- Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
- Grove Press, 192 pp.
A.S. Byatt’s Norse Apocalypse
Some useful, if unorthodox, comparisons can be made between Guillermo del Toro’s 2008 film Pan’s Labyrinth and A.S. Byatt’s new not-quite-a-novel Ragnarok: The End of Gods. Both works blend realistic stories of the plight of children during wartime with dense, intricately woven mythologies. Like del Toro’s magical-surrealist film, Byatt’s story follows a little girl in England during WWII as she struggles simultaneously to understand and to elude the violent realities of her life. After discovering the book Asgard and the Gods, Byatt’s progatonist, the thin child, plunges into the world of Norse mythology: “The book became a passion.” Both stories dwell on the way that the very real terrors that surround the characters are both worse than those in fairy tales and in direct conflict with a mainstream mythos of forgiveness and love. Also, both stories elaborate on the premise that fantasy can provide sensitive humans with not only an escape from the sometimes “unreal” violence that surrounds them but also a way of understanding it—where it comes from, what it signifies, and how it all, finally, must end.
The thin child is initially drawn into the myths through a rejection of Christianity and a fascination with the dense, violent stories from a culture with which the thin child both identifies and sees herself at war. At night, “She had dreams that 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.” Confronting the terrifying reality of her parents’ vulnerability, the thin child turns to Germanic legends in an attempt to capture the reality of wartime inside her imagination, to make sense of the world through stories: “Who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky?” Perhaps more importantly, the child finds a foothold in the stories when she comes to think of the Norse myths as her own: “The book also said that these stories belonged to ‘Nordic’ peoples, Norwegians, Danes, and Icelanders. The thin child was, in England, a northerner. The family came from land invaded and settled by Vikings. These were her stories.”
Reading these violent mythological stories and literally retelling them to the reader, the author/narrator/thin child—Byatt clearly blurs the line between these—explores a world of narrative previously unknown to her. Drawn to the glamour and strangeness, the heights of Sturm und Drang, the thin child finds these new/old stories compelling and meaningful. Byatt uses these stories from Norse mythology to wrap her thin child in tales about what holds the world together and what will ultimately lead to its unraveling. Obsessed with the idea of apocalypse, the child whose world is on the verge of unwinding takes comfort in the fantastic tales of sea serpents and ravenous wolves, tortured demi-gods and Yggdrasil—the tree that holds the world in its branches. The thin child finds a way to live in these stories, which vividly reflect the terrors, uncertainties, and vicissitudes of life in a way that both “the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild” Jesus and “the barbaric sacrificial gloating” Old Testament deity fail to do. Byatt subtly layers her exploration of these fascinating and complex stories with references to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Rejecting Christian’s journey for her own in a world where there is no clear path from point A to point B, where monsters lurk behind national borders and children carry gas masks with their lunch pails, the thin child finds that the story of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, offers some comfort.
At its best, Byatt’s work is a meditation on the gods, what they mean and what they offer us: “The words men used to describe the gods were the words they used for fetters or bonds, things which held the world together, within bounds, preventing the breakout of chaos and disorder.” Byatt marvelously describes the way in which the Norse world is tenuously held together. Jormungandr, a colossal serpent, grows so large through her roaming and ravening in the world’s oceans that eventually she meets her own tail and bites it, coming to rest on the ocean floor as an anguine belt holding the world fast in her coils. Frigg is a massive wolf whose voraciousness provokes the gods into trapping him. The father of both these creatures is the demi-god Loki, whose obsession with chaos and disorder contends furiously and insidiously throughout the myths with the primary pantheon’s efforts to produce order, make laws, and control the uncontrollable. Through such stories, in Byatt’s telling, the Norse myth makers envision the world as hovering on the edge of a catastrophic slide into total destruction. On the day when the great serpent lets go of her tail, Frigg slips his bounds, and the trickster god Loki is freed from his prison, the gods of order and laws will face their twilight. As go the gods—the human source of metaphor and intelligibility in an unintelligibly violent world, so go the rest of us.
Unfortunately, though perhaps intentionally, Ragnarok suffers from a lack of cohesiveness. Where Byatt might have bound the thin child’s story tightly to vivid evocations of monstrous bargains and colossal trees, she chooses instead merely to drape these retellings over a vision of modern life. The Norse gods, with all their destructive energy, leave her thin child unscathed. In this way, Ragnarok compares unfavorably to Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro engages legends that, though entirely of his own creepy concoction, are equally dense and straddle just as effectively the line between sanity and psychic dissolution, realist fatalism and fantasy escapism, fascism and fiction. Byatt, on the other hand, seems less interested in weaving a story in which these old gods might truly be brought to bear on the psychic reality of the thin child protagonist and more in relating the childhood experience of simply discovering them. The beauty of Byatt’s writing is undeniable, but the story loses something through its overreliance on the myths themselves to generate drama that could otherwise come from the tension between order and chaos implicit in the child’s life in wartime.