Hearing the same story over and over is tedious, but hearing variations on a familiar story can be fun, as we’ve seen many times in The Sandman. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the best-known of the Greek myths, and in a first reading of “Orpheus” (or “The Song of Orpheus” as its chapters are titled) the interest lies in comparing our knowledge, however vague, of how the traditional story progresses with our experience of how it takes shape here. Will Eurydice die and enter the underworld? Will Orpheus seek her? Will one of them turn around and thus cast Eurydice back into eternal death? How will the old myth mix with the new myth?
He looked back. That is the defining moment, the moment when Orpheus and Eurydice lose each other. This particular version of the story gives us not only the fullness of the love that impells Orpheus to glance back, but also a connection between that glance and another one yearned for and not received. In The Sandman, Orpheus suffers two losses: Eurydice and his father. The last three panels depict the father walking away from the last remnants of his son and refusing to turn around, refusing a final glance — refusing any indication of love.
Go back now and reread the last page of “Thermidor” and Orpheus’s words to Johanna Constantine gain even more pathos: “Johanna, he must care for me, do you not think so? If my father did not care for me, he would not have had you rescue me.”
His father never even tried to look back.
It brings to mind the famous poem by Philip Larkin that begins, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”
Are all stories at heart stories of parents and children? Probably not. (All generalizations are wrong.) But many stories that on their surface seem to be about something else can be traced back to those difficult, vexing, ever-imperfect relationships that so deeply shape who we are.
In discussing “Thermidor”, I mentioned Sarah Ruhl’s extraordinary play Eurydice, which in some ways feels like the other half of the tale Neil Gaiman tells here, for among its strands and fragments of story is one it returns to more than others: the story of Eurydice and her father. They reunite in the underworld, and Eurydice faces a terrible choice: between returning with Orpheus or staying with dad. (The Chorus of Stones says, “Father is not a word that dead people understand.” The chorus is wrong.) Something in this tale makes us want to think about the relationships between parents and children.
“Orpheus” is not only the story of a father and son, but of a family. We see the Endless in their Greek personas, and once again see their differences of personality and temperament. Orpheus is a member of an extraordinary family, but perhaps one of the reasons stories of royalty and gods appeal to us is that they offer broad outlines of behaviors and struggles familiar to us. Certainly, there is comfort in stories that show people like us going through life in familiar ways, but there is another kind of comfort in recognizing our own patterns in larger-than-life lives. They fuck you up, your mum and dad, even if they’re eternal gods.
We see these worlds and stories reflected against each other on pages 20 and 21, with the first page showing Olethros (better known among the Endless as Destruction) creating a rift between worlds so that Orpheus can visit his aunt, Death. The next page then shows a modest 20th century room, one with a green chair in desperate need of some new upholstery. There’s a fish bowl on a table and a family portrait on the wall. The effect within the story is very different from the effect for the reader — the first page is fantastical and amazing to us; the second page seems utterly mundane. But to Orpheus the effect is nearly the reverse. A portal between realms is not quite mundane to him, but such magic is not entirely unexpected in his world, and he seems to understand the powers of his relatives. As a man from ancient Greece, however, he is overwhelmed by a very ordinary 20th century room. He has no context for such a place, no way to know what to expect, no method to understand the objects around him.
Expectations and experiences shape our understanding not only of objects, but of life. This is one of the reasons stories so often consider the ways characters were raised, or the people who raised them — many of us shape our lives in reaction to our upbringing. We try to hold onto what seemed good and to discard what did not; we try to differentiate ourselves from our parents only to discover years later that we have circled back to resemble them.
We become variations on the lives that shaped our lives. Orpheus, lacking a body or, apparently, any significant powers, is very different from his many-bodied and ever-powerful father. The Sandman, for all his enigmatic qualities, seems similarly scarred by yearning, and in Season of Mists he made his own quest into a forbidden realm to retrieve a lost love. He himself consigned Nada to her fate, and was more successful at freeing her than Orpheus was at freeing Eurydice, but their pain rhymes.
There is a significant difference, though, between the actions of Oneiros and Orpheus.
He looked back.
His father never even tried to look back.
Sometimes, even in defeat, the son achieves more than the father.