Orpheus and Eurydice–a retelling from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Once upon a time there was a man called Orpheus.  He was an artist—a poet, a singer, a lyre-player (which is sort of like a harpist without the drama).  His music was ethereal.  He was so talented, when he played his lyre and sang his songs, the trees lifted their roots and moved to be closer to him.  The rocks rolled over too, drawn by his melody and magic.  Of course animals gathered.  People were transfixed.  He was a World Singer: he cast spells on the world with his songs. The child of Calliope (the Muse of Epic poetry and the reason that “epic” means “great”) and Apollo (the God of Music and Light and Healing and Civilization and Just About Everything Light Can Symbolize), he seems like he should have been a god himself, but he was nevertheless wholly mortal.  And he was phenomenal.
Orpheus loved Eurydice.  He loved her with the kind of love they tell about in stories (like this one).  The day he married her was the happiest day of his life–and the saddest. When the ceremony was over, Eurydice, on her way to the celebration, stepped on a viper, and it bit her heel.  She died on the spot.  Orpheus was undone.
He more than mourned.  He wasted.  For months.
Then he mobilized and strategized.  He was not the kind of hero to challenge the gods.  Not the kind of hero to undertake a katabasis—underworld journeys were not his style.  His strength lay in his music, not his muscles.  He was no Hercules.  Still, his love fueled his imagination, bringing images to his eyes and songs to his lips, and he went to Hades to get her back.

They heard him coming.  His music compelled everyone there to listen and react, to draw near him, to respond to him.  His song was so sad and so consuming, all who heard it wept.  Persephone was a fountain of tears from the moment he stepped off the ferry, rivers of tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping on to her dress.  The river Styx swelled with tears the dead shouldn’t have been able to cry.  The Furies, who had never wept before and who have never wept again, cried burning tears they could not control.  Hades relented.  He would give this Orpheus his wife; of course he would.  But he named one condition:  Orpheus must walk out of the Underworld ahead of Eurydice, leading her out, but without looking back to be sure she followed. If he looked back, she would go back to Hades, where she belonged, and Orpheus would never get back in to try a second time.
Of course he looked. He tried, honestly he tried, and he made it quite far, really.  He walked up a long staircase that wound around the curves and crevices of the rocky walls of hell, and he kept a slow, steady, rhythmic pace, so that she could certainly keep up.  He had to trust that she would follow, that she could follow.  He had to trust that nothing would grab her, that her injured foot didn’t slow her down, that the climb wasn’t exhausting, that Hades wasn’t lying.  That’s a lot to trust.  And his love made him vulnerable.  What if she had fallen behind?  This was his only chance.  Of course he looked.
When he did, she began slipping down, her near-solid form losing its substance and floating down the steps away from him.  He reached and tried to grasp her hand, but only closed a fist.  He shot his arms out to embrace her one last time, and there was nothing to embrace.  Her voice filtered up from the depths, saying she loved him, she forgave him, she would remember him.  She loved him.  And he lost her.  Twice.
Anger possessed him.  He swore he would never love another woman like that again, and he didn’t.  He couldn’t open himself up to that kind of pain again, and he couldn’t forget Eurydice anyway.  He kept the pain like a memento, and instead he turned to young boys to satisfy his body and his music to satiate his soul.  And he loved her.
The women of Thrace grew to hate him for his love.  It was irrational.  There were lots of lovely Thracian girls and women who should have been able to give him a good life.  He chose none of them.  His shunning women entirely and turning to boys was the last straw.  One hellish night during the Bacchanale, they turned on him.  They came for him with their wild, ivy-strewn hair and their tattered dresses, lifting a thyrsus in the air and shrieking.  “There he is!” they yelled, “the one who spurns our love!”  They swung their staffs, and Orpheus started playing.  They threw rocks, and the rocks fell at his feet, rolling gently toward him, looking oddly repentant.  The spears they threw changed direction in mid-air, avoiding him at the last second.
But more women came.  Throng after throng, and while the first ones fell in his power, the growing number of howling women eventually drowned out his song.  He sang louder, but more women arrived.  The last to arrive heard nothing but their sisters’ screeching, and they got near and ripped and tore at Orpheus.  Their sacred staffs were used as weapons–sacrilege and murder and madness all together.  They mauled him like a pack of savage predators.  They pulled him limb from limb, harp from hand.  They threw his head and his lyre in the river and exulted as they bobbed in the stream.  Orpheus was dead.  But his head kept singing, and the lyre made music on the waves.
And all Creation wept.
As his head tumbled near the shore, a snake opened its mouth and poised to strike.  Apollo, mourning father, froze the snake in stone; it gapes still.  Orpheus’s severed head kept singing.

Finally, though, his journey ended.  On the shores of the Styx, he crossed with purpose, leaning out over the side of the ferry, anxious to find his Eurydice.  She was there.  She smiled.  She took his hand and led him over the fields, and they walk there still, taking turns leading and following, neither worried that the other will fall behind.

Reading · Teaching

Words and Pictures, or The Forests of Fiction

“Fantasy is a place where it rains.”  When Italo Calvino begins his lecture on Visibility in literature, he begins with an image from Dante’s Paradiso, of pictures raining in to his imagination directly from God.  I went to sleep after reading Umberto Eco’s first Norton lecture, the first of “Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” and awoke this morning to that miracle of Southern California weather, The Occasional Drizzle, so I started thinking of rainy images and images raining down.  This is a good time to write.
I have read Calvino’s essay at least a dozen times.  (I know because I’ve taught it annually for over a decade).  My book bears the traces of all these readings—comments and some sketches in red, blue, green, black, and purple ink, and pencil.  He discusses “two types of imaginative process:  the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression” (Six Memos for the Next Millenium 83).  My book bears this out, as I diagram what he’s argued and illustrate what he’s described. This has been enough, every year, to send my head in to a tailspin. Which comes first, the text or the image?  And how do we understand one without the other?
When I start small, I remember that when I teach Children’s Literature, I spend some time talking about concretization. I probably should in other classes too, but especially when I’m thinking of kids reading stories, I imagine them building elaborate images in their heads as they read.  This is why movies made from books are often unsatisfying to readers—they’ve already imagined, or concretized the pictures from the descriptions given in the book, and nine times out of ten, they imagine things quite differently from the film’s director, so they spend the movie fussing that “that’s not what the house looked like” or “she’s supposed to be taller/shorter/darker/lighter/happier/smarter/better.”
In the movie case, the text has given rise to images in the reader’s and director’s heads, and then to comment on the movie (or explain our mental images), we need to go back to words to describe it.
We move back and forth from text to image to text to image.  (Presumably the author started with an image he or she was trying to convey too, right?  We know Calvino did sometimes.  He claims some of his novellas, like The Non-existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount began as images in his head of an empty suit of armor trotting around in Charlemagne’s army and a soldier split in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball.)  So sometimes it goes from the author’s image to the text he writes to the reader’s image to her description or discussion. So how far does this go?  Can we even understand images without using words, or understand words without visualizing them?
Some subjects, certainly.  Some texts don’t create images, just abstractions.  But I will confine myself to thinking of fiction here, and there is almost always some visual element—characters in a setting carrying out certain actions—all of that can be rendered in images.  Maybe we always move from image to text, back and forth like a pinball.  Maybe that’s how we understand the world.  My inner English major wants to argue, to say we go from words to words all the time—that’s literary criticism—but as I think about this relationship, I can see myself imagining the text taking place and then trying to explain it.  We understand words in terms of images, and we understand images by translating them in words.
Calvino says we spend our lives moving back and forth between text and image, so the literature we read needs to be visual in important ways.  Eco describes fiction as a forest we wander through—a world we enter, wend our way through, and leave different.  Perhaps that’s because we’ve seen, experienced, and understood things in our mental cinema while we wound through the words.

When a single word tells a story–Hallowe’en edition

Certainly we craft stories out of words, but some of my favorite stories are the ones the very words contain, and that we often overlook.  I became enchanted with word histories, or etymology, in grad school, when I studied multiple medieval languages—some Romance languages, some Germanic—and saw the same words in different classes and then watched their meanings change as time passed. Linguists talk about languages developing like trees.  It’s certainly true they live and grow and branch out.  I’m more interested today in individual words, which feel a little more like people to me, with cousins in other branches of the family tree, a history to trace, and a story to tell.

The story of words always comes up in my Chaucer class, where we work toward reading Middle English.  The first week we always go slowly, getting to know the language.  I spend a good bit of time trying to make it seem more familiar than it might look at first sight (or certainly than it sounds at first listen).  As we worked through that first sentence that so many students memorize, “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote, the droughte of March hath perced to the roote,” we paused and made sure we found all the cognates.  ‘Whan’ = when (never trust a vowel!), ‘shoures’ = showers, etc. We stopped at ‘halwes.’
Chaucer says pilgrims everywhere are headed “to ferne halwes.” I assured my students they knew these words.  ‘Ferne’ contains ‘far;’ you can see it in there (especially if you’ve learned never to trust a vowel), and ‘halwes’ is just ‘hallows.’  Blank stares.  Hallows—you know, like All Hallows’ Eve. Enough impatient faces that I realize we’re losing that idea, and I shift gears in to story-telling.
Hallow is an old word related to ‘holy,’ basically.  One can have hallowed objects—things that have been made holy, like the items present in a mass, or something holy can actually be a hallow, like the holy grail or the spear of Longinus, or… Harry Potter fans… the Deathly Hallows.  So Chaucer’s pilgrims were traipsing off to visit hallowed places and objects.  Holy things.  Taking, in fact, some holy days.  “Holidays” is just a contraction of this. But we don’t think about Labor Day in a context of holiness anymore.  Neither do we, apparently, think of Hallowe’en in this context. But I do. Because it’s a great story.
In the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, where every day is a saint’s day, and people can celebrate both their birthday and their name day (the day devoted to the saint they were named after), one day a year stands out:  All Saints’ Day.  On the first of November all saints are worshipped, not just one or two, like St. Michael on September 29 or St. Francis on October 4, to name a few recent biggies.  There are various reasons that this may have come to be, but the one that appeals to me is the clash of the old pagan festivals at the end of the harvest, and the day of holiness that follows, honoring all the saints.  There is a powerful strain of death there—for the pagans, the end of the season, the end of productivity, the beginning of the death of the world, before it renews in the spring.  For the Christians, the day of saints is already a celebration of hundreds of dead people; it is easily extended to honoring all the dead.  All Hallows’ Evening, shortened to Hallowe’en (especially if you keep the apostrophe), is the celebration of the dead, an invitation to think about life, death, and life after death, and, you can see an easy story to be told about the thinning of the veil between worlds–more commerce between the living and the dead, for good or ill, depending on your approach.  Whatever you believe, this night has its history in holiness.  Hallows.
P.S.  I’m thinking of adding little “word-tales” more frequently, either as whole blogs, like this one, or as small additional tidbits on other blogs.  If you’d like more of this sort of etymology-as-story, let me know.  Thanks for reading!

Reading to Kids

The best thing I have ever done for my kids, and probably for myself as well, is read to them. When I was pregnant, I had my husband read to me. (People told me that was a good way to have the baby recognize daddy’s voice when he or she made her appearance.)  When they were too tiny to scoot away, I held them and read to them, pointing at pictures and making big faces along with the book. By the time they were able to scoot away, they didn’t want to.  Storytime was such a warm, happy place that we could sit for an hour by the time they were one, when everyone was telling me babies had no attention span. A few years of books bringing close, loving, quiet time, and my kids associated books with happiness. Neither one of them has lost that, even during those perilous ‘tween years, when pressure increases to do more and be more cool.They are 14 and 16 now, and they both read more than I do. And while we don’t have faithful, nightly storytime (starting about a year ago), I still read some–just bigger books: The Odyssey and The IliadA Tale of Two Cities.
There have always been books all over my house. My parents used to talk about “decorating with books.” They had whole walls of bookshelves in most rooms of their house, so I grew up knowing books as a part of daily life long before college–where I first dubbed myself a reader. My house looks like that too, now, but with a lot more kids’ books, and a lot less order. There are books in every room, and some of them are not neatly stored on shelves, but stacked on tables or desks, resting on the couch where they were last read, or piled on the floor, practically becoming furniture themselves because we can’t bear to put them away and have them not close at hand. That was the one request I could never refuse, if I had the money. I could say no to the Nerf gun or the latest Littlest Pet Shop critter, but if they wanted a book, that was something else.That was an investment.

And it has paid off more than I could have anticipated. At the end of third grade, my daughter was testing at 12th grade level, and her teacher thanked me for doing all that “enrichment” at home.  Reading to her?  Really? I certainly never did flashcards or drills or any overt reading instruction. All I did was read. We talked about the books, defined unfamiliar words as we went, and talked about anything scary or troubling as well as laughed together about the funny moments. And we built a repertoire of stories that became our shared frame of reference for the world. That kid is just like Ferdinand the Bull; he just wants some quiet time to himself. Today I feel like Angelina the mouse, when she submarined herself and missed her chance to be in the big ballet. Poohsticks is just like Calvinball is just like our made-up games.
Both kids called the shots on their relationship to storytime, in addition to helping choose the titles. The girly went through a phase where she wanted to “be” the people in the stories.  She would point and assign: “I’ll be Frances, Mommy. You be Gloria.” (Can you name that picture book series?)  And we would start from the plot of the book and make up new adventures for the sisters. My son left the couch at around 8 years old and never came back. He built stuff with Legos on the living room floor while we read; his sister eagerly followed along with the words, but he was happy to listen and keep his hands busy.
I don’t think there’s any right way to read to kids. I think any time we spend reading to kids is good. If we ham it up with voices and emotions, they get involved viscerally, but if we don’t do so much, they bring their own faculties to bear. If we let them read some too, they get to feel like they run the show too, but if we don’t, they get more time listening to an experienced reader, and their skills improve more quickly. Kids benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of genres and cultures, so it helps if the reader brings in new stuff the kids have never seen. But kids also thrive on repetition, the familiar, and the power to choose texts for themselves, so reading time is best when it’s a mix of both impulses. In fact, the only way I can think of screwing up storytime is simply by not having it.