Orpheus never died. But he was, perhaps, torn apart just as the myths say, and then scattered across almost three millennia of Western literature, in each new moment given new life. Recently, he seems to be enjoying a particular popularity in science fiction: the myth of Orpheus's quest to rescue Eurydice from Hades structures the plot (and more) of Jeff VanderMeer's 2003 New Weird opus Veniss Underground, and also recurs at key points in China Miéville's work, such as in the conclusion of Perdido Street Station (2000) and throughout the title story of his 2005 collection
What does it mean, then, when a giant of science fiction presumes to write, at what must be nearing the end of a staggeringly prolific and influential career in the genre, another retelling of the myth titled The Last Song of Orpheus? We might expect to find between its covers some virtuoso, Tempest-uous farewell to art, or perhaps a keening swan-song, in which the dark cloud of mortality weighs heavily over the narrative. Yet Silverberg has given us neither a sustained metafictional meditation on his craft nor a pensive reflection on death; instead, the novella is a relentlessly fatalistic retelling of a series of traditional myths about Orpheus united by the bard's own first-person perspective, but narrated from a point beyond human space and time: "My last song, but also my first, for in my end is my beginning, and for me there are no ends and no beginnings but only the circle that is eternity. My sense of time and space is not like yours, for I know, better than you, better than any mortal possibly could, that the serpent, Time, curves round upon itself and grasps its tail in its mouth" (p. 9). For the immortal Orpheus, past, present, and future have become "all one indisseverable thing" (ibid), granting him a perspective that—understandably but unfortunately—makes it difficult for him to tell an engaging story. And how can we feel deeply a narrative whose narrator describes it in advance as "[t]hat painful Euridice business" (p. 14)? It is strange, even jarring, that one of the most emotionally stirring narratives in Western literature should be narrated with such incongruous detachment.
Indeed, many of the novella's shortcomings result directly from the way in which Silverberg has chosen to relate Orpheus's adventures: the characteristic mode of narration throughout remains the summary, whether anticipatory or retrospective. For instance, we get no dialogue between Orpheus and Euridice—Silverberg's preferred spelling—until after she is dead, and, not only are most of the plot points summarized and reported rather than dramatized in the moment, what immediate action remains is shot through with the narrator's repetitive digressions and languorous commentary. When, for example, Orpheus receives the divine call to undertake his great quest through the underworld to restore his lost love, the narrator's typical fatalistic intrusion—"I knew the part I was meant to play in this little colloquy" (p. 28)—feels like a tic, and only erodes the high seriousness of a narrative that at other times wants us to take it very seriously indeed. At the end of the novella, one may feel that Orpheus had said all he needed to say by chapter two, which articulates quite comprehensively the model of eternal return that he will reiterate again and again. We might say that the novella suffers from a surfeit of self-awareness, and a rather impenetrable rationale for retelling the story in the first place: the main interest in retelling a story that has been retold so many times cannot simply consist in making the observation that it has been retold so many times.
To my mind, the eternal power of the Orpheus myth lies in our inability to stop hoping, every single time we hear it, that things will turn out differently this time, that he won't look back, that they'll make it out together and love will conquer all—even death. When Orpheus looks back, as he must, the tragedy hits us as forcefully as ever, but Silverberg's bland reminders that he must only weaken the myth, adding little but yet another assertion of the narrator's same simplistic thesis.
Partly, then, the novella fails because it is an attempt to rewrite the Orpheus myth as something it is not; I should emphasize that I am not criticizing Silverberg for a lack of fidelity to the original narratives, for, if anything, he remains too faithful (on which see more below). I would argue that his single significant deviation from Classical accounts of Orpheus—that is, framing the stories in the retrospective voice of this immortal, omniscient narrator-hero—simplifies the narrative rather than opening it outward. In part, Silverberg is trying to come to terms with Orpheus's mistake by rewriting the myth as that of the fate-doomed Oedipus, a self-comparison that the narrator makes himself (p. 43), but does not pursue in any meaningful way beyond this theme of fatalism. In remaking the myth as a more fatalistic Oedipus Rex or even Oresteia, Silverberg only dilutes the tragedy of Eurydice's double death. Yet, in its second half—after Orpheus finishes relating that tiresome business with his dead wife—the novella also moves on to cover his role in Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. These narratives combine somewhat awkwardly in Silverberg's assemblage, the first a deep personal tragedy and the second a picaresque adventure story in which the narrator, seemingly unchanged by his loss, himself plays only a peripheral role. But this inexact fit is less of a problem than the fact that, again, Silverberg simply adds very little worth remarking. Let us consider, for example, one of the narrator's many self-conscious refusals to narrate more vividly experiences that his readers all supposedly know well: "The story of our voyage up the Euxine Sea to Colchis is something everyone knows, for the tale has been told again and again by the poets. But the daily toil, the pain, the struggle—ah, who can know of that who was not there?" (p. 87). Silverberg rather pointlessly allows Orpheus to retreat into the old incommunicability topos, and squanders a perfect opportunity to describe some of those individual days, pains, and struggles, the ideal subject matter for a new presentation of ancient myths, which often skimp on such realistic details. Towards the end of the novella, Orpheus signs on for the final voyage of Odysseus, intending to sail beyond the sunset with Tennyson and company, but even this promising five-page excursus fizzles out in a letdown, since after all they turn around after visiting Stonehenge, and Odysseus dies at home in bed.
So what should a good retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice accomplish? Miéville, I think, handles the "double death" in Perdido Street Station especially well: our hero rescues his beloved from the pit, but she looks back, and loses her mind and her art, her second death a perhaps even more horrific kind of half-death. Silverberg has not attempted any such sophisticated extension of the myth into an original narrative, and we should perhaps judge his effort on its own terms in the tradition of more direct retellings of the story. I generally endeavor to keep intrusions from my "day job" as a medievalist out of my SF reviews, but the Orpheus of the Middle Ages makes for an almost inescapable comparison here; I am thinking primarily of the Orpheus and Eurydice written by the late fifteenth century Scottish poet Robert Henryson, and also the anonymous Breton lay Sir Orfeo. These two poems are both examples of brilliant post-Classical versions of Orpheus that also offer a fairly straight retelling of the narrative, causing them to resemble Silverberg's novella more than, say, VanderMeer or Pynchon's thoroughly reimagined fugues. (Even so, Sir Orfeo does recontextualize the archetypical Orphic quest narrative in the world of romance and Faery: in light of Orpheus's sudden popularity in speculative fiction, I should also note that a recent article in Tolkien Studies argues for the profound influence of Sir Orfeo on The Lord of the Rings, and thus indirectly on modern fantasy—see Honegger, "Fantasy, Escape.")
Unlike The Last Song of Orpheus, Sir Orfeo contains many memorable amplifications and expansions of the original that underscore the misery of the bereaved or the arduousness of his quest, as when the poet says of the wandering Orfeo,
He that hadde y-werd the fowe and griis,
And on bed the purper biis,
Now on hard hethe he lith,
With leves and gresse he him writh.
[He once had ermine worn and vair,
on bed had purple linen fair,
now on the heather hard doth lie,
in leaves is wrapped and grasses dry]. (241-45, trans. Tolkien)
Later, when we see Orfeo pick up his lyre and resume playing the most beautiful music in the world, we understand that he now plays senselessly, completely without purpose: what good is the most beautiful music in the world, unless it can save her? In most of the stories, of course, Orpheus turns his music precisely to this purpose, and discovers that it can recall the love of his life from beyond the grave—only for the weakness of his own humanity to foil him. In fact, Sir Orfeo ends bizarrely happily, and somehow the poem's power is such that even this major change does not damage the story.
Henryson's own "sci-fi" poem makes for an even more striking comparison. Silverberg has done a nice enough job of recreating Orpheus as an SF writer: during his wanderings in Egypt, he sings of "a day when men will fly through the air and travel to other worlds" (p. 48), and earlier he had received a divine dream vision teaching him of the spheres and their music (p. 17-20), an episode quite similar to the passages in Henryson in which the new widower travels through the succession of heavenly spheres. Unlike Silverberg's overbearing Orpheus, however, Henryson's narrator is both endearingly charming and capable of achieving considerable emotional heights, both of which qualities we see in his conclusion to the account of Orpheus's highfalutin education in celestial harmonies:
Off sic musik to wryt I do bot doit,
Thairfor of this mater a stray I lay,
For in my lyfe I cowth nevir sing a noit;
Bot I will tell how Orpheus tuk the way
To seik his wyfe attour the gravis gray;
Hungry and cauld, our mony wilsum wone,
Withouttin gyd, he and his harp allone.
[To write of such music I would deceive myself
Therefore I pass over this matter,
For in all my life I could never sing a note;
But I will tell how Orpheus took his way
To seek his wife among the gray groves;
Hungry and cold, across many a wild land,
Without any guide, he and his harp alone.] (240-46, clumsy translation mine)
In contrast to Silverberg's tendency to summarize, Henryson also demonstrates how an Orphic retelling can become most effective when the author finds way to compress the narrative's raw mythic power into sentences or exchanges of great brevity but also great impact; for example, when, during his scouring of the heavens for Eurydice, Orpheus has descended all the way down to the lowly Venusian sphere, this goddess, too, must sadly turn him away: "'For suth, quod scho, 'ye mone seik nedirmair' ['In truth,' said she, 'you must seek farther down yet']" (210). Yes, we realize with Orpheus, he must go all the way down. Or, consider how Henryson manages to distill into a handful of words Orpheus's later outrage at the injustice of it all: "'Bot for a luke my lady is forloir [But for a look my lady is forlorn/lost]'" (412). If only the moment that changed everything had gone differently, that little misstep after the impossible journey: if only he hadn't. But he did and she is gone. When we compare moments like these with the insistent detachment of Silverberg's Orpheus, always repeating, "Well, you know the story" (p. 96), and reconciled to both Euridice's fate and his own, we begin to see how Silverberg has perhaps inadvertently enervated the myth simply by allowing his hero to accept it—or to have heard it before.
If Silverberg's novella seems to underperform next to versions of Orpheus that have withstood the test of centuries, one might instead look to other, more recent mythic retellings. But The Last Song of Orpheus will not benefit from that comparison either: the text lacks either the recriminatory conviction of a retelling like Atwood's Penelopiad (2005) or the simultaneously humbled and confrontational middle way pursued in Le Guin's Lavinia (2008). In fact, despite the fatalistic flavor of its narration, on the levels of plot and language the novella runs the risk of becoming more repetition than retelling. For example, Silverberg chooses to include some blatant paraphrases of the Classics—e.g., "It is easy enough to descend into Hell, for its gates will open readily for anyone; but climbing back up again into the light, ah, that is not so simple!" (p. 41); this is essentially a translation of Aeneid VI.126-29—and, in a sense, the entire work can read like an extended paraphrase, especially in comparison with the dialogic complexity of Lavinia. If you will permit me one final medievalism, I am reminded of Petrarch's famous remarks, in a letter to Boccaccio, on the quintessentially medieval art of retelling:
A proper imitator should take care what he writes resembles the original without reproducing it. The resemblance should not be that of a portrait to the sitter—in that case the closer the likeness the better—but it should be the resemblance of a son to his father. [...] As soon as we see the son, he recalls the father to us, although if we should measure every feature we should find them all different. But there is a mysterious something there that has this power. (pp. 198-99)
Silverberg's contribution to the Orpheus cycle simply lacks this "mysterious something" that would distinguish it from other retellings of the myth and yet evoke all of their accumulated power at the same time. Lavinia radiates this enigmatic essence from almost every page, perhaps in part because Le Guin makes the perpetual mystery of this very relationship between pre-text and retelling one of her novel's main subjects; Silverberg has far less to say in the text about what he's actually doing or hoping to accomplish by telling the story over for himself. The Last Song of Orpheus is, in a phrase, a lackluster retelling of an imperishable narrative by an accomplished master. I would have to advise a reader intrigued by the myth to seek out one of the other retellings I've mentioned before taking up this one—or, indeed, to seek out some other Robert Silverberg. This particular novella may be a well-meaning miss, but I'm certain that, in more ways than one, this is not Orpheus's last song.
Henryson, Robert. The Poems of Robert Henryson. Ed. Robert L. Kindrick, with Kristie A. Bixby. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Print.
Honegger, Thomas. "Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, and Consolation in Sir Orfeo: The Medieval Foundations of Tolkienian Fantasy." Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 117-136. Print.
The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. Print.
Petrarch. Letters from Petrarch. Trans. Morris Bishop. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. New York: Ballantine, 1975. Print.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.