Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt
Canongate, New York, 2011
From my local library. Read as part of Once Upon A Time VI.
Using her own experiences in World War Two as a template, A.S. Byatt retells the Norse myth about the end of the world.
As bombs begin to rain down on England a “thin child” is evacuated to the countryside. The child tries to make sense of the world around her, of the difference between the dark, fearful time she experiences and the peace and love preached in church. She misses her father, knowing he is flying somewhere over Africa.
The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lives in provisional fear of imminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew. The English country world did not end, as many others did, was not overrun nor battered into mud by armies. But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it… From page 4.
Then the child is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of ancient Norse myths written by Wilhelm Wagner, and she began to understand. These fascinating, terrifying stories of love, betrayal and revenge help fill in the missing parts of the world. They seem real and vital, much more real than what adults are telling of the world.
I’ve said it before, A.S. Byatt is a master story-teller. She has taken the bitter, violent tales of Thor and Odin, Loki and Balder and given them new life through the eyes of the thin child. By doing so she renews them for those of us who remember them from childhood or school. Her language turns dark, dangerous things into creatures of great beauty, even the snake Jörmungandr, a voracious monster who ends up encircling the world, is at times beautiful. Between sections of myth, the “thin child” begins to find ways to bring the “real” world and the world of the Gods together, and have it make sense.
Byatt connects the myth of the end of the Gods to the horrors of war. We come to know something of the inner life of a small child living in war-time, of the constant fear that surrounds her, of her questioning.
But the author also connects the myth to the loss and devastation we bring to our world, our home planet. She tells of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and all the things that live in and on her, even under her. She even adds the tale of Rándrasil, a huge kelp tree, and the rich sea gardens that lie at her feet. These passages, filled with a multitude of plants and animals, are an inventory of loss. The End of the Gods? Byatt shows us the possible end of so much more.
It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe. As I read this small book I wanted to hear the words, to be read to. Maybe someone has created an audio version. Regardless, this is a book I will add to my personal library.