyche. The first is the voyage of the Argonauts, an epic of adventure, daring, romance and betrayal. The Homerian Odyssey is clearly the model for this later poem. Orpheus goes along as ship’s musician (a modern equivalent might well be Neelix as “Chief Morale Officer” on the U.S.S. Voyager). He is instrumental in calming the nerves of the troubled crew, but Orpheus comes into his own when faced with the passage of the Sirens, those enchanting singers. While Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast, Orpheus confronts their song with his own – and wins.
The second journey is yet more symbolic. Orpheus descends to the world of the dead in a bid to reclaim his beloved Eurydice, snatched from life before her time. Life, death and love combine in the ultimate romance. But however beautiful the music of Gluck’s “Che faro senz’ Eurydice” and however compelling the story of his journey, this seems to be a late addition to the Orpheus myth. Ancient cultures worldwide share a similar narrative, going back many thousands of years. Maybe Orpheus was in the right place at the right time when they were handing out the medals…
Wroe keeps the story moving, tracing the man or the legend from his origin to his end. The account is never dull – at times so effusive that it steers close to pretentiousness, but never crossing the line. The text is interspersed with quotes from many sources, moving effortlessly between contemporary writings, later reflections and her own interpretation of the cultural evidence. And so this book becomes neither fact nor fiction but something of both. It could even be an addition to the Orpheus myth; building on previous works and creating a new revelation. Art seeks to show us something through new eyes, and this book does just that. It should appeal to anyone with an interest in the culture that underlies so much of our society.
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