Posts Tagged ‘byatt’

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

I’ve been delaying writing about this, and I’m not entirely sure why. These five stories are good, exactly what you’d expect from Byatt. I love her fairy tales, but these are a little grittier than I remember The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye being.

The Thing in the Forest

During the evacuation, two girls see the wyrm in the woods. It reminds me a bit of Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, but this wyrm doesn’t transform into a woman. It’s more like a sentient pile of raw meatloaf. Gross, but something about contact with the supernatural pulls these girls back after they’ve grown into women.

Body Art

Starving art student decorates hospital for Christmas, meets a handsome doctor who’s obsessed with the fact that he’s Catholic but doesn’t believe it any more. So when she gets pregnant, he forces her to keep the baby.

“I didn’t understand. I didn’t know.”

Possibility of a happy ending, despite the messy relationships.

A Stone Woman

At some point, someone is going to write a scholarly article on Byatt’s great love of Scandinavian men. It probably won’t be me, though.

A woman transforms to stone, gradually and beautifully. She meets an Icelandic sculptor who takes her to a place where stone women can be at peace, Iceland in the winter.

Raw Material

Community writing classes that the teacher is trying desperately to keep from becoming group therapy sessions. And failing. When someone writes something genuinely good, the sort of writing that touches the heart and wrings the emotions, they pounce on it and destroy it. Sad. It’s hard for people to honour talent in others that they wished they had for themselves.

The Pink Ribbon

An elderly man cares for his wife, who is dying of Alzheimer’s. When my grandmother got this, she went to the Alzheimer’s wing of the assisted living community where they lived. My grandfather asked them if he could stay with her if he promised to act crazy. But this man in the story just takes care of her at home, with the aid of a community nurse. But no one wants to linger with Alzheimer’s, so the astral projection of her younger self comes to beg him to let her die as soon as she can.

I suppose these are not happy stories. People’s lives are transformed, and often ended. Maybe I shouldn’t see that as sad, but this week I do. Sometimes there’s a redemptive feel, and the Stone Woman’s ending is more triumphant than death, but this is a sad and strange book, read at a time when I don’t really need sad and strange. I’m looking for something comforting, and this wasn’t it.

Sorry not to offer you more, but thinking about this book is getting me agitated again, and it’s not an emotion that I have time for these days. I’m living in a family again, and it requires an emotional stability that is hard for me to maintain. Stories of people going off the rails don’t help right now.

 

I love this book. In graduate school I learned that it can be dangerous to write about books I love, because it is difficult to convey those emotions in an academic analysis. The emotion gets in the way of the analysis, just as I lose my good judgment when I feel an emotional connection to the decision to be made. This explains why I’ve asked for a transfer closer to home, even though I’m in a good job and a decent social situation. I have an emotional connection with that landscape, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be content apart from it. My company’s closest location is five hundred miles off, but that’s a lot closer than the thousand miles away I am now.

This book seems to have been conceived as one of a series where our leading authors write about the myths that have shaped their lives and writing. I’m not sure if that series ever took off because I always see this one standing alone or with Byatt’s other work, and since she deals so much with fairy tales and myths anyway, it doesn’t feel out of place in her oeuvre. So yes, as the title implies, this is a book about Norse mythology. But it is also a story about Byatt’s encounter with Norse mythology when she was a girl, The Thin Child in Wartime. The Norse myths make more sense to her than the Christian ones, so while she doesn’t believe in them as a religion, they more adequately express her developing worldview.

The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked.

But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.

So while the stories take place in Midgard or Asgard, they also always have reference to living in the evacuated-to English countryside during World War II.

Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Or of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past. She had seen and heard the crash and conflagration when the airfield near her grandparents’ home was bombed. She had cowered in an understairs cupboard as men were taught to cower, flat on the ground, when the Hunt passed by. Odin was the god of death and battle. Not much traffic came through the edges of the small town in which the thin child lived. Most of what there was was referred to as ‘Convoys’, a word that the thin child thought was synonymous with processions of khaki vehicles, juddering and grinding. Some had young men sitting in the back of trucks, smiling out at the waving children, shaking with the rattling motions. They came and they went. No one was told where. They were ‘our boys’. The child thought of her father, burning in the air above North Africa. She did not know where North Africa was. She imagined him with his flaming hair in a flaming black plane, in the racket of propellers. Airmen were the Wild Hunt. They were dangerous. If any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust, the child read. It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.

In the daytime, the bright fields. In the night, doom droning in the sky.

I did not grow up during World War II. My parents weren’t born until afterward. My childhood war was very different. By the 1980s, American society had grown comfortable with the Cold War. The enemy was always there, there was the constant threat of invasion and nuclear holocaust, but this very constancy had inured us to it. The threat of mutually assured destruction kept us pretty much safe. Then, when I was a thin child of nine, the Berlin Wall came down, and a couple of years later the Soviet Union fell apart. There was a sense of relief, but I had never experienced the absence of loved ones as Byatt did, nor was I ever evacuated.

The real war for me was strictly domestic. My father was undiagnosed bipolar; most men self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but since my father’s religion forbade those, he calmed himself down by hitting his children. I was too young and small to be a target, but I have four older siblings who caught rather a lot of it. I don’t remember much from the early years, but my sister assures me that I had every reason to be perpetually afraid. And I was. Not just of my father, though; I was afraid of everyone. Life is unpredictable, and as a kid that meant that I never knew when someone was going to go from happy to violently angry in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I think this is the key to understanding why I freak out in crowds; that’s a lot of people to keep from punching me in the face. You’re asking, why would anyone punch me in the face to start with? Because life is unpredictable, and my childhood trained me to know that every person is a potential threat. Especially family members who are supposed to love and care for me. These days I have friends that I trust, but they are people who seldom make sudden moves and do not raise their voices when they get heated in a conversation.

My mother had a quick temper too, but she handled her anger by distancing herself from the situation – the situation usually being her children. I don’t remember being hugged or kissed when I was young. The first clear memory I have of getting that sort of affection from my mother is from after I was married and had graduated from college. I remember how awkward she was at it, like this was something she’d seen other people doing and had always wanted to try but was never sure where or how to begin. For most people, hugs are not that complicated.

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, my parents separated. I hear multiple stories about it, but the one I remember is coming home from church one Sunday to find him gone. When I was twenty-one I found his nearly-suicide leaving note in my mother’s things; I imagine she still has it. When it first happened, I recognized that my father’s absence represented a new stage of life for me, but I wasn’t shocked. Life is unpredictable, and my brother used to run away with some frequency, and so did the teenagers on all the family-oriented TV programs of the time, so that my dad ran away was no big surprise. It’s what I understood people to do. I suppose this should have made things easier, but I still had nearly a decade of living with an emotionally unavailable parent who projected her own anger onto me and made me doubt my ability to achieve anything I set my hand to, despite all the clear evidence that I’m intelligent and capable.

Like Byatt, I turned to stories. The Norse legends weren’t readily available in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, so I read the Greek and Roman myths instead. The Egyptian ones didn’t make sense to me, but the Hellenic Pantheon absolutely did. Their characters are driven by human desires, only played out on a larger scale. Unlike the Hebrew God, you can escape them. You may have to be turned into a tree to do it, but you can get away. People can run, hide from, and even occasionally trick the gods. And life is always trembling on the cusp of transformation. In Greek myth, there is always a way out, and I suppose that’s what I needed then.

The thing that always impresses me about Norse myths is the suffix –heim, home. Everyone and everything has a home. Death, evil, frost giants, dark elves, they all have their proper place. There isn’t really an outer darkness where people are cast out for their crimes, as in Christianity. All places can be known, rendered familiar, by describing them as someone’s home. Despite the monsters, there’s nothing so frightening that it can’t be realized in the imagination. In Byatt’s telling, everything also has a name: she names plants and animals and sea creatures and everything that I couldn’t even think to put a name to. The Acknowledgements section shows that she had to do some research, she didn’t have all these names at her fingers’ ends, but I appreciate that. If you’re going to write about the creation and destruction of the world, give things the dignity of their names.

Byatt places at the center of the belief system Loki, the agent of chaos, the force for change. He drives everything, and the others – Thor, Odin, Freya, etc – are all along for the ride. He and his children explain the way the world works, and how the world will eventually end. Order and Chaos will cancel each other out in a furious battle, the likes of which the world will never have seen before.

Everything ends, and everyone dies. Beautiful Baldur may have been the first (and how gorgeous does he have to have been, if already-beautiful Scandinavian men call him more beautiful than they?), but all the gods die. Not the gradual fading into disbelief of the Greeks, but violent sudden death. And then, even war ends. Sorry to be so morbid, but I believe most of the problems of Western civilization come from our inability to face the reality of our own mortality. Even this book ends, far too soon. It is beautiful, and it shows our world to be beautiful and fragile. And temporary. Use your time here well – love often and completely, create beauty where you can, and read this book.

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about an author who wrote a period novel, but didn’t do it well. Byatt does it well. She knows the Victorian Era, so her books are similar to the classics, but she discusses things that were unmentionable back then. These stories contain things that people really did and thought about, but only hinted at in literature.

When students discuss the Nineteenth Century, they often treat it as a period of great certainty; they trust the surface of religious conservatism, or the now-well-publicized hypocrisy: a church on each corner, with a bar and two whorehouses between each pair. But they don’t question the moral certainty of the time. Well maybe it’s not exactly hypocrisy. That conservative certainty was all surface. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great insecurity – people started questioning their religion in a way they never had before, so they had to reassure each other constantly that “God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.” As Hamlet’s mother would say, “Methinks they do protest too much.” Darwin is an easy scapegoat, but the Industrial Revolution changed the world so much that the old belief system wore thin in several places. Nothing convinces people that God is limited like poverty. Byatt really captures the uncertainty of the time.

The two stories here are linked by this theme of uncertainty, but also by a minor character. Captain Papagay appears at the end of each to signal the fulfillment of other characters’ goals, though it’s only the middle of their journeys. For a story to end in hope, there has to be some sense that the characters live beyond the end.

MORPHO EUGENIA

In some ways, this is a protracted analogy between ant colonies and Victorian country houses. The communities are remarkably similar.

Nevertheless, in the hot days just after Midsummer, when they increased their vigilance in order to observe, if possible, the nuptial flight of the Queens and their suitors, he was hard put to it not to see his own life in terms of a diminishing analogy with the tiny creatures. He had worked so hard, watching, counting, dissecting, tracking, that his dreams were prickling with twitching antennae, advancing armies, gnashing mandibles and dark, inscrutable complex eyes. His vision of his own biological processes – his frenzied, delicious mating, so abruptly terminated, his consumption of the regular meals prepared by the darkly quiet forces behind the baize doors, the very regularity of his watching, dictated by the regularity of the rhythms of the nest, brought him insensibly to see himself as a kind of complex sum of his nerve-cells and instinctive desires, his automatic social responses of deference or required kindness or paternal affection. One ant in an anthill was neither here nor there, was dispensable, was nothing. This was intensified, despite his recognition of the grimly comic aspect of his reaction, by the recording of the fate of the male ants.

This story was difficult for me to read because it reminded me of my own marriage. It failed for a different reason than William’s, but a lot of the emotions were the same. The ex became interested in me primarily as a provider of children and for her children – like William, I was defined primarily by my reproductive function, which inspires about as much respect as prostitutes generally receive. I felt worthless, like a drone in an anthill. I need to be with someone who wants me for more than sex. Sex yes, and frequently, but not just when partner is at peak fertility and wanting another pregnancy.

There are a few long passages speculating on intelligent design, trying to reconcile God and Darwin, but the arguments tend to go in big circles without reaching any conclusions. It seems that the only conclusion available to logic is that God is an evolutionarily advantageous fantasy adopted by the masses for the preservation of the social order.

One of the things that I appreciate about Byatt is that she considers the “surplus women,” the worker ants who support the queen. Miss Crompton lives in the house in a marginal position between the family and the servants, quietly watching both, with her beautifully bony wrists. A woman of sense and education, she constantly surprises William, though me not at all. I’ve come to expect rebellion, poetry, talent, intelligence, and an appreciation for natural beauty from Victorian governesses. Here she is, upon seeing her first monarch butterfly, on a ship a hundred miles from shore.

‘It fills me with emotion,’ she says. ‘I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And yet it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen.’ ‘That is the main thing,’ says Captain Papagay. ‘To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen.’

A friend complimented my nature photographs, which I routinely post to facebook. He said something about my skill, but I don’t think I really have any. Like all art, my pictures are a method of self-expression. I see the world as completely, breathtakingly, gobsmackingly beautiful. My natural state in the forest or mountains is one of wonder and awe. And excitement – I jump and skip like a small child. If my pictures are at all lovely, it’s because I see the world as so beautiful that I can’t show it to you any other way.

THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL

This not-quite-half of the book is less about science than faith. Instead of faith in God, though, it’s about faith in the occult: mediums, séances, the dead. And also unlike the first story, it deals with a fictional version of people who really lived.

The Victorian Era’s favorite bromance is the one commemorated in In Memoriam A. H. H. Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam were best friends, so close that Hallam’s father and twenty-first century literary critics assume they were a gay couple. Byatt presents them as men who love each other, but who don’t have sex. Instead, they use their sisters as proxies. Arthur was set to marry Alfred’s sister Emily, but then he died. Alfred spent seventeen years writing a poem about his grief in which he calls himself Arthur’s widow, and then he married Arthur’s sister Emily. Personally, I find the collective grief for Arthur Hallam to be excessive. As he’s described, I can’t see anything unusual about him, but everyone treats it like a huge betrayal that Emily falls in love with someone else eight years later. Eight years is plenty of time to give to someone who was always more in love with your brother than with you.

It is hard to love the dead. It is hard to love the dead enough.

Despite the more-than-appropriate mourning period, Emily still feels guilty for finding another lover.

And with them in the dreams stood also a separate creature, the girl in black with a white rose in her hair, as he liked to see it. You are accompanied through life, Emily Jesse occasionally understood, not only by the beloved and accusing departed, but by your own ghost too, also accusing, also unappeased.

This is an issue I feel from time to time. My younger selves are all still here in my head, and some of them don’t approve of my life as it is now. Of course, they’re also jealous, so I try not to take their disapproval too seriously, but it contributes to my tendency to depression. I feel guilty for not being able to feel guilty. I end up in church feeling empty and disconnected, looking for a community but feeling alien. As my community is forming up here in the new town, I don’t feel that I have much in common with anyone. I try to connect through the job, or through talking about my family, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I feel too different. It doesn’t help that over Labor Day I drove back home and hooked up with someone I felt a close connection to but whom I will never see again. I find myself hoping that he was lying about moving away soon because I’d like to run into him again someday, and that won’t happen if he really does go to California. I’m lonely, and my twenty-year-old self tells me it’s my own damn fault. I was so judgmental and intolerant – if that part of me had its way, I’d still be married, making justifications like Byatt’s aged Tennyson:

He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. He had felt a suffusion of affection and companionable calm, which he suspected was less than what others felt, somehow, but not unpleasant, not inadequate. To Emily’s taste, he was sure. If he was truthful, there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s, with all that implied of the flashing-out of one soul to another, of the symmetry and sympathy of minds, of the recognition they had both felt, that they had in some sense always known each other, they did not have to learn each other, as strangers did. But this did not make them men like Milnes. They were like David and Jonathan, whose love to each other was wonderful, passing the love of women. And yet David was the greatest lover of women in the Bible, David had despatched Uriah to his death to possess Bathsheba, David was manly beyond all heroes.

It always bothers me when people assume that being a homosexual means that a man is effeminate. Since coming out of the closet, I’ve become more confident and assertive, more stereotypically masculine, not less. Even after I’ve taken it like a good bottom, I don’t feel or act womanish. I love masculinity as a concept and some men specifically – for me, there’s nothing feminine about being a gay man. And if I find someone who loves me as Lieutenant Jesse loves Emily, I won’t turn him down either.

You don’t seem to understand. I didn’t mean to speak so much so soon, but there I go, rushing on, like the North Wind, can’t stop – have you ever felt that someone was to do with you, when you saw them, quite simply, just that, that there are people all over the place with noses like dough-buttons and eyes like currants and other people like Roman busts, you know, and then suddenly you see a face that’s alive – for you – and you know it’s to do with you, that that person is a part of your life, have you ever felt that?

Sometimes people are just perfectly matched, and the externals of their lives don’t make them an obvious fit but their real selves align perfectly. One of the ancient Greeks – I think Plato – once theorized that people were originally conjoined beings, split in half for this mortal life. Some of the pairs were androgynous, some were doubly feminine, some doubly masculine. We spend our lives looking for our other half, our soulmate. This has given rise to the (in my opinion) dangerous idea that there’s only one person in the entire world that a person can be truly happy with. In Byatt’s story, this gets merged with the Christian understanding of angels (hence the title), and eventually Arthur Hallam appears as half an angel, haunting the girl who moved on, never realizing that Alfred is his other half, not Emily. She has her Captain (promotion since their marriage), and she loves him, not the boy who died forty years earlier.

Taken together, these two stories show the limitations of mid-Victorian Christianity, its inability to accommodate evolution and spiritualism, two contrasting forces that probably shouldn’t work together to destroy the mechanism of social order, but that’s how the process happens. And of course, they’re also stories about finding love, written with the skill of someone who loves the Victorian Era and the English language. Since I love these things too, I’m going to keep reading Byatt’s stories. They leave me satisfied, full, if not exactly happy. The realism of her stories doesn’t lend itself to simple emotions, even when it’s magical realism.

I read once that a writer is “a reader moved to emulation.” There is no writer who stirs me to write like A. S. Byatt. This is not to say that I have her skill with language, but simply that I wish I had. Her descriptions are lovely; reading her is like resting in a pool, feeling yourself borne along floating, but only temporarily, only so long as you keep very still, because with the slightest movement you will sink or be forced to swim.

The stories in this collection are only partially, and usually only metaphorically, about fire and ice. Water and light are more common. Beyond these elements, though, these are stories about stories, and story-telling. In them ancient myths come back to life. Visual art plays an important role as well. They’re also stories about foreign travel and therefore crossing boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, the uncanny finding of things known in unfamiliar settings.

CROCODILE TEARS

A married couple has a little tiff in a London art gallery over some kitschy piece of shit that the husband wants to buy; a few minutes later he drops dead. She leaves, goes home, packs a few things, and takes a train to France. She does what she can to elude detection, and ends up in Nimes. Not for the bullfighting, but just because that’s where she ended up. She spends her time avoiding the things that (as a tourist) she ought to do. She meets a Norwegian gentleman whom she does not fall in love with; she gets rather irritated when he keeps saving her from suicidal accidents. He tells her the old Norse story of The Companion, a man who was frozen in the ice and then mystically aided his thaw-er to achieve his goals. Eventually she softens toward him, and they decide that together they can face the traumas and responsibilities they are each running away from.

A LAMIA IN THE CÉVENNES

An English painter moves to France and installs an outdoor swimming pool. He’s captivated by the shade of blue that results from the interaction of the tile with the water. There are some chemical problems with the pool, so he has it drained and refilled from the river. Wouldn’t you know it, a giant snake gets into the pool with the river water. It’s the Lamia from the Keats poem; if he kisses her, she’ll become a woman and make all his dreams come true. But he doesn’t want a woman, he wants the colors that shine and iridesce all over the snake body. He strings her along until a houseguest takes her bait.

COLD

While I love her realistic stories, no one can write a fairy tale like A. S. Byatt.

Princesses, also, are expected to marry. They are expected to marry for dynastic reasons, to cement an alliance, to placate a powerful rival, to bear royal heirs. They are, in the old stories, gifts and rewards, handed over by their loving fathers to heroes and adventurers who must undergo trials, or save people. It would appear, Fiammarosa had thought as a young girl, reading both histories and wonder tales, that princesses are commodities. But also, in the same histories and tales, it can be seen that this is not so. Princesses are captious and clever choosers. They tempt and test their suitors, they sit like spiders inside walls adorned with the skulls of the unsuccessful, they require superhuman feats of strength and cunning from their suitors, and are not above helping out, or weeping over, those who appeal to their hearts. They follow their chosen lovers through rough deserts, and ocean tempests, they ride on the wings of the north wind and enlist the help of ants and eagles, trout and mice, hares and ducks, to rescue these suddenly helpless husbands from the clutches of scheming witches, or ogre-kings. They do have, in real life, the power to reject and some power to choose. They are wooed. She had considered her own cold heart in this context and had thought that she would do better, ideally, to remain unmarried. She was too happy alone to make a good bride. She could not think out a course of action entirely but had vaguely decided upon a course of prevarication and intimidation, if suitors presented themselves. For their own sakes, as much as for her own.

A genuine ice princess falls in love with a man of fire. She’s initially captivated by his glasswork, and my heart ached for her because even in the gift-sending stage of things it’s clear that his nature is wholly different from hers. They each find beauty in otherness, and they find ways to make it work.

BAGLADY

While it seems realistic at the beginning, this story takes on a fairy-tale quality as well. A woman gets lost in an Asian shopping mall. Maybe less fairy tale and more urban legend, but maybe these two types of story are not so different. When I went to New York, my friends warned me not to go out drinking late or go home with strange men because I don’t want to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys; just like German parents used to tell their children about Little Red Riding Hood to keep them away from going into the woods alone.

JAEL

So, you know the story from the Old Testament. Israel is in bondage (again), and under Deborah’s direction, they go to war against their oppressors. The leader of the enemy army, Sisera, runs into the Hebrew camp and asks a woman to hide him. She treats him nicely, gives him dinner and a place to rest. While he’s sleeping, she nails his head to the ground. Byatt uses this to talk about gratuitous betrayal – unexpected, purposeless betrayal. A woman remembers being in school, when she lived on the peripheries of a couple of rival gangs (1960s-ish white-girl gangs, so don’t think of Baltimore or Detroit). She also talks about her current life designing advertisements for fruit drinks. She always incorporates classical themes, from the Bible or Greek mythology, and the younger set don’t understand. One of the younger women is working at betraying her, so it’s kind of a vicious circle. If I were more misogynistic than I am, I’d say that this story shows how all women are like this, but I don’t actually see it that way. I have very good friends who are women, and they aren’t vile betrayers.

CHRIST IN THE HOUSE OF MARTHA AND MARY

And, from the New Testament, Mary and Martha. Someone summarizes the story from the Bible, but the narrative is more about the painting than the Bible. The Velazquez painting, with the same name as the story. I’m used to hearing it as the story of Mary and Martha, I guess since the final –y of Mary elides more effectively with the following and than the final –a of Martha; I don’t say it Marthanmary, there’s always a glottal stop between Martha | and. Nevertheless, I like putting Martha first; she gets the short end of the stick all the time, but if we all just sat at Jesus’ feet waiting for him to multiply loaves and fishes no one would ever get any dinner. Maybe Mary was clumsy or a bad cook, so listening was a better task for her than serving and cooking. It always seems to me that there must be more to the situation than we get in the Scripture. Some people are active, some are contemplative, and some are both; to me, the bad thing is to go against one’s own nature, not to be careful with the housework. So Byatt describes an angry, rebellious cook (aptly named Dolores) who meets a painter who visits the house where she works. He does beautiful things with light on still life, and even when he makes a painting of her she notices first the fish, eggs, and garlic.

I know that there are some people who will object to my associating the Bible with myths and poetry; well, that’s what it is. They’re Hebrew myths. Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: the people of Sodom commit an offense against the laws of hospitality; some Biblical writers who interpret this story say that the reason God sent the angels was that the people didn’t take care of the poor; the Qur’an and the New Testament writers (who lived two or three thousand years after the event) say that it was a cautionary tale against homosexuality; the Gay Church movement insists that the story is about gang rape. These stories might be moralistic, but they’re also malleable. The important thing about Scripture, as with myth, is not whether these stories literally happened; the important thing is how we respond to them, what they say about human nature, and how these stories impact the way we live our lives. In this sense, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Spock can be as important as Ehud and the disgustingly fat Moabite king. Stories – myths, legends, poems, scripture, novels, jokes, anecdotes, fairy tales, television programmes – even more than fire and ice, quicksilver and brimstone, or fire water wood air metal, are the elements that compose our lives. We are the stories that we believe, that we live, that we love.

 

If ever you see this book in a store, drop whatever else you’re holding and buy it immediately. I realize that this is rather a strong command, perhaps even invasive, but you’ll do me the credit to recognize that I don’t command this strongly very often. Of course, now there are several versions you can buy online, but shopping online steals from one the joy of discovery that is felt when shopping nonvirtually. When I was introduced to this book in 2006, it was out of print and unavailable anywhere except for the rare used bookstore. Looking at the reviews on amazon.com, it seems that someone at a publishing house scanned an old book without correcting the text – the negative reviews are for the product itself, not the story. If you can find one of the rare old copies, snatch it up; let no one part you from this book.

It’s sort of an allegory, sort of a fairy tale, sort of a myth. It’s about the stereotypical conflict between gender stereotypes; it’s about the role of thought in our lives. It’s beautiful and strange, delightful, wistful, earthily magical. There was a flourishing of Irish writers during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and Stephens may not be prominent among them, but perhaps he ought to be. James Joyce seems to have a precious jewel that he is proud of possessing, and equally proud of concealing beneath layers and layers of incomprehensibility. W B Yeats is best known for looking to the mythology of other places, sailing off to Byzantium or looking for the second coming of a Hebrew god fused to the Egyptian sphinx. Yeats does write about the Irish myths and legends, but those poems tend to get rather long, and they require a great deal of concentration, more than is consistent with pure joy. Stephens uses simple sentences that a child could understand to discuss abstract concepts that the wisest of adults will take time to ponder.

In the beginning, there are two philosophers and their wives:

In the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels. The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two Philosophers in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick that they did not know they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstasy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before.

Then one of the philosophers and his wife decide to die, which simplifies things immensely.

Things start to happen when a cat kills a bird. The animals aren’t important in themselves, but the cat belongs to Meehawl MacMurrachu, and the bird is honored by the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora. The leprecauns take MacMurrachu’s washboard, and he goes to the philosopher to ask for help in getting it back. The philosopher tells him where to find their pot of gold, which MacMurrachu steals and hides in a place that is protected by all the fairy folk, including the leprecauns, who are now bound by their own laws not to recover their property. Instead, they go after their opponents’ children. They kidnap the children of the Philosopher, and it’s rumored that they’re the ones who sent Pan to ensnare Caitilin ni Murrachu. But you don’t fuck with a woman of the Shee, especially not if she has fourteen hundred curses, so of course they returned the kids to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath.

Pan is the Greek god, the one who looks a bit like a satyr and nothing like an Irishman. His attitude doesn’t seem to quite match up with my understanding of him from the Greeks, but when you meet a mythical figure in a novel you accept the author’s interpretation. Pan represents foreign influences; he beguiles Caitilin with his music, but his philosophy is that hunger and emptiness are of the utmost importance and should be pursued for their own sakes. This deliberate choosing of unhappiness seems to me more closely allied to the monotheistic religions, but maybe it really is present in the Greeks and I’ve just been ignoring it. He also seems more closely related to the philosopher than to the other characters, since the ancient Greeks have dominated European intellectual thought since the Renaissance.

To counter Pan, the philosopher enlists the aid of Angus Og, one of the old Irish gods. He comes surrounded with joy and fullness, and Caitilin chooses him. In this conflict between two gods, I see the struggle of Ireland for its own cultural traditions. Will they assimilate with the rest of Hellenized Europe, or will they recover their own Celtic beliefs? It’s clear that Stephens prefers Angus Og to Pan, and if they really are as he portrays them, I quite agree. But once the children are all rescued, MacMurrachu still has the pot of gold, and justice must still be attended to.

Justice is the maintaining of equilibrium. The blood of Cain must cry, not from the lips of the Avenger, but from the aggrieved Earth herself who demands that atonement shall be made for a disturbance of her consciousness. All justice is, therefore, readjustment. A thwarted consciousness has every right to clamour for assistance, but not for punishment. […] It will, therefore, be understood that when the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora acted in the manner about to be recorded, they were not prompted by any lewd passion for revenge, but were merely striving to reconstruct a rhythm which was their very existence, and which must have been of direct importance to the Earth. Revenge is the vilest passion known to life. It has made Law possible, and by doing so it gave to Intellect the first grip at that universal dominion which is its ambition.

So the leprecauns give the police an anonymous tip about the dead philosopher and the Grey Woman buried under the philosopher’s house. The thought life of Ireland had its first obstacle with foreign influences, and now it is challenged by modernity. The leprecauns fight to free the philosopher from the police, but he just turns himself in the next day. Then, randomly, his children find the pot of gold and return it to the leprecauns.

How could they thank the children whose father and protector they had delivered to the unilluminated justice of humanity? that justice which demands not atonement but punishment; which is learned in the Book of Enmity but not in the Book of Friendship; which calls hatred Nature, and Love a conspiracy; whose law is an iron chain and whose mercy is debility and chagrin; the blind fiend who would impose his own blindness; that unfruitful loin which curses fertility; that stony heart which would petrify the generations of man; before whom life withers away appalled and death would shudder again to its tomb.

There’s a similar feeling of justice in The Scarlet Letter; people punish in order to make offenders suffer, but the punishments tend to drive the offenders further from society instead of reintegrating them into it. Hawthorne ascribes reconciliatory justice to God; Stephens to the Earth and the fairy folk. As an American, I have a troubled feeling about human justice. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. We have more people in prison than some countries have people. One third of the African-American men in my age group are in prison, right now. While other countries are closing empty prisons, ours are full to bursting. Part of this is a problem with the justice system, which tends to convict rather a lot of people (particularly nonwhite males) for fairly minor offenses. Part of this is a problem with the laws, which require imprisonment for something as small as having marijuana in the house. Part of the problem is that we can’t seem to think of any other method of punishment but to lock offenders away with other offenders, so that whatever diseases of thought that lead to crime grow and become even stronger. Part of the problem is that the prison industry sees tons of money changing hands, so lawmakers have no incentive to change a system that is actively harming the people it is supposed to be helping. Part of the problem is that American culture is strongly motivated by revenge, so most of the people I meet don’t see a problem with giving those punks exactly what they deserve. If they didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have gotten caught. American culture also tends to valorize criminal activity; most styles of popular music celebrate some form of crime, and films and television tend to make law enforcement look ineffective or corrupt. The prison problem seems the natural result of a society based on the idea, “Fuck society!” The leprecauns have their pot of gold again, the natural order has been restored, so let’s free the philosopher! How un-American is that?

The Thin Woman goes on a journey to Angus Og, just as her husband did before, but she takes a different route and meets different people along the way. Well, one person is the same, but their encounters with her are vastly different. The Thin Woman and Angus Og call all the clans of the fairies to their aid. All the old gods (except the Sleepers, of course), all the leprecauns and cluricauns and Shee and anything else, all march together to break the philosopher out of jail. But there are no weapons or hatred or thirst for revenge – this section of the book is called The Happy March. They come singing and dancing, smiling and loving and joyful.

Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale; not heeding the malignant eyes and the cold brows as the sons of Balor looked sidewards. And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass – the awful people of the Fomor . . . and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods. . . .

I’d like to return to the country of the gods. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’m willing to believe that might be it.

I find it difficult to explain precisely what about this book I love so much. It touches my heart in a place that is deeper than words, deeper than conscious thought. Maybe there are some genetic memories at play, these thought patterns echoing in the subconscious bequeathed to me. My face may proclaim the Dutch part of my heritage, but I have a whole clan of redheaded Irishmen behind me as well. I believe that this is why the Celtic myths resonate more strongly with me than the Judeo-Christian ones. I suppressed this feeling for a long time, but Christianity just feels weird and wrong to me. There’s an inexplicable rightness to books like The Crock of Gold, or Byatt’s Ragnarok, that I don’t feel in monotheism. I’m not saying that I’m becoming Druid, or Wiccan, or any of the earth religions, but the belief in one god seems as limiting as believing in none at all.

The primary lesson seems to be one of balance. Thought balanced with belief, struggle balanced with happiness, scarcity balanced with generosity. There are some of the misogynistic stereotypes to be expected from a story a hundred years old, but they’re balanced by equally reductive/destructive stereotypes of men. One of the things that I admire about Norse mythology is that everyone has a ‘heim,’ a home. There is a place where everyone belongs. Celtic myths seem to have this same inclusiveness. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outcast, so an inclusive ethic appeals to me. Christianity tells its followers to put ‘the family of faith’ first; there’s an us/them, believers/damned binary opposition that runs through the center of it. Nature doesn’t have any binaries. There are always exceptions, slippages, creatures in the middle ground. Therefore, I trust faith systems that don’t rely on artificial binaries – God/Devil, good/evil, heaven/hell. Life is more complex and beautiful than that.