Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators
Unit One: Introducing Tolkien and His Worlds
"Orpheus and Eurydice"
A Greek Myth
Many were the singers who, in the early days, went through the world, telling to men the stories of the gods, telling of their wars and their births. Of all these wanderers none was so famous as Orpheus, who had gone with the Argonauts; none could tell truer things about the gods, for he himself was half divine.
But a great grief came to Orpheus, a grief that stopped his singing and his playing upon the lyre. His young wife, Eurydice, was taken from him. One day, walking in the garden, she was bitten on the heel by a serpent, and straightaway she went down to the world of the dead.
Then everything in this world was dark and bitter for the musician Orpheus; sleep would not come to him, and for him food had no taste. Then Orpheus said: "I will do that which no mortal has ever done before; I will do that which even the immortals might shrink from doing: I will go down into the world of the dead, and I will bring back my bride, Eurydice, to the living and to the light."
Then Orpheus went on his journey to the valley of Acherusia, which goes down, down into the world of the dead. He would never have found his way to that valley if the trees had not shown him the true path. For as he went along Orpheus played upon his lyre and sang, and the trees heard his song and they were moved by his grief, and with their arms and their heads they showed him the way to the deep, deep valley of Acherusia.
Down, down by winding roads through that deepest and most shadowy of all valleys Orpheus went. He came at last to the great gate that opens upon the world of the dead. And the silent guards who keep watch there for the rulers of the dead were frightened when they saw a living being, and they would not let Orpheus approach the gate.
But the singer, knowing the reason for their fear, said: "I am not Heracles come again to drag up from the world of the dead your three-headed dog, Cerberus. I am Orpheus, and all that my hands can do is to make music upon my lyre."
And then he took the lyre in his hands and played upon it. As he played, the silent watchers gathered around him, leaving the gate unguarded. And as he played, the rulers of the dead came forth, Hades and Persephone, and listened to the words of the living man.
"The cause of my coming through the dark and fearful ways," sang Orpheus, "is to strive to gain a fairer fate for Eurydice, my bride. All that is above must come down to you at last, O rulers of the eternal domain. But before her time has Eurydice been brought here. I have desired strength to endure her loss, but I cannot endure it. And I come before you, Hades and Persephone, brought here by Love."
When Orpheus said the name of Love, Persephone, the Queen of the Dead, bowed her young head, and bearded Hades, the King, bowed his head also. Persephone remembered how Demeter, her mother, had sought her all through the world, and she remembered the touch of her mother's tears upon her face. And Hades remembered how his love for Persephone had led him to carry her away from the valley in the upper world where she had been gathering flowers. He and Persephone bowed their heads and stood aside, and Orpheus went through the gate and came among the dead.
Still upon his lyre he played. Tantalus who, for his crimes, had been condemned to stand up to his neck in water and yet never be able to assuage his thirst Tantalus heard, and for a while did not strive to put his lips toward the water that ever flowed away from him; Sisyphus who had been condemned to roll up a hill a stone that ever rolled back Sisyphus heard the music that Orpheus played, and for a while he sat still upon his stone. And even those Dread Ones who bring to the dead the memories of all their crimes and all their faults, even the Furies had their cheeks wet with tears.
In the throng of the newly arrived dead Orpheus saw Eurydice. She looked upon her husband, but she had not the power to approach him. But slowly she came when Hades called her. Then with joy Orpheus took her hands.
The privilege would be granted them that no mortal and his dead bride had ever been given before to leave, both together, the underworld, and to abide for a time in the world of the living. One condition there would be: that on their way up through the valley of Acherusia Orpheus should never look back.
They went through the gate and came among the watchers around the portals. These showed them the path that went up through the valley of Acherusia. That way they went, Orpheus and Eurydice, he going before her.
Up and up through the darkened ways they went, Orpheus knowing that Eurydice was behind him but never looking back upon her. But as he went, his heart was filled with things of which he greatly desired to sing how the trees were blossoming in the garden she had left; how the water was sparkling in the fountain; how the doors of the house stood open; and how they, sitting together, would watch the sunlight on the laurel bushes. All these things were in his heart to tell her, she who came behind him, silent and unseen.
And now they were nearing the place where the valley of Acherusia opened on the world of the living. Orpheus looked on the blue of the sky. A white-winged bird flew by. Orpheus turned around and cried, "O Eurydice, look upon the world that I have won you back to!"
He turned to say this to her. He looked upon her long dark hair and pale face. He held out his arms to clasp her. But in that instant she slipped back into the depths of the valley. And all he heard spoken was a single word, "Farewell!" Long, long had it taken Eurydice to climb so far, but in the moment of his turning around she had fallen back to her place among the dead.
Down through the valley of Acherusia Orpheus went again. Once more he came before the watchers of the gate. But now he was neither looked at nor listened to, and, hopeless, he had to return to the world of the living.
The birds were his friends now, and the trees and the stones. The birds flew around him and mourned with him; the trees and stones often followed him, moved by the music of his lyre. But a savage band slew Orpheus and threw his severed head and his lyre into the River Hebrus. It is said by the poets that, while they floated in midstream, the lyre gave out some mournful notes, and the head of Orpheus answered the notes with song.
And now that he was no longer to be counted with the living, Orpheus went down to the world of the dead, not going now by that steep path through the valley of Acherusia but descending straightaway. The silent watchers let him pass, and he went among the dead and saw his Eurydice in the throng. Again they were together, Orpheus and Eurydice, and as they went through the place that King Hades ruled over, they had no fear of looking back, one upon the other.
(adapted from The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum; original text in the public domain)
Unit One Content
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