Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review for Hades: Lord of the Dead by George O'Connor

There are a couple of myths I can't stop thinking about, and one of them is the myth of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter and wife of Hades, lord of the realm of the dead.  She is everything from a symbol of the transition from childhood to adulthood to an explanation for why the seasons change (well, at least in temperate climates).  In more obscure (older?) stories, she also plays an important role in the story of Dionysus, which makes sense in light of the cycle of life/death/rebirth that both divinities embody... but that might be another story for another day.

Every version of the story that I have ever read features a young girl who is completely without agency.  For the most part, Demeter doesn't have any either.  She reacts in rage, but ultimately she must comply with the will of her brothers Zeus and Hades (and in some versions even Poseidon).  This myth embodies the tension between men and women in the ancient civilization and to some extent also our own.

If anyone else has ever been bothered by that, you're going to love George O'Connor's version.

Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, Demeter grieves and the earth turns barren, Helios tells her about the collusion between Zeus and Hades, Persephone comes back but only for half of the year.  Yada yada yada- every major plot point you remember is there.  It's what O'Connor fills around them that makes this delicious.

Ask yourself: how many young girls want to be so tightly held by their mothers?  What kind of a goddess is willing to destroy mankind in vengeance for the loss of her daughter?  And if someone were offered a throne, how many people would willingly say no?  Sunlight is warmer than the underworld, but sometimes warmth is stifling.

It's not all Hades and Persephone's love affair.  As O'Connor hinted a few months ago, we also get to see why Tantalus is related to the word "tantalize".  Importantly, O'Connor isn't just throwing that in here because we're talking about Hades and Tartarus.  In most versions of the myth, Demeter's behavior is, um, anti-social because she's distracted by her search for her daughter.  I loved the way O'Connor followed the strings of those two stories about starvation, human sacrifice and cannibalism.  In this version, Tantalus is an indirect contributor to the resolution of the story, and it makes sense.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I'm going to disagree with O'Connor's characterization of Hades as "emo".  For me, that conjures up images of a darkly dressed Hamlet moping through his palace, unsure of what to do next.  Hades is darkly dressed, and we could argue he mopes.  But Hades, too, has agency, and here it is as meaningful as Persephone's.  And what good is a myth if it doesn't provide us with meaning?

Highly recommended.

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