Where do stories come from? Who knows, is the only answer; from somewhere deep inside us as we try to make sense of our place within the world. However, once they exist they get retold, over and over, and reformed in the telling. Consider the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: they love, she dies, he refuses to accept her death and follows her to the Underworld where he charms Hades himself into granting his wish and her return. But there’s a catch: he mustn’t look back until he’s back in the lands of the living. And, of course, he does. Perhaps from fear – are those really her footsteps behind him? Perhaps from love – he can’t wait to see her beloved face again. And then he loses her a second time, and now she’s gone for ever and for always.
This myth has been retold in story and music for it’s a lovely story, and a desperately sad one. Either love is not enough or else it is too much. Who cannot shiver when Kathleen Ferrier sings What is life to me without you?
Well, others than I have wished the story ended differently. And so it does. King Orfeo (Child Ballad no. 19) recasts the myth as a fairy story. Instead of a snake in the grass, the lady is carried away by the Elfin King to dwell in his hall and her beloved follows her there, and plays his harp so beautifully as to win back his love. And this time there is no catch: the knight and his lady return together and live happily ever after. And this version is, I’d say, no less true than the original myth. It’s simply a different form of truth. Sometimes, not often perhaps but sometimes, love is enough.
You can listen to King Orfeo here: my own favourite version is that by Malinky.