Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
A. S. Byatt
Grove Press, 2012
I’ve always felt that the majority of people tend to gravitate towards classical mythology as there stories of choice. The place of the classical epics has been firmly cemented in our educational system for so long now that this shouldn’t really surpise anyone. While I certainly have respected and enjoyed stories grounded in classical myth my heart has always been more firmly entrenched in the cold, harsh world of Norse myth. Where the threat of annihilation weighs heavy on the hearts of the gods, where Odin was pinned to a tree by his own spear in order to gain knowledge, where a great serpent coiled around the Earth, and where sword weilding maidens wait to claim the souls of the valiant fallen. So when Booker award winning author A. S. Byatt penned a book loosely retelling the story of Ragnarok I was completely on board.
Despite its sparse page count Byatt’s rendition of Ragnarok is a powerful piece of prose. Some of that comes from the strength of the story; a tale whose gravitas and power has not been lessened by the inexorable crawl of time. However the beuaty and strength of Byatt’s rendition also comes from her own command of prose as well as her deft interweaving of the Norse Gods’ fall with the loss and fear experienced by a small child during the height of the Second World War. With a disturbing and painful sense of ease Byatt is able both use the story of Ragnarok experienced by the child as both allegory and escape. Ayatt writes in the opening chapter: “The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lived in provisional fear of iminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew.”
In the book the thin child experience the Norse myths through a book called Asgard and the Gods (a real late 19th German translation of the norse myths). Moreover it is in those myths that the thin child finds the spark to her own creativity “The stone giants made her want to write, and a sense of familiarity “She saw their unformed faces, peering at herself from behind the snout of her gas-mask, during air-raid drill.” In many ways, and by the narrators own admission these myths reflect her experiences far better than the Christian religion of her forbears and the darkness, bleak outlook, magic, and mystery of the old Norse stories fuel her imagination and her maker her feel more alive than the religion of her parents. Thus the thin child, with the wisdom that only a child can exhibit, rejects what dulls her sense of life and clings to that which makes her feel more alive and connected to the world around her.
One of the criticisms leveled at some fiction today is that of escapism. “Escapist” literature is often viewed with derision and the notion persists that it serves no valuable role in society. Tolkein argued in his essay “On Fairy Stories” that escapism provides a valuable and essential balm to the trials and pains of the real world; that without this escape our ability to face the world around would be far more difficult than it is. In a similar way Byatt’s Ragnarok looks at myth, at a rejection of the conventional during a time of great fear, the willingness to embrace imagination and creativity and reveals them not just as being important but as an essential aspect of survival.
At the same time Ragnarok embraces a notion of wistfulness and sadness. The novel asks, and answers, the question of what happens when the source of that fear goes away? What happens to that place of creativity, imagination, and refuge when the source of the fear disappears? In her afterward Byatt discusses that Ragnarok and its antagonist (Loki) is an examination of Chaos and its unspotabble nature and not a true allegory. However, I think it might be safer to say that Ragnarok isn’t quite the allegory we think it is. Sure the novel draws paralells between World War II and Ragnarok but World War II is ancillary to the story Byatt’s novel tells. It isn’t about World War II it’s about childhood’s end.