BOOK REVIEW: RAGNAROK
The book is A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: the end of the gods (1) and I highly recommend it. A labour of love, this piece is part review, part celebration, and part reflection.
Ragnarok is sparely and powerfully written. Above all, it shows a people held in the trance of their own dominant myth. Prediction is predestination. What must be, must be.
“This, they thought, was how it would be when the Fimbulwinter came. The fat sun was dull red, sullen, like embers. She gave little light, and what there was was ruddy or bloody. They longed in their bones and their brains for clear light, for a warm wind, for buds, for green leaves. The winter stretched into another year, and another. The seas froze: icebergs clashed by the coasts, and floated into the bays. This was, they began to understand, not a likeness of the Fimbulwinter, but the thing itself. Wind time, Wolf time, before the world breaks up.”
For the gods, it is a little different. They are better situated, and have some apparent agency. Odin can gather information and consider options. But Asgard is weakening; the health of the world tree is compromised; there is paralysis and decay.
“In Asgard the sheen on the gold was dulled, but the magic boar could still be eaten at night and reborn for the next feast. Yggdrasil was shaking all over, leaves were falling, branches were wilting, but the tree still stood. Odin went down to the well at its roots and spoke to Mimir’s head under the black ruffled water. No one ever knew what he learned, but he came back set and cold. They waited. They did not act, they did not think, perhaps could not think. Idun lay, curled in her wolfskin. The apples of youth were withered and puckered.”
In the end, all they can do is to continue what they have been doing all along, which is to follow the course that confirms their fate, in the guise of an attempt to resist it. They ride out for their last battle, already compromised and doomed.
“The gods went over the bridge, Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that linked Asgard and Midgard. They were damaged already, when they set out. Tyr had lost his arm to the wolf, Odin his eye to Mimir, Freyer had given away his magic sword, Thor’s wife, Sif, had seen all her magical hair fall away from her bald head. Thor himself, according to some poets, had lost the hammer he had thrown after the Midgard-serpent. Baldur had lost his life. There are two ways, in stories, of winning battles – to be supremely strong, or to be a gallant forlorn hope. The Ases were neither. They were brave and tarnished. Yggdrasil drooped. Its leaves hung and flapped. Its roots were shrinking. … Black birds spun away from the branches into a red sky.” The outcome is the expected one, as everyone had known it would be.
Myths are different from fairy tales, and both are different from stories about real people or ‘imaginary real people’, according to the author. “The thin child, reading and re-reading the tales, neither loved nor hated the people in them – they were not ‘characters’ into whose doings she could insert her imagination. As a reader, she was a solemn, occasionally troubled, occasionally gleeful onlooker. But she almost made an exception of Loki. Alone among all these beings he had humour and wit. His changeable shapes were attractive. His cleverness had charm. He made her uneasy, but she had feelings about him, whereas the others, Odin, Thor, Baldur the beautiful were as they were, their shapes set. Wise, strong, lovely.”
In Byatt’s rendition, there are no new heaven and earth to follow the destruction. This is because she first encountered the story in a version that dropped this as a late Christian interpolation, imposing redemption where it did not belong. Yet it was her childhood favourite, and Byatt brings her childhood self into the book as “the thin child”. It is war time, in Yorkshire. She knows that the story is a Viking one, and that Yorkshire was once a Viking place. So, “these are her stories”. Her book is a translation from a German one, so it talks about the old Germanic world with its secrets and wonders. She asks herself, “who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky?” She thinks of the latter as Odin’s wild riders. She lives in fear that her own father, another flier, will never come home. Indeed, she is certain of it – though he does eventually, “his red-gold hair shining, gold wings on his tunic, his arms out to hold her as she leaped at him”. The old Ragnarok story, perhaps because of its pessimism, has helped her through World War II.
Ragnarok: the end of the gods was published in 2011, when the historical context had changed again. Byatt’s adult fascination with Loki is if anything greater than before. She says:
“There are no altars to Loki, no standing stones, he had no cult. In myths he was a third of the trio Odin, Hodur, Loki. In myths, the most important comes first of three. But in fairy tales and folklore, where these gods also play their parts, the rule of three is different; the important player is the third, the youngest son, Loki.”
“When I came to write this tale I realised that Loki was interested in Chaos – his stories contain flames and waterfalls, the formless things inside which chaos theorists perceive order inside disorder. He is interested in the order in destruction and the destruction in order. If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration.”
In a section of Thoughts on myths at the end of her book, Byatt says: “If you write a version of Ragnarok in the 21st century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.” She muses about the humanness of the Norse gods. “They know Ragnarok 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 … Loki is the only one who is clever and Loki is wayward and irresponsible and mocking.”
The great Norse myth offers no salvation, and nor does A.S. Byatt. She ends with the sentence: “As it is the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.” And yet … she does show how we can see beyond our myths. The imagination is bigger than any of them. It is creative and flexible. It is subtle, shifting, multi-perspectival and articulate. For me, an unstated hope lies in the work itself.
(1) Byatt, A. S. Ragnarok: the end of the gods Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011