Children Into Swans by Jan Beveridge

Children Into SwansTitle: Children Into Swans
Author: Jan Beveridge
Published: 15 October 2014
Publisher: McGill-Queens University Press
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: non-fiction, literary studies
Rating: 5/10

European fairytales are full of outlandish stories and tropes that have now become so commonplace that few question their many oddities. Children Into Swans aims to explore the origins of the fantasies we often find in these stories – creatures like ogres, giants and trolls, tropes such as triads, spells and prophecies, and plots involving humans turning into animals or being led into beautiful parallel worlds where time moves at a different pace.

The simple answer is that all these things and more existed in older stories. Author Jan Beveridge is particularly interested in Celtic and Norse mythology and folklore, so this book provides a run-down of those stories, and their connections to pre-Christian cultures.

And that’s all there is to it really. The blurb advertises a discussion of the link between the pagan world and fairy tale, but that doesn’t go much deeper than Beveridge confirming that fairy tales were borne of older stories from pre-Christian cultures. Most of the book is spent describing these stories, while discussion of actual religious and cultural practices is relegated to a few chapters on festival days, like Samain or Midsummer. Quite often, Beveridge shies away from discussions on pagan practices, with statements like:

it is not productive or even possible to try to define the role of the elves in pagan beliefs

Usually, associating the stories of the gods in mythology with actual religious beliefs is not useful, since so little evidence of pre-Christian religion remains.

There is no knowing what obscure winter rite or concept of dark powers is reflected in the Midwinter stories, or where the prevailing theme of encounters with trolls, giants, ghosts, and monsters on Christmas Eve came from.

Having decided to tread carefully when talking about pagan religious practices, Beveridge ends up giving many more examples of Christianised folklore, such as elves and fairies who can’t enter churches, curses that are broken through baptism, or the death of old mythical worlds in the face of Christian belief.

The way this information is presented is somewhat amateurish. The book is composed largely of lists of facts and examples in paragraph form. A topic is identified – eg. humans making bargains with fairies, or fairies and babies – and Beveridge briefly describes its qualities and/or the way it manifests in stories. Something like this:

Conditions of any bargain with the fairies were hard. From time to time, a human was forced into a promise that resulted in losing an only son or first-born child to them, which was another way they could take a human child. One thing that fairies appeared especially to care about was honour in keeping to a bargain; a promise to a fairy had a sanctity about it like a sacred oath.

Or this:

There are a great many folk tales of newborn babies, not yet baptized, who are stolen and replaced in their cradles with weak and starving fairy children called changelings, which stay small, sickly, and deformed. There are also stories of healthy young mothers taken away from their families to attend upon fairies who require the care of a mortal midwife and human milk for their babies. A woman who helps the fairies in this way may be given a little bag with instructions not to open it until she returns home. Then she finds it is full of fairy gold, and the family can live on that until the end of their days.

Occasionally, the entire text of a story is presented as an example of a creature or trope, but this often seems pretty random. She seldom states why she chooses to offer a particular story to illustrate one idea but not another, since there are always multiple options. It could simply be that the stories printed in full are her favourites. Whatever the case, the inclusion of these stories is one of the better things about this book, but they’re still pitifully wasted in that Beveridge never offers a close reading of them. She just states what trope will be found in the story, gives us the text, and then carries on listing stuff. There is so much more in each of these stories than whatever trope they’re meant to illustrate, but if you want to get any more from them, you’ll have to do your own reading and research.

On the whole, Beveridge comes off as a rather timid academic. It’s not just that she doesn’t do offer close readings of key texts; she almost never offers her own conclusions, period. She just lays the facts before us, seldom providing deeper insights or interpretations. When she does, she usually pulls some uninspired quote from another writer, or makes some forgettably generic statement, often to conclude a chapter.

All this makes it pretty tedious to read. There’s nothing demanding about it, but after even a short chapter listing the characteristics of giants, household spirits, or whatever, your mind just starts to wander. It’d actually be so much more enjoyable to read a more complex text that explores these ideas in greater depth because then you’d have something to engage with, rather then just facing an onslaught of basic information.

Reservations aside, however, this book isn’t without merit. Beveridge might not have drawn any of her own conclusions or offered in-depth readings, but she has collected a wealth of basic information on Celtic and Norse folklore and mythology. Unless you’re already very well-acquainted with the topic, it’s impossible not to pick up at least a few interesting tidbits or get a feel for how old and influential these ideas are. Beveridge also notes that these stories influenced Tolkien, and I enjoyed seeing just how much LOTR and The Hobbit borrows from Celtic and Norse mythology. It’s also easy to see that these stories still form the building blocks of some contemporary fantasy.

Now that I think about it, that’s the appeal of this book – trivia. It’s not a discussion, but a collection of teeny snippets of information. It reads like a series of Wikipedia pages, but Wikipedia pages have their uses. I would never read this cover to cover again, but I would certainly re-read a specific chapter as an introduction to a particular topic, before digging deeper. If you’re looking for a reference work or introductory text, this might be a good choice, although personally I’d take a good look at other options first.

Review of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Title: Ragnarok
Author: A.S. Byatt
Series: Canongate Myths
Published: First published 6 September 2011 by Canongate. This edition published 1 February
Publisher: Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
Genre: mythology
My Rating: 9/10

Ragnarok is not quite the story that the blurb of my edition implies – a modern retelling of a Norse myth featuring a child living in the English countryside during World War Two. Rather, it is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young child reading and re-reading Asgard and the Gods, endlessly fascinated by its stories. The child – known only as “the thin child” – is not the focus of this book, but rather a means for Byatt to write for her “childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods”. In this manner, Byatt not only relates a set of rich, mysterious and beautiful mythical stories, but leads the reader through the musings about reading, storytelling, mythology and religion that occupy her philosophical young protagonist.

The thin child is a classic book lover and fantasy fan:

She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains, and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark.

She frequently reads late at night, under the covers with a torch, or in the sliver of light from her bedroom doorway. When we dive into the pages of Asgard and the Gods with her, we aren’t given the text of the book itself, but a rewritten version that recreates for us the same sense of awe that the thin child experiences. The feel of Ragnarok is partly a product of the Norse myths themselves, but mostly an effect of Byatt’s writing – it’s lush and vivid, bringing to life a bizarre world in which humans play no real part (they’re created after dwarves and elves and then promptly ignored). She also chooses to hold true to the style in which the myths were told. Most of the other authors who wrote for the Canongate Myths series chose “to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies”. Byatt however, writes something more akin to what she calls “raw myth”:

Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology […]. They have attributes – Hera and Frigg are essentially jealous, Thor is violent, Mars is warlike, Baldur is beautiful and gentle, Diana of Ephesus is fertile and virginal.

At the beginning we’re told of Yggdrasil, the World Ash and Rándrasil, the Sea-Tree. The thin child ponders the question of how something came from nothing, leading us to the Norse creation myth, wherein a giant is born from chaos and is later slain by the first gods, who dismember his body and use it to create the heavens and the earth. Later we learn about Asgard, home of the gods, and encounter the divinities themselves. There’s Odin, the sinister, damaged god who lost an eye drinking magical knowledge from a fountain. The thin child’s favourite character is Loki, “a being who was neither this nor that”, a trickster who alone among the gods possessed the ability to change his shape and even his sex. She admires his humour and wit, and finds his changeable shapes and cleverness attractive.

Byatt relates the stories that eventually lead up to Ragnarök, which “means the darkening of the Regin, i.e. of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word Rök to mean Judgement, i.e. of the gods’”. The thin child likes Ragnarök because it a real, bloody ending not a cyclical one, and unlike the Christian stories, it’s not humans who are judged but the gods themselves. They are flawed and stupid in a disturbingly familiar human way – they “know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world”.

In reading Asgard and the Gods, the thin child contemplates the tropes of storytelling – the way prohibitions are there to be broken (like one God gave to Adam and Eve), the recurrence of the number three, the way the youngest of three children is always the most important, and how in every story something must go wrong and not even the gods are powerful enough to stop it. She notes how myth differs from the fairytales, and how “[t]hey cannot be explained and do not explain” but haunt her nevertheless “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive”.

The thin child’s fascination with myth means that it becomes intertwined with the way she thinks about her own life. Her father – who’s been away at war for years – is portrayed as a mythical figure, fighting battles in the air in places that, for the thin child, exist only in books. She remembers him as having “red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god”. At church, she can’t help but compare the Norse myths to the Christian stories, and comes to the realisation that Christianity too, is a set of man-made myths, only far less interesting than the Norse ones. Consequently, she can’t believe in either, even if she can take pleasure in their stories. A particularly interesting illustration in Asgard and the Gods, when seen in relation to the landscape of her home, gives her an idea of how myths are created:

The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log, seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing branch could be a snake, complete with shining eyes and flickering forked tongue. This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from.

In a shadow of the way Byatt loved Asgard and the Gods, her Ragnarok also gave me “an intense, uncanny pleasure”. She very beautifully achieves her aim of recreating a sense of the profound reading experience from her childhood. Ragnarok is an exquisite book that I feel I could re-read multiple times, savouring the details and letting myself be as enchanted as Byatt was. The eARC I received for this review will not be sufficient – this is a book I need to have in hardcover to grace my shelf for years.

Buy a copy of Ragnarok at The Book Depository