I just finished rereading the book Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice. It’s a collection of tales from A. S. Byatt. Yes, the author of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and Possession - both of which, incidentally, I’ve written about here at Mythography.
One story, provocatively called “A Lamia in the Cévennes”, caught my attention. For many reasons. Perhaps the most relevant is that it features a modern interpretation of mythology. As the title suggests, a Lamia makes an appearance in this tale. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start with a bit of a summary of the story.
Our protagonist in “A Lamia in the Cévennes” is a man named Bernard Lycett-Kean. He is a somewhat disillusioned British painter who relocates to France. Here he becomes quite obsessed with capturing colors, in particular a specific shade of blue :
“It was a recalcitrant blue, a blue that asked to be painted by David Hockney and only by David Hockney.”
Bernard found this alluring blue reflected in the swimming pool he has constructed. But this is not all he finds in the shimmering waters. Soon after taking some rather unorthodox measures to clear up a particularly nasty algae infestation, he notices yet another strange presence in his pool. Here is how A. S. Byatt describes the encounter :
“Sometimes he swam at night, and it was at night that he first definitely saw the snake, only for a few moments, after he had switched on the underwater lights, which made the water look like turquoise milk. And there under the milk was something very large, something coiled in two intertwined figures of eight and like no snake he had ever seen, a velvety-black, it seemed, with long bars of crimson and peacock-eyed spots, gold, green, blue, mixed with silver moonshapes, all of which appeared to dim and brighten and breathe under the deep water.”
The author goes on to describe the remarkable creature inhabiting Bernard’s pool. In addition to her luxuriant coils and vibrant colors, this serpent also has human eyes (fringed with flirtatious eyelashes), human teeth (pearly and perfect), and despite a decidedly forked tongue, can speak. She says the following to Bernard :
” ‘I am not entirely a snake. I am an enchanted spirit, a Lamia. If you will kiss my mouth, I will become a most beautiful woman, and if you will marry me, I will be eternally faithful and gain an immortal soul. I will also bring you power, and riches, and knowledge you never dreamed of. But you must have faith in me.’ ”
The creature clearly identifies herself as a mythical being. She even refers to herself as a Lamia. Now, the Lamia was one of the many monsters of Greek mythology. According to the myth, Lamia was one of the numerous loves of Zeus. For this, she was punished by Hera, the wife of the notoriously amorous ruler of the Olympian gods. In this version, Lamia was once beautiful, but was transformed into a monster.
We then learn that “Bernard liked snakes but he did not like women.” It’s not surprising that he is put off by her hybrid appearance, which is after all a disconcerting clash of not quite human and not quite serpent. He is nonetheless intrigued by the creature inhabiting his swimming pool. Bernard’s response is that of an artist - he wants only to paint her, to depict the myriad colors of her scales that flash, tantalizingly, in the water.
In addition, the story has an expected reference to Keats and his famous poem, Lamia. It is this poem, more than Greek mythology, that provides an evocative and enduring image of this serpent woman, and surely must have influenced A. S. Byatt’s description. I’ve quoted this excerpt on the page at Mythography devoted to the Lamia, but it’s worth repeating :
“She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries-
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?”
(John Keats, Lamia)
At any rate, Bernard keeps his companion captive in the swimming pool with the vague suggestion that he could, possibly, grant her wish and fulfill her desires to be made a woman. However, it is clear from what I’ve revealed so far that he really isn’t interested in her as anything else than an artistic subject. Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say for now. You will just have to read the rest of the story yourself to see how it ends, since I’m not in the habit of giving spoilers about books if at possible.