As in other accounts, the song-master Orpheus descends into the vasty deeps of the Underworld in search of his beloved Eurydice, where his plaint so stirs the hearts of heavy-lidded Hades and blue-lipped Persephone that they grant him the unprecedented privilege of fetching his dead wife back to the land of the living. But on one condition: Walk before her on your way, and, while you are still within the borders of our dark demesne, do not set eyes upon her. Don’t look back!
In Wood’s retelling, you can see Orpheus’s lips move as he gets these instructions by heart. Then, confident of success, he makes his way towards the Exit sign, followed by the soft footfalls of his bloodless bride. But as he nears the threshold, a cold wind rises up from the caverns behind him, carrying a haunting whisper: Fail again . . . Fail better . . .
Orpheus experiences a pang of temptation, a sudden and almost irresistible impulse to turn…
As luck would have it, however, there’s this tiny cartoon figure hanging out on the side of the cave, see? His name is Jiminy Critic, and he’s got a little top hat and a little English accent – very cute! And he hops onto Orpheus’s shoulder and squeaks – well, really he’s shouting but it comes out like a high, piping squeak – “Don’t look back, Orpheus! Ignore those whispers and remember your instructions!”
Orpheus nods to himself, resolved. Quite right, better not look back! He leads Eurydice across the threshold of the underworld and keeps going until they’re really quite a good distance away – in fact they’re already in a forest clearing by the time Eurydice taps him on his shoulder (the other one, without the Critic on it).
Orpheus turns – it’s her! Eurydice! Orpheus! Darling! They fall into each other’s arms. Success! Reunited! No crumbling to dust or vanishing into thin air! And no maenads to tear him apart! Everything ruddy and shiny and whole! Success! Sweet, sweet success! They settle down to a nice little domesticity, having tea, talking about their day. And then, at night . . . but we won’t go there – it wouldn’t be tactful! Suffice it to say: Mission Accomplished! And a few months later – look! – out pops Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children! And then Ian McEwan’s Saturday! And Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland!
Orpheus turns to the camera, winks, and gives a big thumbs-up – Thanks, Jiminy!
“Remember kids – always let your Critic be your guide!”