Retelling a great myth is like performing a famous piece of music: between faithfulness to the familiar score and personal interpretation of it lie many risks and choices. Between the worldview of a Norse skald, or poet, and that of a writer ten or fifteen centuries later, the scope for risks and choices is immense. Ragnarök, A S Byatt’s contribution to the Canongate Myths series, is a brilliant, highly intelligent, fiercely personal rendition of the Scandinavian mythology. Its personal element has particular resonance for me because, like A S Byatt, I was a child during the Second World War. I, too, read the Norse myths, and like her I found they made sense of the strange world we were growing up in. But California was a long way from the north of England, and the versions of the story I knew were very different from hers. She read the translation of Wägner’s scholarly edition; I read Padraic Colum’s, written principally for younger readers. Colum gave the often incoherent material narrative shape, humanised its brutality to some extent, brought out its harsh humour, and told it in fine, clear prose. Byatt was dealing with something nearer the raw material. But we were both reading a story that moved inexorably through war towards doom.
more from Ursula K Le Guin at Literary Review here.