The Lyre of Orpheus is the third installment of The Cornish Trilogy. When I finally finished the last book, it felt as if I was bidding farewell to a good friend.
While I believe it is possible to read it on its own, having read The Rebel Angels and What's Bred in the Bone will provide the context for some sub-plots, especially the biography of Francis Cornish that Simon Darcourt finally published at the end.
The Lyre of Orpheus opens with the Cornish Foundation, headed by Arthur Cornish, looking into one of their adopted projects. Arthur, a rich young man with a head for money, desires to be a patron of the arts like the Medici of days gone by. A music student wants to complete a lost opera of E.T.A. Hoffman for her doctorate thesis. Arthur wants to fund the student's proposal and stage the completed opera to a public audience. The lost opera is a re-telling of the Arthurian story, entitled, Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold. Much drama ensues, with lots of comedy. And there is the cuckolding, of course.
What I love about Robertson Davies is how he enriches his books with the great themes, archetypes and myths ― in What's Bred in the Bone, he uses religious iconography and art to explore the creation of Self and Identity. This is further explored in The Lyre of Orpheus when he has Simon Darcourt provide a Keats quotation as explanation for Francis Cornish's allegoric painting of his own life:
A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory―and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life―a life like the scriptures, figurative.
Arthur Cornish, with his name, is obviously associated with the cuckolded king of the myth. The question is: Who is the hero of The Lyre of Orpheus? Arthur himself denies his role as Hero of the story.
"Well, if you want to cast me as Arthur―though how do you know it isn't just a trick of the name? ―Maria has to be Guenevere, and I suppose Powell is Lancelot. But we weren't very Arthurian, were we? Where's your myth?"
Darcourt was about to speak, but Maria hushed him. "Of course you don't see it. It's not the nature of heroes of myth to think of themselves as heroes of myth. They don't swan around, declaiming, 'I'm a hero of myth.' It's observers like Simon and me who spot the myths and the heroes. The heroes see themselves simply as chaps doing the best they can in a special situation."
A friend claims Simon Darcourt is the Hero of The Cornish Trilogy, the one closest to Davies' own voice; She wouldn't be wrong. I see this as one of Davies' most humanising message: That heroes are simply "chaps doing the best they can in a special situation." Their roles are often unknown even to themselves, except to the observers who know how to see.
Look around you; Everyday we are surrounded by heroes, but perhaps we do not see.
The power of music (opera), and the myth of Arthur and his cuckolding ― all of it to illustrate a point of heroism and love:
"… Opera speaks to the heart as no other art does, because it is essentially simple."
"What do you see as the deep foundation of this one?" said Arthur.
"It's a beauty," said Powell. "Victory plucked from defeat. If we can bring it off, it will wring the heart. Arthur has failed in the Quest, lost his wife, lost his crown, lost life itself. But because of his nobility and greatness of spirit when he forgives Guenevere and Lancelot, he is seen to be the greatest man of all. He is Christ-like; apparently a loser, but, in truth, the greatest victor of them all."
What is the final message of The Lyre of Orpheus and the grand myth of the Arthurian opera?
"It's the myth of the Magnanimous Cuckold," said Darcourt. "And the only way to meet it is with charity and love."
Robertson Davies's reminds us of what truly maketh the Hero: Charity and Love ― the alchemical power that transforms the dross into gold.
I love this man.