Reading this book on the poet and musician of ancient legend who still inspires artists of all kind, you are aware that filing the work under ‘history’, as the publishers do, is technically accurate, but somehow stretching it. For we are talking about the history of a character who is mostly a mythical figure, surely - you could file under 'Myth' too and get away with it, it seems to me. Or 'History of Myth.'
Orpheus was, we are told, born in Thrace (the bit of Bulgaria that is closest to present-day Northern Greece) and there are poems by Orpheus in translation, ostensibly written in the long dead Pelasgian alphabet. But you sense the accretion of myth rather than hard historical fact when it comes to his father - Morpheus in one version, Oeagros in another. But, ultimately, so what? Think about the amount of myth surrounding a relatively recent real-life individual like Michael Collins, even if his parentage is clearly established. You live, and the longer you live, the greater the legend - and the Thracian lad has lived and been reincarnated and revivified in fertile imaginations for a particularly long time indeed.
Orpheus’ journey down to Hades in search of his dead lover Eurydice is the most moving narrative in this 260-page work. The author summarises other narratives too in the work. like the voyage of Jason and The Argonauts, where Orpheus was a sort of embedded resident poet. The Eurydice passages resonate profoundly with the sadness of bereavement - in the poet's journey to the River Styx, we recognise the human impulse at the heart of the story to make contact, to cross the bourne between life and death. Wroe recounts the details of the journey to and back from Hades with the right pitch of engagement, not too mawkish, but not too clinically academic about it either.
Orpheus - The Song of Life is a fine, mostly compelling work and you take your hat off to Ms Wroe for investigating so thoroughly and with such love someone we have all heard about at the very least. At times though, the author sounds a bit too delighted with herself for stumbling on this creature and getting such mileage out of him. She is a bit like an over-eager teacher who thinks the class is just as fascinated as herself with the man who has figured - to take but a few examples - in works by the German poet Rilke, in a classic film by Cocteau, in operas by Gluck and in a musical work by Monteverdi.
Oh, yes, of course we too are fascinated by Orpheus. But it's just that sometimes, in her over-reaching passion, she writes sentences about him that glitter vacuously rather than illuminate. But, on the whole, the book will be well worth it for students of - well, yes, history and maybe moreso, myth.