In mythical Greece, the princess Alcestis - the daughter of Pelias, King of Iolcus - is heartbroken after the sudden death of her beloved sister, Hippothoe. Destined to become the anointed wife of King Admetus of Pherae, Alcestis can do little but mourn the terrible loss of Hippothoe, now lying dead in the King’s chamber, gone to the other side, “the world’s quiet underbelly.”
Like an undiscovered island, Alcestis is royal and pure. Young and alone, she’s convinced that she’s meant for marriage. When Admetus arrives on his black chariot to earn Alcestis’s hand, there’s an instant rush of blood to her cheek.
Almost at once she is emboldened by his beauty, gorgeous in fine detail, “his dark eyelashes curling against his cheeks and his eyes soft and entreating.”
Neither Admetus or Alcestis, however, foresees the shattering of Pelias’s calm, kingly demeanor into an unrestrained and thundering nature. While Admetus begs Pelias for Alcestis’s honor, Pelias views the young
king’s impudence as an insult and orders that Admetus must compete for her hand. Of course, any stranger can be a favorite of the gods and any king, yet Admetus’s attentive missives of love ultimately set in motion his fate and the fate of his beautiful young muse.
From here, Beutner’s unique tale exquisitely renders the impassioned growth of her vulnerable heroine: her promises to serve Admetus honorably, the warning from Apollo
(his face “like polished bronze”) the arrival of Hermes and his demand that Alcestis bid her husband farewell, and her epic journey into the underworld, where she meets Hades and Persephone while searching for her sister in this shadowy place of stranded shades.
The underworld is gloriously revealed in all its majesty and mysteriousness: the shades, their faces worn away by death; the dark and hooded Charon; the black hound Cerberus, a creature of nightmares; sad-eyed Hades, sitting in his adamantine palace; the fields of asphodel falling off into darkness where ghosts lie in the lines of hills.
Against this monochromatic setting, Alcestis fanatically searches for Hippothoe, her grandmother Tyro offering some clues as to where her cherished sister might be.
For all Alcestis’s innocence, it is Persephone, the dead Queen, who truly undoes the girl, the princess entranced by her goddess’s remote and dreamlike beauty.
The ease of Persephone’s manipulations and her intemperate passions eventually devastate Alcestis. Eventually rescued by powerful, virile Heracles, Alcestis walks away from the tentacles of death and from the underworld, but she remains haunted by her memories of a journey full of ghosts, riddles and half-thoughts.
Beutner’s treatment of this ancient myth offers up a magical portrayal of death and of love, of gods and mortals, of passion intertwined, where the gods often appear as a cursed gift - capricious, fearsome, and sometimes cruel. Throughout, Alcestis learns some hard life lessons, her simmering love for Admetus speaking of looks and last kisses. But there’s also Beutner's gorgeous portrayal of Persephone, her love for Alcestis so absorbed, reflected as weary blankness, her life and her death transparent, her existence in the Underworld as vulnerable and as mysterious as spider silk.