when it's over (i'm still awake)
orpheus + eurydice + the locked tomb !
Halfway through November which is wild, I hope it is going well. I don’t really have a lot of preamble, not much going on (/neg? /pos? /guilt?). Have some mochi with flavours of your choice and an iced coffee.
it’s never over (hey orpheus)
OKAY SO. The Locked Tomb by Tamsyn Muir is a science-fiction space opera set ten thousand years in the future where people perform necromancy using the energy sourced from resurrected planets, and things happen constantly on every page. It consists of four books: Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, Nona the Ninth, Alecto the Ninth, with the final book forthcoming. This series has prompted me to say things like ‘is alecto beatrice? and other questions for sane people’. I saw a post that referred to one character as Orestes in line with the idea that he killed Mother Earth and is now being haunted and the thing is that this MAKES SENSE.
There is so much to delve into and I am impressed by anybody who manages to effectively pull apart the layers of these books. For actual thoughtful thoughts I recommend this essay (I’m only partway through but it is very well constructed + articulated) and this post; the latter has shaped my understanding of the series in that I first read it whilst partway through Gideon the Ninth. My friend Mari has some great newsletters of The Locked Tomb as well as love + tragedy more generally but unfortunately their newsletter is private so I will quote them at various points and you will all have to trust me. I haven’t read Nona the Ninth but very clearly have been poking around for information. The reason I am writing this before reading Nona is because that’s what I feel like doing.
This will mostly be me bouncing between ideas like a ping pong ball and focusing on the first two books as I attempt to explore Harrow and Gideon’s relationship, specifically as a version of Orpheus and Eurydice.1
[vague spoilers from here, though I don’t believe in spoilers as a concept]
One of my favourite lines from Gideon the Ninth: “The tragedy saturated the stiffening bones and static hearts lying in state at Canaan House, but there was also deep tragedy in the flawed beams holding up their lives.” The Locked Tomb is a series of characters and their relationships; a tangled weave that only grows more complex as the books unfold, everybody caught within structures that do indeed propagate a deep tragedy. Every significant relationship is founded upon some combination of love / animosity / manipulation / desperation / loneliness / convenience / manipulation and designed to shatter, one way or another—each offering its own lens for exploring the violence of empire.
The empire here stretches across nine planets, known as Houses. It is sustained by necromancers who draw from the residual death energy left from the resurrection of the houses (don’t worry about it) and by cavaliers through plain physical combat. Two kinds of soldier, bound to one another in pairs that are foundational to the Locked Tomb universe. The cavalier exists in service of their necromancer and we’re directly told that the Eight House breeds cavaliers as ‘batteries’ to genetically match their necromancer; I would recommend the post linked above for an analysis on cavalierhood and the necromancer/cavalier relationship as inherently exploitative. Gideon the Ninth sees eight necro/cav pairs converge in the crumbling Canaan House, having been promised a path to lyctorhood.
Understand: the thing about lyctorhood is that it is inherently fucked up. Not many people have achieved it, and for good reason, because lyctorhood is “to walk with the dead forever . . . enormous power, recycled within you, from the ultimate sacrifice . . . to make yourself a tomb.” It’s a kind of fucked up sainthood slash supersoldier situation that requires the death and consumption and ultimately acquistion of another, in many ways representing the end goal of imperialism even before lyctors go on to act as ultimate soldiers for John/God. The handful of ‘first generation’ lyctors that we get to know are all deeply fucked up, probably something to do with being alive for 10,000 years. How many times can I say ‘fucked up’ at once to describe the same concept (three).
Should we detour to talk about Cytherea Loveday? Let’s do that. Cytherea who is terminally ill, sickness translating into thalergic power. Who thousands of years ago pursued lyctorhood in order to save/prolong her own life:
She looked extraordinarily sad, even regretful; when she caught Gideon’s eye, a tiny smile tugged on the corners of her mouth, then drooped again. Eventually, she said: “I didn’t want to die.”
Even so, I’m quite sure that she delayed ascension for as long as possible. Lyctorhood for Cytherea is 10,000 years of simmering grief and anger and destruction that continues even as she draws Gideon to her side at Canaan tries to fashion her into the perfect cavalier. I think a lot about how she kills the necro/cav pairs together so that they would not have to live without each other—at one point, Gideon thinks, “It is stupid for a cavalier to watch their necromancer die”, paralleled by the sentiment that “nobody should ever have to watch their cavalier die” and crucially forshadowing the end of the novel. There is a fascinating tension in the way Cytherea honours the necro/cav bond even whilst railing against God and sabotaging the path to lyctorhood. She is driven by a very personal sense of grief and betrayal in a way that reminds me of Luke Castellan, abandoned by his father and watching Thalia Grace turned into a tree (Thalia is a lesbian but Thalia/Luke is tragic and real it’s complicated if you get it you get it). Cytherea wants revenge on God. She doesn’t realise the power imbalance built into the system because she has spent so long clinging to the idea of Loveday, to her cavalier and her love. Part of her is holding out for the idea that Gideon could maybe achieve perfect lyctorhood, that lyctorhood itself could turn out right because otherwise there is no dimension in which Loveday’s death could mean anything. This is so tangential Cytherea just makes me feel like I am an orange being peeled by hand.
That’s like, the outline of an attempt to wrangle the framework of two of the most insane books I have ever read.
Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice gets bitten by a snake, she dies, Orpheus goes to the Underworld to retrieve his wife, plays them a song, Hades allows him to leave with Eurydice, on the condition that he does not turn around and look at her. Orpheus turns back, and loses her.
Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice puts forth that Orpheus looked back because in love. Of Eurydice, he asks, “What could she complain about, except that she was loved?” Various iterations of the story follow this interpretation that Orpheus’s turn was out of love, though this is by no means the only reading—we are always trying to capture Orpheus and Eurydice in new lights, to make sense of Orpheus’s turn/gaze and the subsequent loss. For this moment, I am (mostly) interested in Orpheus and Eurydice as a love story.
And Harrow and Gideon do share a love. From the fucked up circumstances of their births—very much a lot, again with the web of relationships—their lives are wrapped in so much structural violence, and naturally this spills over into personal violence that has defined their relationship for years. They grow up together as the only children of their generation in the dying Ninth House, where clinging to one another through antagonism and layers of underprocessed trauma is better than being completely and utterly alone. I’m skipping way ahead but in the fallout of Harrow, Gideon wonders, “like, at the end of everything, if it was going to be you and me, layered over each other as we always were. A final blurring of the edges between us, like water spilt over ink outlines”. They grown up together in a broken world where violence is a simpler intimacy than love, and when they at last attempt to reach out in a true way, it is after being driven together by violence from within Canaan House.
Harrow and Gideon come together simply and irrevocably in the Pool Scene of Gideon. The Pool Scene haunts me. Harrow’s confession and pseudo-baptisim and rebirth in Gideon’s arms. (Harrow/Cytherea parallels in that Cytherea as a name for Aphrodite who emerged from the sea???). It’s crazy I can’t think directly about it it’s truly like. You need to experience it.
Their connection in this moments is both a reprieve and a direct path to further devastation; this landscape is inhospitable to love unless it is twisted into destruction. A framework problem, if you will. As Mari puts it, “the love that they feel for one another is written to be this really simple thing. it’s one of the only simple things either of them has ever felt. i am talking about the actual emotion btw as i’ve said their actual rship looks like a multivariable calculus problem.” (/real) Does it make it better, to know that there was love there?
This scene is also the moment when Harrow and Gideon truly become a necromancer and their cavalier / a cavalier and their necromancer. Gideon lacks the proper training for a cavalier, whereas Harrow gives all of herself to studies of necromancy from a young age. Here in the water, Harrow trusts Gideon with both of their pasts. Crucially, they exchange the vow of ‘one flesh, one end’, binding one another together formally, through ritual, and emotionally, through trust. But At! What! Cost!
[Narrator voice] the cost was lyctorhood. Harrow does become a lyctor. Like Cytherea, she does it for survival—at first Harrow pursues lyctorhood to ensure the survival of her house, and then ultimately Gideon sacrifices herself so that Harrow can live. Gideon refuses to watch her necromancer die.
Harrow the Ninth charts the fallout of this decision. Harrow and Ianthe become lyctors and face the direct consequences of their actions i.e. meet God and his remaining lyctors. From the outset, it is established that Harrow’s ascension was somehow botched. Muir hurtles us through misplaced memories, hallucinations and scenes similar to but utterly incongruous with the events of Gideon, amongst other seemingly fractured and discordant moments. It is only in the final act that the text stitches itself together, reframing stylistic choices and whole chapters alike.
If we’re mapping Harrow and Gideon onto Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s like this. Gideon dies. Harrow tries to save her. She tries to abort the lyctor process altogether, with the rationale that she cannot fully absorb Gideon if her brain does not acknowledge Gideon’s existence. I want to think that part of her recoils from the implications of lyctorhood as total and utter consumption, but mostly she is a traumatised teenager. She doesn’t want Gideon to die. What plays out is a scenario where Orpheus doesn’t turn around, but instead goes to extreme lengths to protect the beloved.
From Harrow the Ninth:
But where would you be, right now, if you'd said: She is dead? You're keeping her things like a lover keeping old notes, but with her death, the stuff that made her Gideon was destroyed. That's how Lyctorhood works, isn't it? She died. She can't come back, even if you keep her stuffed away in a drawer you can't look at. You're not waiting for her resurrection; you've made yourself her mausoleum.
By necessity, Harrow’s DIY-lobotomy is a mystery to the audience and to Harrow herself for most of the book. Having rudimentarily altered her brain, Harrow wakes up with a botched ascension to lyctorhood and detailed letters from her past self, containing instructions for moving forward. Tellingly, letter-Harrow considers this operation a kind of death, referring to herself in third person to tell future-Harrow that “Her resurrection constitutes a fail state and must be avoided at all costs.” Harrow-Orpheus doesn’t turn around (at least not at first, and not deliberately). She claws her way to agency by refusing to go through with lyctorhood and then, because she trusts herself if nobody else, reads these instructions and follows them, unknowingly choosing to preserve Gideon.
The fallout when Gideon ‘wakes up’ in Harrow’s brain and body is exquisitely devastating. Gideon processes Harrow’s rejection of lyctorhood as a rejection of her sacrifice and just thinking about the levels to this miscommunication makes me want to spin around really fast. I do think that it is tragic, because it is ultimately the triumph of oppressive + traumatising systems that leaves Gideon shattered. Gideon can’t even comprehend that Harrow was trying to save her. This is partly because she has given herself completely to the ideals of cavalierhood, and partly because of interpersonal issues and problems. She sees her life as a willing sacrifice, and Harrow’s subsequent actions as stubbornness and rejection:
And you’d gone and left me behind.
Which did not make me happy, Harrow. It did not fill my heart with soft and sentimental yearning. You set me up. You set all of it up. I gave you one damn job. And instead you rolled a rock over me and turned your back. I spent all that time drowning and surfacing in you, over and over and over, and all because in the end you could not bear to do the one thing I asked you to do.
Harrowhark, I gave you my whole life and you didn’t even want it.
For her part, Harrow acknowledges Gideon’s death as murder, says “[Gideon] pierced her heart on a railing because she thought I would use her to become a Lyctor […] She was murdered, but she maoeuvred her murder to let me live.”
There are external factors. There are so many external factors. Harrow and Gideon have very little agency, mired as they are in the plans of those around them (including God, founder of the predatory necro/cav/lyctor system himself). As Mari argues, “i think we all understand that to participate in empire - to whatever end - is to accept it, and to lose part of yourself to it in that act of acceptance.” Lyctorhood in The Locked Tomb is much like princehood in Revolutionary Girl Utena, both sold as false ideals that ultimately work to reinforce a dominant system, where to buy into these roles is to perpetuate a cycle. Utena thinks she is saving Anthy. Revolution can mean a return to the beginning. Gideon and Harrow have had little to no agency for their whole lives (“Probably because you asked […] That's all I ever demanded”; “Look upon me as a Harrowhark who was handed the first genuine choice of our lives”) and it’s like, here is Gideon choosing to sacrifice herself to save Harrow, forcing lyctorhood upon her, and Harrow choosing to reject that sacrifice to save Gideon. We’re told that Cytherea became a lyctor and wept, “We had the choice to stop,” but did they really? God lied.
But there’s more! Orpheus and Eurydice is also a story of transgression. Orpheus ultimately does journey to the Underworld. He cannot defy death, or human fallibility, but he tries, and he spends the rest of his life singing of Eurydice and of his journey. We continue to do the same today so in that sense they did survive, etc. As Hadestown said of the story, It’s a sad song / we sing it anyway. I’m reminded of The Goldfinch epilogue because of the person I am: “And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch.” In The Locked Tomb, the boundaries between life and death are uterly razed. This is an empire built upon death and resurrection, and John/God has been paying the price for a myriad.
Maurice Blanchot analyses Orpheus and Eurydice as a metaphor for the artist forever in pursuit of art and inspiration. For Blanchot, Orpheus’s pursuit of Eurydice into the Underworld is his first transgression, and turning to look at her is both inevitable and necessary. I argue that we can map this journey onto lyctorhood itself, as a means of ‘saving’/elevating the necromancer (Orpheus) at the cost of the cavalier (Eurydice). Again, Harrow refuses to follow the narrative. She refuses the sacrifice, she saves Gideon whilst turning away and refusing to look back.
From yet another angle, Blanchot’s framework is adapted by Heather Love in Feeling Backward to describe the task/temptation of ‘saving’ queer figures from the past. She describes the rescue attempt as “a sign of the impossibility of the historical project per see: the dead do not come back from beyond the grave, and this fact constitutes the pathos of the historical project”. In The Locked Tomb, the dead CAN come back from beyond the grave, but still the same pathos in Harrow’s desparation to save Gideon. Love goes on to write: “according to Blanchot, not to botch it would be a betrayal. Such a rescue effort can only take place under the shadow of loss and in the name of loss; success would constitute its failure”. Harrow betrays the institution of lyctorhood, and Gideon (at this point) takes this as a personal betrayal and it’s like. The systems. The systems.
Gideon wants lyctorhood for Harrow, thinks that this is the way forward—Gideon whose dream from the outset has been to join the space army and who has been integrated into the system of cavalierhood by the end of book one. Harrow ‘succeeds’ in attaining lyctorhood, but she views lyctorhood as a loss and a murder and she cannot let Gideon die for her, cannot be left as the remaining daughter of the Ninth House even if this means literally burying Gideon in her memory. Let me now emphasise the absolute insanity of like, lyctorhood as literal absorption into one body and then forgetting as an act of preservation as an act of love as a kind of teehee moment. Insane. Harrow erasing Gideon from her brain in order to carry her around in it succeeds until it doesn’t, leaving Harrow at the end of Harrow the Ninth stuck in a kind of Hell space and at an impasse, a new kind of Orphic task: “She could let herself go, or she could go back to her body, and let [Gideon] go.” The choice to say Yes, and the choice to say No.
I truly feel like things will only get worse, as Gideon in particular becomes further entrenched in an imperialist structure that rots and is rotten. This is a structure that has made Ianthe believe that “love is acquisitive”; Mari points out that the only love Harrow knows before this is the love of the tomb, suggesting that
“rolling a rock” over gideon, preserving whatever’s left of her at whatever cost to harrow’s own health - as horrific as it is - may be the best and only form of love that harrow knows.
Thus we have a reenactment of Orpheus and Eurydice where Orpheus doesn’t turn back. From here blossoms a new kind of distress that frankly makes me feel insane. The whole existence of this newsletter is proof of this insanity. Me in the chai place in Fitzroy talking about Harrow the Ninth like screaming crying for real.
Seriously these books. They need to be experienced like it is impossible to describe them even if I did just say so many words in a row . . . I could go on (threat). Maybe after Nona. Congratulations on making it this far, as bonus content here is a diagram that is so incomprehensible:
A map of fantasy / science-fiction / classical work about agency and autonomy. Other common themes: cycles; structures of patriarchy, cisheterosexuality, capitalism, and/or imperialism; gender; love and its survival; fate; revenge; elements of tragedy, usually through loss and a sense of narrative inevitability, i.e. ‘doomed by the narrative’. Everything in this diagram is tangential in dome way and arrows indicate where I think that a story can parricularly help draw out ideas in or further understand another, e.g. Revolutionary Girl Utena and Oresteia are in dialogue as the top anything ever about family as a site of (cyclical) violence. 90% of these connections come directly from my my head i.e. I make no claims about authorial intention!! ‘Queen of Peace’ + songs from The Hunger Games are there for extra fun and connected to stories I feel they resonate most strongly with.
life turns to liquid
anyway . . . me <3 I’m in a feeling weird era. An uncertainty era. I should look for something to do at least over the summer but I don’t find myself very motivated to do so. Perhaps I will make a stronger effort at some point but more likely I will look up and find that three months have passed. It is okay to just hang around ← affirmations. I do have other projects and commitments but not enough to really like I’m doing things? Maybe that’s a personal problem. October didn’t feel real, though I know there were nice bits in there that I am grateful for. I saw a Hamlet adaption that changed my brain chemistry a little bit. Obsessed with narratives and tragedy and love. Local theatre is a gift.
In the meantime what I’m doing is watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thinking about it. Buffy Summers is everything she is literally everything. Still devastated by the very final scene of season 2 literally Olivia Rodrigo voice And I’m so tired that I might / quit my job, start a new life / and they’d all be so disappointed / ‘cause who am I if not exploited? / I’m so sick of seventeen / where’s my fucking teenage dream. Buffy Summers you are Everything.
I finished Last Night at Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel recently and adored it. Love the dreamy writing style, love dipping in and out of various charcters’ stories even if I cared about some of these more than others. Now extra keen to finally read Station Eleven, I do adore Mandel’s writing + storytelling style. Otherwise, I’m kind of flitting around a few books (poetry, Her Body and Other Parties, Yerba Buena, Rules of Attraction once I obtain it again) and hoping to commit to my physical TBR next year :-) Listening to Buffy fanmixes and less embarrassingly to the influx of October new releases but especially Midnights (a personal supercut)2 + Pre-Pleasure by Julia Jacklin + Here is Everything by The Big Moon + Error by Lee Chanhyuk (great for fans of sounds) + Dirt Femme by Tove Lo.
That’s about it for now I think. Take care.
Right now this means Labyrinth + Snow on the Beach + Glitch + The Great War + Maroon + Lavender Haze + Question…? + Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve + You’re On Your Own, Kid. At least half of these I listen to for fictional character reasons.