We’ve been talking about myths, folk tales and fairy tales in English this semester (I’m doing a thoroughly pretentious creative writing course), and I’ve always meant to get around to reading the Canongate Myths series. I love the idea of retelling famous old stories in new, exciting ways, which is pretty much the brief of the series. So now is as good a time as any. Picking the ones off the shelf at work I could find, this one was the top of the list.
Sigmund Freud is dying. While lying in his bed, waiting for the pain to end, a blind man appears, and begins to tell him a story. A story about his life as a seer in ancient Greece, and the events he saw unfold before his blind eyes. This man is no ordinary seer, though. This is Tiresius, the blind seer who was so closely involved with the tragedy of Oedipus. And so the life of Oedipus begins to unfold, but from a different point of view.
This is, I’m going to be honest, not the most exciting retelling of the Oedipus myth you’ll ever get. It’s got everything you want from the story – mother incest, father murder, terrible eye stabbing out scenes – but other than that, not that unique. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Vickers instead chooses to focus much more on the last days of Freud, which are actually thoroughly interesting. I suppose Freud’s work has become such a figure in psychoanalysis, it’s easy to forget the man himself. There’s a small historical note at the beginning describing his last days (in which this novel is set), and it turns out he died of terrible, terrible mouth cancer. Thank you, smoking. So, while his body degrades, his mind is still as sharp as ever. And the marriage of Freud and Oedipus is an obvious one – though, as Freud himself points out at the end, Oedipus himself never had an Oedipus complex. He never wanted to sleep with his mother, it just kind of happened.
The tragedy of Oedipus, then, is his desire to know what he must never know. Had he never wanted to find out about his real parents – something that is here presented as an unconscious desire, tying in with Freudian ideas – then none of this would ever have happened. What is even more tragic in this retelling is that he had in fact already fulfilled the maternal half of the prophecy – as a child, he had slept in his mother’s bed. Nothing funny, he was just a crying baby. His quest for knowledge eventually destroys what he has built.
Phrophecies are tricky things – as Professor Trelawny has taught us. Do they really tell the truth? Or do they simply plant an idea in our minds that slowly makes itself become true? This latter idea is an interesting one, and not dissimilar to predestination time paradoxes – that is, you create something that you then experience later, and nothing can change it. In essence, then the myth of Oedipus is one giant predestination paradox – once his father goes to Delphi to decide whether or not to have a child, he has set in motion events that will almost certainly happen, because the people involved will only act in one certain way – it is in their nature.
I should probably talk about Tiresias, too. I like him. As a character, he is here sympathetic and interesting enough to not only tell the main story, but his own as well. His tragedy is that he, too, is destined to become what he becomes, and indeed, his family background is not too dissimilar from Oedipus himself. He, too, has a dysfunctional family, and his time as a seer and oracle has changed him – he often doesn’t like the visions he has, particularly the ones about Oedipus. Indeed, for a while, he’s not even sure what he really saw.
I’m not sure Vickers has brought a whole load to her retelling of her chosen myth. This is a solid novel, but I’d be reading it more for Freud’s last days, and the charming narration and philosophy from Tiresias than any exciting new theories or angles on the tragedy that is Oedipus.