Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book review: The End of the Gods, AS Byatt




The End of the Gods: The Myth Of Ragnarok
AS Byatt
Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin India
Rs 399, 177 pages


“Writers don’t make up myths,” Marina Warner observes, “They take them over and recast them.” This, she says, is what Jorge Luis Borges calls the murmuring exchanges of writers across time and cultures. “The more literature talks to other literatures, and reweaves the figures in the carpet, the richer languages and expression, metaphors and stories become.”

In 2005, the independent Scottish publishing house Canongate launched one of the most ambitious ventures of its kind in modern times, inviting authors to retell and reimagine some of the world’s greatest myths over the span of the next few decades. In an age when “ambitious” is a word applied to anything from a new vampire series to a rewarmed Stephen King bestseller, it is useful to be reminded of what the word actually means.

But can the great myths be rewritten to order? Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, which began the series, was a crisp, comforting but not revolutionary reminder of this great collective inheritance. Margaret Atwood’s reworking of the Iliad from Penelope’s perspective was a feat of imaginative brilliance, a feminist corrective; but David Grossman’s gentle spin on the Samson tale was a bland, back-to-basics work, where the novelist’s voice felt muffled under the burden of retelling this ancient tale.

Philip Pullman and Dubravka Ugresic wrote the most iconoclastic books in the series. Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is the kind of questioning and reworking of Christianity’s core gospels that may no longer be possible, because of the careful fostering of competitive intolerance, in either Islam or Hinduism. (Canongate’s list of myths does not, at this stage, include any drawn from the rich heritage of Hindu mythology, which is just as well given that we still have arguments over whether the Ramayana is to be read as the gospel truth or as one of the great myths.)

Dubravka Ugresic’s chilling reclamation of the Baba Yaga story asks uncomfortable questions about the nature of witches, and the role of the overlooked, persecuted but often powerful old woman who crops up in all of the world’s myths. More than any of the other writers in the Myth series, Ugresic gave herself the freedom to write and reshape myths in the language of myths, and her Baba Yaga book has moved from being just a retelling to becoming a classic in its own right.

If there is any other contemporary author who might perform a similar transfiguration, it is AS Byatt. There may be few tasks harder than reworking the Norse myths; their telling was crystalline, and to tackle the stories that define the word “saga” is something that only the most confident of storytellers would attempt.

Byatt pulls us in to the world where the twilight of the gods will happen via a child, a thin girl born at a time of war, and a book: “A solid volume, bound in green, with an intriguing, rushing image on the cover, of Odin’s Wild Hunt on horseback tearing through a clouded sky amid jagged bolts of lightning…” The child’s mind settles not in the world where there is a war on, or in the gentle legends of Jesus meek and mild—instead, Byatt writes, it “veered away, to where it was alive”.

In Byatt’s understanding of myth, there is this unspoken truth: the myth that you are drawn to, without perhaps knowing why you are drawn towards it, will shape who you become, much more than any other story read and retold. It is possible to settle for cartoon versions of myths, but some, like the thin child in her story, will be drawn back towards the real, complex, darker version.

Uncovering the myths is often unpleasant. The world, in the Norse myths, is shaped from the bones, flesh and hair of a dead giant. “The thin child was disturbed at having to imagine this; there was no scale by which she could measure it.” Maggots and worms become dwarves, trolls and dark-elves; the giant’s eyebrows become a bushy fence that contains Midgard, the Garden of Middle-Earth, in which is placed the home of the Gods, Asgard.

As she meets Odin, and hears yet again the tragic story of Balder the Beautiful, killed by the trickster Loki’s clever machinations, the fettering of Tyr, the thin child steps into the darker corners of mythology. “Wolves run strongly through the forests of the mind,” writes Byatt, “… the loping, padding, tireless runners are both out of sight and inside the head.”

Her retelling spares us nothing; the twilight of the gods is every bit as beautiful and terrible as the original. By the end of the tale, a certain kind of order has been restored, the war is over, and the thin child’s family has found, if not happiness, then a settled and sedate ending. But for her and for the reader, what Byatt has evoked cannot be easily banished into the pages of a book. The task before Byatt was not the retelling of a myth, which is relatively easily done; it was to remind us what it was like to read these myths for the first time, and to live in a world where the myths were not separate from our own lives.

A gate closes in the thin child’s head, and on one side of it is a house, a garden, a home, peacetime. On the other, there is “the bright black world”, containing “the wolf with his hackles and bloody teeth, the snake with her crown of fleshy fronds, smiling Loki with fishnet and flames”.

There is either the world of dailiness and contentment, or the dark black world where the old stories run like wolves at our heels. You can have one or the other, says Byatt. Choose.
 
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