Let me first digress. I got to know A.S. Byatt first when I read a short story in the New Yorker: the Stone Woman. I didn’t know anything about the writer but I fell in love with this weird story, its grief-stricken yet strangely powerful heroin and its beautiful accumulation of gem-like precious words. I was unemployed and sending resumes everywhere. Needless to say, I had lots of free time. It took my fancy to translate this story, thinking that it would make me closer to its writer’s power. I still remember struggling with the vocabulary, and struggling to render anything like the beautiful sentences that I read. Needless to say, I wasn’t being interviewed for a translator’s job.
After months or years, I realized who the writer was and I felt foolish for this translation.
Ragnarok was on my wishlist for quite a long time, so long indeed that it eventually got translated into French and found its way to my neighborhood library new books’ shelves, waiting just for me to take it home.
The thing is: A.S. Byatt impresses me (from her reputation and also her book Possession), and so I don’t quite know how to write about her book without feeling completely inadequate. All the more as this one is part of the Cannongate Myth series, an ambitious project for which I have a lot of respect and admiration, and for which Byatt chose the Norse myths, that are supposed to be difficult. (Are myths difficult? Where does this idea come from? Perhaps because the Norse myths are less familiar to my own French culture than Greek ones)
The retelling of myths never ceases to fascinate me: the idea that there is still something relevant in thousand years old stories, but also that as human being writers still find something to add to these stories, like they are never really finished once and for all.
Contrary to other retelling of myths (modified or modernized), Byatt felt the need to encase the mythology in a back story, the evocation of her own childhood during WW2 when she discovered the myths and fell in love with them. How appropriate for a child whose father was away at war to wonder about the destiny of the world and to worry herself with the end of the gods in total destruction. Byatt makes no mystery of being “the thin child” evacuated from the city to the English countryside, and this new land around her creates a natural scenery of the Norse myths.
My own knowledge of the Norse myths is rather sketchy. There’s Wagner’s music, and rather sanitized Viking tales written for children. Contrary to the original version that “the thin child” got to read, children books nowadays gloss over most of the violence, cruelty, darkness and strangeness from the stories.
Even seeing them from afar, I was fascinated by them in the same way as most apocalyptic stories both fascinate me and disturb me. To imagine the gods death is, I believe, very peculiar compared to other civilisation where myths explain the creation of the world and justify why it is so today.
It was good to have the full extent of the Norse myths presented to me, if only by allusions and short visual vignettes. Byatt gets us to realize that there is so much more out there, without feeling like complete ignoramus. I loved Byatt’s writing, recognising her for her love of lists, of accumulation of visual details and precious words. She put herself right into the book, but it only highlighted how these myths shaped her childhood and her vision of the world.
The weirdest thing, if incidental, about this book is that it made me realize how much Tolkien had been influenced by the Norse myths for The Lord of the Ring. When the inevitability of the gods’ death finally arises, I could feel the same sense of deep sadness than at the end of the LOTR when all the elves and magicians leave Middle earth. Duh! I had read about it years ago, but I had never before made the connection. Once again, A.S. Byatt makes me feel completely foolish.
But I’m grateful for the lesson nonetheless.