BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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Book Review: Orpheus

 

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Title: Orpheus

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Author/Artist: Charles Mikolaycak

Pages: 32 pp

ISBN: 0-15-258804-3

Price: Varies (out of print)

Once, there lived a man named Orpheus, whose music was so wondrous, so perfect, that oceans would still, animals would lie at his feet, and trees would tear up their roots to draw closer to his song. Though seemingly blessed by the Gods, Orpheus was lonely. That loneliness only ended when he was wed to Eurydice, "a woman as gentle as the petals of a rose and far more lovely." Blinded by their love for another another, neither saw the black smoking torch at their wedding, held by the God of Marriage himself ....

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is another myth well-known even outside Pagan circles; or, at least, people know the broad strokes. It surprised me, then, when I went looking for children's books focused specifically on this myth. There are only a few,* and several of them are out of print -- including this gorgeous edition by Charles Mikolaycak.

Using colored pencils, watercolors, and acrylics, Mikolaycak's art has the appearance of a dramatic play. Thick white borders clearly encapsulate the two-page spreads; more than once, I felt like I was sitting in a darkened theater, fully absorbed in a live stage production.

The attention to detail is amazing. The Sirens sit atop an island of skulls and bones. Charon the Ferryman is chained his boat, with a pouch at his side for the coins he collects. The Underworld is a frightening place; not quite as terrible and scary as Hieronymous Bosch, but enough to have children wondering what Tantalus and Sisyphus and other souls could have done to deserve such punishment (thus leading into a useful discussion about honor, hubris and divine justice). Orpheus' death is equally terrible; bloody and tragic, but not gory.

Mikolaycak's retelling is also notable for his use of nude human figures. While cleverly positioned white clothing or limbs hide the genital region, men and woman alike appear bare-chested, without any hint of shame or guilt. Rather than titillating the viewer, the nudity creates a quality of innocence about the book; there is no deceitfulness or subterfuge about these characters; the reader sees them exactly as they are.

Mikolaycak's text perfectly matches his art; it is spare, yet lyrical. For example: "Even the Furies, the spirits who punished those who tampered with nature's laws, were moved to pity and grieved for Orpheus and his lost Eurydice." Or, here, after the musician's return from the Underworld: "So the sad pilgrimage of Orpheus began. He could no longer sing, for his was the silence that follows weeping."

Of particular interest to parents and educators are the appendices. Mikolaycak includes an "About Orpheus" section in which he discusses different versions of the original myth, and its various adaptations to stage and screen; a recommended bibliography; and even a discography.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tragic one; it is a tale thick with grief and longing. It is also an important story for what it teaches us about the nature of human existence -- about the vitality of love, the sting of loss, the power music, and the reality of our mortality.

Highly recommended to parents, educators, and librarians, as well as anyone interested in the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.

 

*One of the most recent and still-in-print editions is Orpheus and Eurydice, which I will be profiling later, along with the other titles in Barefoot Books' Classics series.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

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