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When the Canongate Press commissioned AS Byatt to contribute to their series of short novels based on ancient myth (following such authors as Margaret Atwood, David Grossman, and Natsuo Kirino), they must have known the rich tapestry of words they would receive. For Byatt is no stranger to myth; ancient legends form the substrate of her long novels POSSESSION and THE CHILDREN'S BOOK, and two of her story collections, THE DJINN IN THE NIGHTINGALE'S EYE and LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF STORIES, are "fairy stories for grown-ups." For this commission, she chose a retelling of the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the Judgement (or Twilight) of the Gods: "Wind Time, Wolf Time, before the World breaks up." She stirs a wonderful witches' cauldron of names -- Yggdrasil, Rándrasill, Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim, and Ironwood -- fraught with fecundity, seething with violence and danger. But what interests me most is the personal story peeping between the shattered basalt slabs. Byatt dedicates the book to the memory of her mother, who first bought her the book ASGARD AND THE GODS by Wilhelm Wägner, seeding the imagination of this Thin Child evacuated to the countryside during wartime. I only wish there were more of her; one wonders what book Byatt might have written had she not been bound by a commission.
To express profusion, Byatt makes frequent use of one of the oldest literary devices, the list; think Oberon's "I know a bank" speech; think Homer. Here is the Thin Child: "When she was five she walked to school, two miles, across meadows covered with cowslips, buttercups, daisies, vetch, rimmed by hedges full of blossom and then berries, blackthorn, hawthorn, dog-roses, the odd ash tree with its sooty buds." Here she is a few pages later describing another ash tree, Yggdrasil, the central axis around which the Norse world revolves: "Beetles were busy in the bark, gnashing and piercing, breeding and feeding, shining like metals, brown like dead wood. Woodpeckers drilled the bark, and ate fat grubs who ate the tree. They flashed in the branches, green and crimson, black, white and scarlet. Spiders hung on silk, attached fine-woven webs to leaves and twigs, hunted bugs, butterflies, soft moths, strutting crickets." The link with the child's world of wonder is established at once, but there is also a subtext: that all this proliferation has already been diminished by the seven decades that followed, by the loss of species, the loss of hedgerows, the loss of a pastoral richness that persists only in memory. I wish she hadn't needed an afterword to spell this out, but the elegy is implied nonetheless.
The destruction of the Norse gods, though, comes about through epic violence rather than elegiac decay. Byatt paints a fascinating picture of the child reading under the blankets with a flashlight while German bombers thunder overhead -- the same Germans (as she vaguely knew) that had transformed these myths into their own Götterdämmerung. I was reminded of John Connolly's THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, in which a slightly older child in the Blitz escapes to the world of myth. But this is no escape; you can see the future author being formed, in imagination and belief. Sent for scripture lessons to the village church, she revels in the sonorous language of the Book of Common Prayer, but rejects the cotton-wool blandness of "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild." She rejects, too, the later version of the Norse myths in which a shining new world, Gimle, is born out of the destruction. Not for her a tepid analogy to the Resurrection; she preferred to cling to that bleaker vision, "like a thin oval sliver of black basalt or slate, which was perpetually polished in her brain, next to the grey ghost of the wolf in her mind."
It seems an age for childhood memoirs. Margaret Drabble (Byatt's sister) revisited her girlhood through a book about jigsaws, THE PATTERN IN THE CARPET; Michael Ondaatje fictionalized his own youth in THE CAT'S TABLE, and Julian Barnes looks back at school and college in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. You might even say that, in CAIN, the older José Saramago was revisiting (and rejecting or at least transforming) his own childhood myths. Byatt's exploration could have been the most interesting of the lot; I only wish she had demanded the latitude to expand upon it.