John Standring and Orpheus: “Haunted” Lovers

I’ve yet to touch on Richard Armitage’s portrayal of John Standring in Sparkhouse, the BBC’s 2002 take on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  A question from Guylty (Hi Guylty!) about stories of haunted lovers in the classical tradition started the wheels cranking, and here we are.

What the modern mind would call  “love stories” are rare in the classical tradition.  Romantic love does not seem to have been viewed with much favor in the ancient world.  In a period where marriages were social and economic contracts between families, love had no place in the equation.  The notion that a couple would marry for reasons of emotional attachment was ludicrous – perhaps such an attachment might grow over time, but it was certainly not grounds for making such an important connection.  Usually, classical “love stories” have less than happy endings.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of stories of infatuation and lust in the classical tradition…stories like Achilles and Penthesilea, Apollo and Daphne, and many others touch on these themes, but rarely is there the boy and girl fall in love beyond place and time variety.  More often than not, someone ends up dead (usually the woman/nymph) and the other party (usually the man/god/hero) recovers nicely, largely unfazed by his brush with love.

One myth that breaks the mold a bit on this pattern is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.  As with many mythological figures, there are a variety of stories of his birth, life and death, but all of the authors agree that Orpheus was the greatest of all the Greek musicians.  His skill as a singer and lyre player were so great that it was said that he could calm wild animals with his songs.

Orpheus soothes the wild beasts from  Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Orpheus soothes the wild beasts Roman Mosaic in Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The love of Orpheus’ life was a woman named Eurydice, but their love was short lived.  On their wedding day, while dancing through a meadow to Orpheus’ song, Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus was so devastated by her death that he traveled to the Underworld to bring her back.  This is usually a big no-go for the Greeks…heroes go to the Underworld, but only to converse, never to reverse.  However, Orpheus’ song was so beautiful that it charmed the King and Queen of the Dead (Hades and Persephone) into releasing Eurydice, and lulled the three headed hound Cerberus to sleep so that the reunited couple could sneak by him on their way out.  There was one condition of Eurydice’s release though…Orpheus was not allowed to look back to make sure she was still following him….

orpheus and eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice – figure on far left is Hermes Psychopompos (leader of souls) preparing to take Eurydice back to the Underworld …
Source: Wheat Ridge, Colorado. UNT Digital Library.

You guessed it, Orpheus couldn’t resist temptation and was compelled to look back to assure himself Eurydice was there.  That was a deal breaker and Eurydice was returned permanently to the Underworld.  Orpheus was so distraught that he removed himself to the remotest reaches of the wilderness, turning away from humankind and playing his sad, sad song to the animals.  That is until the day he ran afoul of some maenads…

Death of Orpheus Source: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Death of Orpheus
Source: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum

It never ends well for Greek men who meet up with a group of maenads…suffice it to say the Orpheus was killed in heinous fashion (some later art focuses on only his head, if you get my drift)  Not exactly a fairy tale ending, but it is a love story where the hero is moved to action by love.  It’s the whole fate thing that trips him up – for the Greeks, there is no avoiding fate.

(Interestingly, Plato, in the Symposium criticizes Orpheus as a coward for trying to bring his love back to the living rather than simply joining her in death – once again, the connection between love and death.)

John Standring...who wouldn't love him? Source:

John Standring…who wouldn’t love him?

How does sweet John Standring fit into this mess?  Well, he’s not a great musician, but he does exude a remarkable kindness, a sweetness, that is very compelling to Carol…she is attracted to it, even against her better judgement that she will inevitably hurt him.  John is willing to go above and beyond for Carol in virtually everyway, but fate had another plan…

"Don't be afraid to tell me things..." *sigh* Source:

“Don’t be afraid to tell me things…” *sigh*

Carol wants to stay with him, she knows he’s good for her, but something is pulling her back…

John helps Carol out of the ruins... Source:

John helps Carol out of the ruins…

In this scenario, Carol’s destructive passion for Andrew is the Underworld – it exerts an inexorable pull on her…one that she, like Eurydice, cannot resist, one which leads her away from life, from John.  The closing frames of Sparkhouse show John, with Lisa’s help, leading Carol away from the ruins of her doomed desire for Andrew…although the film leaves it to the viewer to decide their ultimate fate, I can’t help but think that their future is not much brighter than that of Orpheus…lingering in the remnants of haunted love.

28 comments on “John Standring and Orpheus: “Haunted” Lovers

  1. kelbel75 says:

    *quivering lip* for both John and Orpheus 😦

    • obscura says:

      I agree…I’ve never been a big fan of Wuthering Heights – I like my romances to end happily thank you very much! I certainly didn’t go into classical studies for the romance…although, there is a fair amount of it to be found a la excavation 😉

  2. katie70 says:

    Sparkhouse is a sad story indeed. Carol is abused by her dad and most likely don’t understand that John truly cares for her, she is damaged goods.

    I wonder when people start marrying for love. Not that everyone ever in this this day and age marry for love. Just before Prince Charles married Camillia my SIL and I had a discussion about Charles remarrying, the failed marriage between him and Diana (SIL was in England in 1981 for a church mission trip at the time they married). I told SIL that I thought that Charles and Camillia should have married years before they did, and that it was very sad that Charles and Diana’s marriage fell apart, but even before Diana died she even wanted Charles and Camillia to marry. What came out of my SIL’s mouth floored me, she believed in arranged marriages and would plan them for her three children. Scary, since they don’t work and I can’t see that they would be any love there. Her daughter is married on Saturday and I really hope the daughter picked her to be husband and for love. I understand years ago why they married they way they did, money, land, title etc and maybe they would find love in there husband, but today.

    • obscura says:

      I think probably in the decades after the 2nd Industrial revolution (mid 19th century) with a much bigger push after WWI when a lot of long standing traditions began to fade. I don’t know… with divorce rates in the US creeping past 50%, it’s hard to say that marriage for love is any more successful than the arranged variety. Love (more commonly lust) leads humans to do strange things! I’ve thought about this frequently. I wonder if it has less to do with the institution of marriage itself, and more to do with the expectations that people have of marriage. It seems to me that in the contemporary world, that outside of the legality, a couple has autonomy to define what form their marriage will take, yet many people still (subconsciously?) fall back on age old traditions that set them up for failure. I’ve known several couples who were together happily for years, decades even who then (usually for insurance and other financial reasons) decided to legally marry…eighteen months later – divorce. What about that legal bond changed an otherwise successful relationship? IDK..

      • Leigh says:

        I see that there have been noteworthy instances of romantic love in history, but they seldom involved marriage. For example, Alcestis and Admetus is an exception in Greek mythology. It isn’t until the 12th century in Europe that people started to write and even sing about it. The “courts of love” in Acquitaine produced such writing as the Roman de la Rose; John de Nesle, Richard I’s favourite troubador, wrote some good love songs; and Heloise and Abelard continued to write to each other even after their tragic separation.

        I think that for most people, marriage was a practical contract, and love had nothing to do with it. It was all tolerance, duty, and begetting that bound families together. For centuries, the average (mean) life span was not that long, and most of one’s married life was spent in hard work. If childbirth and its complications didn’t kill you, your spouse risked the equivalent of industrial accidents, as well as almost continual war. You both were susceptible to disease. So you only had to endure maybe a decade of married life before one of you died.

        Today, people not only carry the baggage of parental models (which are often a recipe for failure), but also changing expectations. Marriages can endure for 50 or 60 years, or they can collapse after a matter of months, depending on what the parties bring to it.

        I would not hold out much hope for John and Carol. I think that’s why many fanfic writers get rid of Carol and introduce an OC who can give John the happiness and love he deserves.

        • Obscura says:

          I was thinking about Alcestis too…

          Speaking of medieval love, am I the only one put off by the concept of courtly love? It always seems to me as if it set people up to fall in love with an unattainable object…you can love, but you can never have. All seems futile and painful.

          Yeah, I think Carol is too far gone to salvage any real happiness with John.

          • Leigh says:

            Yes, courtly love was futile, but if you were stuck in an arranged marriage that was utterly horrid at worst and boring at best, a bit of fantasy might have made matters a little more tolerable. As long as there was no actual messing about (for the woman), it was fairly harmless. It just had to be taken the way some romance novels and fairytales are taken today — entertaining, but not acceptable cultural models, let alone reality.

      • katie70 says:

        To this day there are people that think it’s all wrong if people don’t marry. My husband’s nephew and girlfriend have a 6 month old baby and MIL thinks it’s awful, I chewed her out over it, I would rather see them just together then married and not happy(they are planning for a June wedding next year) . My great uncle and great “aunt” never married this was way back in the 30’s, had 4 girls (only one had his last name) and they where very happy, never wanted to marry and ruin it. I was an adult before I found out they where never married and it really didn’t matter that they where not. This year alone there are 3 wedding of 3 couples here in the next few weeks all are very young (not that is a bad thing, but even I wish I would have waited a couple more years, war don’t wait, and we have been lucky). 19 to 22 is very young to marry and I don’t know if they fully know what they are getting themselves into, other than lust and we got to marry.

        • obscura says:

          Old habits die hard I guess. When we got married, our oldest was a nine month old guest at our wedding :). I remember my soon to be father-in-law saint before he was born, “doesn’t anyone get married anymore before they have kids?” I didn’t really think much of it until it came out during wedding plans (to the total surprise of their son) that he and my mother in law were not, nor had they ever been, married – talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 🙂

  3. guylty says:

    Hi Obscura *happywave* – just saw this. In middle of work right now, so can’t peruse at leisure. Will comment in a little while. xx

  4. guylty says:

    What a sad tale. I vaguely remember it from a musical show that my school did. (Orpheus in the Underworld, by Jacques Offenbach) And I am appalled that the ancients had no time for love – well, for marriage for love. Well, it shouldn’t surprise me. Marriage is a contract invented by patriarchy… In any case, poor Standring certainly also married for love, but his chosen one didn’t. Interesting role-reversal. “Lingering in the remnants of haunted love” – you have expressed that very poetically.
    Who are the maenads and what do they do? Are they a band of ancient hells angels?

    • obscura says:

      I tend to think, in the patriarchal world, that men found plenty of time for “love”, just outside the boundaries of their socially and economically desirable marriages. Not usually as easy for women since female adultery was punishable by death in many ancient societies…I don’t consider myself a feminist scholar, but sheesh – a spade is a spade in this case! The roles are all tangled up here aren’t they? Orpheus is a really complex character (I haven’t touched on the half of it!)

      poetic – must be a side effect of Armitagemania 🙂

      Maenads? They are the mythological girl gang of acolytes of Dionysus…they follow him around and periodically go into an excessive Dionysiac frenzy and maraud about the countryside tearing apart the flesh of small animals…and any hapless men they come across (Pentheus, Orpheus) – yet another Greek cautionary tale of what happens when you let the chicks of the leash! (they join the Amazons and the hetairai in my section of “Women on the Fringe” when I teach “Women in Antiquity”)

  5. guylty says:

    Ooooh, I love those maenads… sounds like a great bit of revenge there, mythologically speaking. In a world/society where women were largely powerless, at least there were some dangerous mythological females around, just to remind the male of the species, that women could be of consequence, too. But yes, “chickens off the leash”… speaking of which: I am a chick off the leash for the next 5 days as my kids and husband have gone on holidays. Planning to celebrate that with a Porter marathon, starting soon. Which leads me to ask – has Porter been updated yet? *hinthint*

    • obscura says:

      All the best mythological monsters are female too 🙂

      Recovery…outlining Ch 12 – go figure – plotty is much harder to write than sexy 😀

      • guylty says:

        Plotty vs sexy *hahaha* – hello, do I see another possible ancientarmitage theory post in that?? But yes, I can imagine. Or rather: I can’t imagine. I am not that great with stringent plot. Hence I appreciate fanfic that makes an effort to put plot between the sex.

    • obscura says:

      BTW…I am soooo jealous – I practically have to pretend to bug bomb to get the house to myself these days! Had a few precious hours today – glorious!!

      • guylty says:

        I get a few precious days every year. And I use them by doing all the things that I would never let my family see me doing. Ha.But even a few hours are great – just to recharge the batteries.

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