«Ragnarok» - A conversation with A.S. Byatt
Transcript of the interview (Collège Hotel, Lyon, 27/05/2012)
Clifford Armion: I was really surprised when I read Ragnarok and even when I heard about the book project. You like writing about psychology, about details, colours, textures, about works of art and crafts. It seems to me that myth is very remote from your usual subjects. How did you come to write about mythology?
A.S. Byatt: The publisher, Canongate, has commissioned a series of writings of myths from various writers, internationally and in Britain. They said to me would I like to write a myth and I said this is my myth, the death of the Gods. I have been slightly worried because some of the myths that have been written seem to regard it as their business to modernise the story and take out the theological elements to make it human. That is exactly what I think you want not to do. A myth is not human. A myth is a different kind of story. I think most of my novels have a mythical layer, a series of mythical images running under the natural ones, the real world ones. Some of my short stories are attached to the world of mythology and fairy tales. I’m not a religious creature but anyone looking at human beings sees that myths have been part of human life since the beginning. There’s a very great scientist, E.O. Wilson, who studies ants. He has a wonderful page where he has a series of thing that are in all human societies and things that are in all ants societies. I think he can’t possibly know whether ants have myths or not but he says all human societies have a myth. I’ve thought about this and myth has haunted all my writing and thinking since I was a very small child like the child in the book.
C.A.: Do you think there is such a thing as a British mythology? Your Chapter about Iggdrasil made me think of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood in which you have a comparison between the cross and a tree which is reminiscent of Iggdrasil.
A.S.B.: Part of my problem is that I went to Cambridge and not Oxford, and I didn’t have to do Anglo-Saxon, and I didn’t. I did Italian so I read Dante, and my interest in Norse mythology is very much my own. I never studied The Dream of the Rood, but you’re absolutely right about it. I think the English people are not very good at mythology, just as I think the French do not seem to have a lot of indigenous fairy tales. The English have fairy tales. The last Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote a book about Welsh mythology and I talked to him from time to time about mythology and – he is passionately interested in it – I think the Welsh have much more mythology than the English who are rather down to earth. We have nasty beasts and witch women and traps for unwary children. There’s a terrible thing called Yallery Brown, which means yellowish brown, which lives in a hole in Lincolnshire, and it you get anywhere near it, it sucks you and you’re finished. That’s an English myth, it’s not a grand myth about Gods, it’s just a rather nasty creature behind a stone that will get you if you are stupid enough to go near it. There are a lot of 19th century books called fairy mythology. There was an attempt in the 19th century – when everyone was interested in myth – to collect English fairy tales and turn them into an English mythology, whereas I think there is a profound difference between a myth and a fairy tale. I know there’s a difference and I found it very hard to define. I think a myth – I thought as a girl – is something that attempts to explain the universe, or to personify the universe, to personify the nature of things, whereas a fairy tale is a story you tell in the dark, around the fire, to amuse yourself or to frighten yourself or comfort yourself. I really do not know why we so need stories that are not true. I have to get back to England and talk to Terry Pratchett about why do we need fantasy. Terry Pratchett is one of my complete heroes. I think he understands myth and fairy tales and modern life and the nature of narrative, and the nature of language. I think his use of the English language is about a hundred times as good as J.K. Rowling’s. He is so witty and clever. You think you’ve understood something and read it another two years later and actually there’s another two or three layers to it. He is very clever. But I don’t know why we need fantasy, I hope you will tell me…
I’ve been reading a lot of Freud because my next novel is about surrealism and psychoanalysis. Freud realised how important it was that when we were dreaming untrue things happened, and untrue beast were created by joining one thing with another, and animals spoke. He started analysing it in terms of human sexuality. There was another psychoanalyst called Karl Abraham in Berlin who wrote a little book I’ve just been reading, about dreams and myths. He does a very subtle analysis of the use of the myth of the sun and the earth and the creation of fire in different countries. He does it very carefully and again he says it is all to do with human sexuality, but he does not reduce it to the sexual. He talks about the nature of men and about the nature of women.
I’ve just received an email from my student granddaughter and she wants me to send her examples of women and madness because she has to write a paper.
C.A.: In literature would you consider this as a myth, women and madness?
A.S.B.: I’m so tired of Jane Eyre and so is she, she refuses to read it again. One that came to my mind was Cassandra who was my other favourite figure beside the Norse Gods when I was a girl. There was the idea of knowing everything and refusing to be a sexual being and therefore nobody believing everything she said, so she was mad. I think this is a very interesting example of madness. She comes into Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, telling everybody what will happen and nobody believes her. I wept for her when I was a little girl. I felt this was an image of me, this person who knew what was going on and nobody believed a word of it. You have to compromise yourself with the world if you want people to believe you. Had she allowed Apollo to rape her, he would have allowed her to know the truth, to be believed, but she didn’t want that. I liked her independence when I was about twelve. I thought she was an interesting person. There’s the one in Aeschylus and there’s the one in Shakespeare.
C.A.: It’s difficult to draw a line between character of fiction and myth in the case of Cassandra. You write in Ragnarok that Mythological figures have features whereas characters of fiction have psychology.
A.S.B.: Cassandra is very interesting because she is in between those two. She has two features. She knows the truth and speaks it and goes mad, that’s one. And she refuses sex with the God of the sun and poetry, and that’s another. Apollo has two or three features. He’s very strong, he’s the God of poetry, he’s the God of light and he’s quite cruel. You can’t do the psychology of Apollo whereas you can a little bit do the psychology of human characters who get into myths. You can do the psychology of Oedipus, because he’s human, but you can’t do the psychology of Zeus, because he’s a myth. I think the reason I love Aeschylus more than Euripides is that Aeschylus’s tragedies are mythical, they have the form of myth even if human beings are caught in them. Euripides is already doing psychology. He is interested in why people do things and this is also very beautiful but also strange.
C.A.: What about Pilgrim’s Progress? You have a lot of allusions to Bunyan in Ragnarok. It seems to me you have that distinction between those allegorical characters that come straight out of a morality play and which are quite empty, and Christian himself, the protagonist, who has more psychology right? You seem to put it on the side of myth rather than fiction.
A.S.B.: A lot of the things I write about in Ragnarok I did read first at the age of the little girl who is reading them as I did on the landing and rushing into her bedroom if her mother comes up the stairs. I read Pilgrim’s Progress and that book about the Norse Gods. I remember puzzling about the similarities and differences with Pilgrim’s Progress. At some point I thought Bunyan had such a strong imagination. He started to write an allegory and ended by putting several people in there who could almost have been in a novel. When I was a post-graduate student, I started writing a thesis on 17th century religious allegory which would have included Bunyan. Technically, as a writer, I am interested in the way human narrative moved from characters embodying meaning to the point where the writer was looking at the characters’ psychology, which is not a word Bunyan would have used or known anything about. But he liked Christian. He describes Christian’s feelings, and his wife and children a little bit. The character named Hopeful is also very moving. What I wanted to do with the thesis I never wrote was to reach the point where allegory is left behind and something else happens which I think would have been Paradise Lost. Milton writes the Old Testament myth but he gives character to everybody, to God, to Satan, to Adam and Eve. In a way I came to see it as the first novel. Then he wrote Paradise Regained which goes back towards the allegorical. It’s the story of the temptation of Christ in the desert by Satan and it’s very tightly written. Satan displays all his delicious temptations, there is this dangerous garden of beautiful things and Christ says no. There is this wonderful last line when Christ is on the roof because Satan put him up there and tells him if you are really God, throw yourself down. The last line is English monosyllables and is a perfect iambic pentameter: “tempt not the Lord thy God he said, and stood”. That sends shivers down my spine. It’s wonderful that Milton went back to it from an earlier poem where he was looking at human beings. Milton’s Christ is not human in Paradise Regained in the way Adam and Eve and even Satan can be. Satan in a sense is like Christian – somebody’s human imagination has rushed out of the bounds they put it in. A few weeks ago I read something by Walter Benjamin. I think he wrote his thesis on German 18th century allegory. Benjamin’s theory was that allegory was written for a closed aristocratic society which has very precisely defined vices and virtues. There was no way of describing the human beings except in terms of these abstract qualities which didn’t beckon to anybody but the rich. Benjamin was a Marxist but he has a point. Bunyan was the beginning of the common people writing about psychology.
Something that is at the centre of my writing, at the centre of all my life really, is What is writing about the meaning? What is writing about the people? Where do they coincide? Writing Ragnarok was a huge excitement for me because I went right back to the mythical excitement of my childhood. Rather than “tempt not the Lord thy God he said, and stood” as a perfect moment, you have the perfect moment at the end of Asgard and the Gods, when all the Gods are dead and there is nothing left apart form a black sea stretching forever with a few gold chessmen floating in it. The German who wrote Asgard and the Gods says he believes that the original Norse myth stops there. Later people came along who were Christian and they thought Oh no we can’t have that, it has to be a Christian resurrection. So they said that after a very long time the world was remade and the Gods came together and all was good again. The child I was was very angry with this and the woman I am is still very angry. It’s about the only text I know where it goes towards a bad end and the bad end is reached, the Gods are killed. The only other thing as I can think of is King Lear. At the end of King Lear it looks as though Cordelia can be saved, it looks as though King Lear can be rescued and looked after in his old age.
C.A.: Well you do have some Post-Restoration versions where Cordelia is saved…
A.S.B.: Yes, I couldn’t bear it, this rewriting and saving her. It’s very wrong to save people when people destroy them. I knew very young, just as the girl in the book who is myself, that things can end badly, will end badly. Everybody will die, this is not good. You have good bits in between birth and death. It gives you strength to have an image of things not ending right. It’s quite important to know this, which is why I have trouble with the resurrection. I feel it’s cheating me. The Passion on the cross is terrible and awful. I’ve noticed in England at the moment a number of novels and texts about the life of Jesus very carefully saying that he was a human and died. They seem to need to write that novel. There’s a young novelist called Naomi Alderman who grew up as an orthodox Jew. She wrote a novel that balances the Christian story against the story of the Jew who preached and was killed. Colm Toibin also recently did from an Irish perspective, saying this religion is not true but the story is moving.
C.A.: I thought this vision of Christ as a mythical hero from the point of view of the girl came from the very early English literature in which Christ is seen as a hero like the ones in the Norse or the Anglo-Saxon mythology but in your case it rather comes from Milton right?
A.S.B.: Yes, in my case it would come from Milton because I know Milton and I don’t know the Anglo-Saxons. But it is true that the Anglo-Saxons wrote about heroism and they would have been more comfortable with Christ than Milton who was a puritan and is writing about someone who stuck to his principles rather than someone who saved the world by being the best…
Pour citer cette ressource :
Clifford Armion, A.S. Byatt, "«Ragnarok» - A conversation with A.S. Byatt", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2013. Consulté le 02/10/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/ragnarok-a-conversation-with-a-s-byatt