“The book became a passion.”
A S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is a rather strange book. As a retelling of the myths of the Norse gods, it’s somewhat satisfactory; but what drew me in is that really at heart it’s not a book about gods but a book about reading. (Not surprisingly since writing about readers and writers is Byatt’s metier.) And not a book about reading in general; rather, it is the account of a particular reader and a particular book at a particular moment in history. And that relationship between reader, book, and historical moment, is rather magical.
The nameless protagonist, known only as the “thin child”, is an evacuee in England during the Second World War. She and her mother have gone to the countryside while her father is off fighting somewhere in Africa, she thinks. Her beloved book, Asgard and the Gods, is not a book for children but a scholarly retelling of the myths of the Norse/German gods that she got from her mother, who is an academic. The unnamed thin girl—who seems rather clearly to be a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Byatt herself— finds these stories much more engaging than the stories of Jesus she hears at church (though not, seemingly, from her parents). The myths live and breathe and speak to her soul in very particular ways.
The narrative alternates between short passages about the girl, about her life, and about what it is that she thinks about the book. And in between there are the retellings of the myths themselves. But these retellings…. what are they? Are they excerpts from the book she is reading? No. It seems, to me that they are not meant to be taken for excerpts but are instead retellings filtered through her consciousness, her internal narrations embellished curiously by a consciousness that is fascinated by the natural world of pastoral England in which she is immersed. There are gorgeous passages filled with details of natural history, of plants and animals and marine life and of tectonic and geologic forces, and those seem to come from the girl and not from the book.
A major theme in the story is how the myths of the Norse gods furnish her imagination, her soul, with something that she needs during the disorienting horrors of the war. The story of the destruction of the world gives a shape to her fears and allows her to confront the nameless dread that she somehow absorbs from the adults around her:
“The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lived in provisional fear of imminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew. . . . The thin child felt a despair she did not know she felt.”
Books not only shape her internal world and give her tools to confront the horrors of the age, they also mediate her relationship with her distant mother, who is not a very maternal person, but who does share the world of literature with her daughter.
“The thin child learned to read very early. Her mother was more real, and kinder, when it was a question of grouped letters on the page.”
It seems more than a little significant that although the book details Nordic legends, the book itself is German. We see the thin child, who has a child’s understanding of things, and almost no context, puzzling over the connection between her beloved book of stories and the enemy who terrorizes both her waking and her sleeping:
“The book was full of immensely detailed, mysterious steel engravings of wolves and wild waters, apparitions and floating women. It was an academic book, and had in fact been used by her mother as a crib for exams in Old Icelandic and Ancient Norse. It was, however, German. It was adapted from the work of Dr W. Wägner.”
“She was puzzled by the idea of the Germans. She had dreams there were Germans under her bed, who, having cast her parents into a green pit in a dark wood, were sawing down the legs of her bed to reach her and destroy her. Who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky?”
Myths give shape to her fears. They work deeply and subconsciously, she’s not even sure why the stories speak to her as they do. But the book’s meaning goes beyond the war and the fear. And to me that’s where the magic of Byatt’s narrative lies; not in the story of the end of the world, but in the enchantment of the world as it is, the story with a beginning, and a middle as well as an end. It is the thin child as storyteller, the book as catalyst to her imagination, and the way the child is drawn to the story as a moth to a flame.
“Bunyan’s tale had a clear message and meaning. Not so, Asgard and the Gods. That book was an account of a mystery, of how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A read End. The end.”
“The stone giants made her want to write.” “The thin child thought that these stories— the sweet cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, we both human make-ups like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked.
But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.”
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Byatt’s retelling of the story of creation echoes Genesis and Asgard and the Gods, but it also has a lot that has obviously come from the child’s school lesson and reading in other areas:
“In the beginning was the tree. The stone ball rushed through emptiness. Under the crust was fire. Rocks boiled, gasses seethed. Blebs burst through the crust. Dense salt water clung to the rolling ball. Slime slid on it and in the slime shapes shifted. Any point on a ball is the centre and the tree was at the centre. It held the world together, in the air, in the earth, in the light, in the dark, in the mind.”
It’s mythic, but it’s also got a scientific awareness of geological activity. It’s got that bit of geometry: “any point on a ball is the centre,” but then shifts back to the mythic: “the tree is at the centre.”
What also intrigues me is the very careful naturalist’s eye which infuses the descriptions of the world of the Norse gods. Here’s a bit from a bit further on about Yggdrasil:
“The tree ate and was eaten, fed and was fed on. It’s vast underground mesh and highway of roots was infested and swathed by threads of fungus, which fed on the roots, wormed their way into the cells themselves and sucked out life. Only occasionally did these thriving thread-creatures push up through the forest floor, or through the bark, to make mushrooms or toadstools, scarlet and leathery, with white protrusions on the bark itself. Or they rose on their own stalks and made puffballs, which burst and spread spores like smoke. They fed on the tree but they also carried food to the tree, fine fragments to be raised in the pillar of water.”
It goes on to describe worms and spiders and ants and aphids and tree frogs, the entire delightful ecosystem of Yggdrasil.
+ + +
But it was the chapter about Jörmungandr, the Midgaard Serpent, Loki’s daughter, that sold me on this book. I went from being intrigued by the premise to loving the book and a certainty that I must own a copy, having a copy borrowed from the library was insufficient. After Odin throws her into the ocean Jörmungandr swims and plays and explores. There are plentiful lush descriptions of flora and fauna. And Loki the shape shifter plays with his daughter in a delightful way:
“She was a land-beast, reared in the Iron Wood; she had played in dark green shadows, coiling in dust. She began to learn saltwater, feeling a new lightness in her muscles, floating lazily to the surfac, like silver, like an elver, where the light caught her wet skin. At first she stayed in the shallows, breathing shore air through her blood-red nostrils, making her way through rock pools, sliding along the tidelines, snapping up crabs, limpets and oysters, cracking open razor-fish with her sharp fangs, flicking out the succulent flesh with her forked tongue. She took pleasure in detecting disguise. She noticed the scuttle of hermit crabs, crouching in abandoned shells.”
Then there’s the playful relationship with her father, the substitutionary fantasy of a girl whose father is away at war and who might not come back, imagining what kind of relationship she wishes she might have?
“For a moment she thought this was one-eyed Odin, come to torment her, and she reared her head back to strike. Then he turned and peered at her from under his brim, and she saw that it was Loki the dissembler, Loki the quick-wittted, Loki her father whose form was hard to remember, even for her, since it changed subtly not only from day to day but from moment to moment. He raised his hat, and his bright curls sprang out. He grinned.
“Well met, daughter. I see you grow, you prosper.”
She coiled herself round his naked ankles. She asked why he was there. He said he had come to see how she did. And to study the wild waves. Whether there was a form in their formlessness. They came in, one after another, in a regular swell. But the water in them was wild, the eddies streamed every which way. Was there an order in the foam? The snake said that it played like needles on her skin, and that that was a delight. The demigod squatted down beside her and made a line of wet pebbles and translucent rainbow shells. He said he had a project to map the shore line. Not in great regular half-moons as gods and men might draw this bay; to make a haven for dragon-ships. But small, stone by stone, rivulet by rivulet, promontory by promontory, even as small as these fingers, even as fine as a fingernail. A map for sand-fleas and sand-eels, for everything hangs together, and the world may be destroyed by too much attention, or too little care, towards a sand-eel, for example. “Therefore,” said Loki, the mocker, to the snake his daughter, “we need to know everything, or at least as much as we can. The gods have secret runes to help in the hunt, or give victory in battle. They hammer, they slash. They do not study. I study. I know.” He kicked aside his brief barrier, into the platelets of water. He listened with his fingertips, scraped away sand, tugged out a bristling lugworm, black and jerking, which he offered to his daughter, who sucked it in.” Loki, too, is fascinated by the natural world. And I love this idea of the attention to scale, the way the maps don’t trace the intimate details of the local, the details the girl notices when she goes to the shore. And the shape-shifting game, the way the shape shifting of the school of mackerel echoes Loki’s manifold shifting, never-the-same shape. And the joy of hide and seek, of disguise and penetrating the disguise, the naturalist at play in the sea shore, the father and daughter togetherness. Also, Loki as maker, as student, as craftsman and playmate. ”Where a hook was impossibly intricate and manifold she rose to the surface to greet the fisher in his spray-streaked cloak. His nets were tied in complicated knots unlike any others; she would swim in huge circles round his boat, waiting for his call, and then rise, streaming wet, and laughing as snakes laugh.
They played a game of disguise and recognition. “Catch me,” he said, and vanished, leaving the dissolving shadow of his cloak against the blue sky. He was hard to find when he was a mackerel, a single, insignificant mackerel, away from the shoal. A mackerel’s skin is a vanishing trick. Along its sleekness are lines of water ripples, imitating sun and shadows, cloud light and moonlight dropping through thick water, imitating trailing weed and rushing waves flickering as the mirror-scales twist. He was there, this visibly invisible fish, and when she made a dash he was a patch of daylight, or nightlight, staining the water only, not solid. He led her to the shoals of mackerel, shimmering and speeding, and changed himself to a spearfish, a swordfish, to join the snake in the pursuit. The rushing shoal was like an immense single creature, huge-bellied, boiling, twisting and turning, green and pink and indigo and steely. The snake and the shapeshifter herded the wild fish for the sheer pleasure of the changing shapes of the turmoil. Then they plunged in, again and again, dividing the entity into spinning segments, catching at stragglers, supping them up, rushing the wheeling flank and swallowing the whole of it. The snake was always hungry because she was always growing.”
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Ironically, what I liked least about Ragnarok is the chapter entitled “Ragnarok” that tells the story of the end of the world. It’s bleak and doesn’t speak to me at all. It also feels most heavy-handed, where Byatt is most pushing an agenda and forcing the narrative into a message about Byatt the adult— as opposed to the child— haunted by 21st century environmentalist concerns. It feels like the narrative moves away from the child’s concerns and I started to lose interest. But the ending of the story, The Thin Child in Peacetime, when the war is over and the child and her family move back to the city, is bittersweet. There is a garden, a wonderful garden, but there is also a dull “dailyness” and the child’s mother never really recovers.
The final section of the book, it feels like an epilogue or author’s note, is titled “Thoughts on Myths” and I really wish it hadn’t been included. The charm of the book is that while there is an adult consciousness shaping the story, it is mediated by the child’s as indirect narrator. Where Byatt the writer takes over to talk about her theories of myth, it’s altogether too self-conscious and it’s Byatt the critic turning her critical eye on her own work, that takes too much away from the story of the reader and the book and tries to make it into something too socially-conscious for my taste. I’d prefer there to be some mystery for the reader to uncover on her own rather than have the narrator feed me the moral of the story. As in an Aesop’s fable, I want to take a marker and blot out the fable’s moral so I can pencil in my own.
But then I go back and re-read the sections about Loki and totally forgive all the moralizing.