The Fiery Thinker
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
Canongate Books, 2011
As long as we are human, we will live in a mythic world. Even after we’ve colonized Mars and cured all disease and streamlined our airport security systems, we will continue to dramatize the same archetypal narratives found in the Vedas, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. We are still battling mythically imposing foes across the seas and in our own societies. And we still need fiction to tell us the truth about ourselves.
In the tradition of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok weaves a lyrical memoir of a childhood during the Second World War into a rich, detailed retelling of Norse myth. And like those profound and beloved stories, the anchor of all the riotous supernal goings-on is a small, intelligent, sensitive child whose imagination will shape the future of the world. Known only by her epithet, the “thin child in wartime” reads her Bible and her Pilgrim’s Progress, but is especially fascinated—if not entirely convinced— by the tales recounted in Dr Wilhelm Wägner’s 1880 Asgard and the Gods (just a few years earlier, Richard Wagner had completed his Ring Cycle operas based on the same legends). Any account of the vast pantheon of Norse divinities, giants, and other diverse spirits must necessarily be part encyclopedia, part adventure story, and Wägner’s Asgard is written accordingly in a tone simultaneously high flown and practical.
The thin child, possessing both the logic of an adult and the ignorance of a child, concludes early on that the stories she hears in church about Christ and lambs and Eden correspond neither to the natural nor human worlds:
And [God] had put the humans in their place and had told them to keep their place and not to eat the knowledge of good and evil. The thin child knew enough fairy stories to know that a prohibition in a story is only there to be broken. The first humans were fated to eat the apple. The dice were loaded against them. The grandfather was pleased with himself. The thin child found no one in this story with whom to sympathize. Except maybe the snake, which had not asked to be made use of as a tempter. The snake wanted simply to coil about in the branches.
Asgard, with its violent creation myth, at least comes closer to the truth about nature’s potential for cruelty and ugliness. Odin, Wili, and We, the first gods, create the heavens and the earth and all their hosts, not in seven days, but with the murder of a giant. “The new gods hacked and laughed”, we are told, as blood “flowed, filled the glass ball with running crimson, and drowned the world”. Here there is no “Let there be light.” The world is made, instead, by dismemberment:
The lakes were made from his sweat, and the trees from his curling hair. Inside the high cavern of his skull, his brains became the rolling clouds. The stars were perhaps wandering sparks from Muspelheim which the gods trapped and fixed under the skull bone. Or maybe they were lights above the bone, glimpsed through slits and boreholes made during the murder.
Unlike the Bible, Asgard also contains a de-creation myth: Ragnarok, or the “Doom of the Gods”, refers to the great battle in which all that was created will be undone, will “c[o]me to an end. A real End. The end.” Having witnessed the terrible, irreversible consequences of war, the thin child rejects the Christian amendment to Ragnarok, which describes “the return of the gods and men to the refurbished green plain of Ida”, preferring the “original end, the dark water over everything”.
Indeed Ragnarok is, like Byatt’s 2009 The Children’s Book, concerned with the way children perceive and incorporate war, which is to them more inconceivable than fairies and enchanted castles, into their daily lives. The thin child—a cipher for Byatt herself—exists between ancient magic and the immediacy of gas masks and air raids. The 20th century’s devastation of Europe can only be comprehended on a mythic scale, which the thin child understands instinctively:
Odin was the god of the wild hunt. […] They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and they never halted; the horns howled in the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past.
Though the gods may be shades of our collective unconscious, that does not make them less real, less powerful, or less destructive. The thin child struggles to reconcile the “good Germans”, the Germanic civilization who recorded these myths, with the present day Germans threatening the lives of millions. War, she understands, is a waking nightmare: “But there are gripping dreams of real terror, more real than the world the dreamer wakes to, thick, suffocating, full of hurt and hurt to come, in which the dreamer is the victim of ineluctable harm.” Like a child in a fairy tale, the thin child in wartime is missing a parent: her golden-haired father, a soldier, is “away”, “in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only existed in books”. And like the ancient gods in those books, he too is crafted from memory and longing.
In the final chapter of Ragnarok, Byatt discusses the use of myths by writers such as Freud, Nietzsche, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and Flaubert. Each age finds what it needs in myths; even a rejection of the mythical is itself a prophesy. Our age, Byatt suggests, is one in which our disregard for myths will be our undoing. Throughout Ragnarok, Byatt emphasizes the tension between the beauty and violence of Asgard, rapturously cataloguing the characters and places in the Norse cosmos, and the refractive, strange topographies they move through. Even the destructive, villainous characters in this ecosystem serve an important purpose; after all, the world was created by a trio of boorish, unruly gods. But the truth of our contemporary world is that we don’t need gods to destroy the Earth; we are doing it ourselves. Byatt writes that:
Almost all the scientists I know think we are bringing about our own extinction, more and more rapidly. […] Clouds of plovers do not rise. Thrushes no longer break snails on stones, and the house sparrow has disappeared from our gardens. […] I saw the death-ship, Naglfar, made of dead men’s nails, as an image for what is now known as the trash vortex, the wheeling collection of indestructible plastic in the Pacific, larger than Texas.
We may think of ourselves as post-post-post-modern, even evolved. But we continue to stumble through our Oedipal complexes and Jungian archetypes and Dooms of the Gods. Loki, the trickster, the chaotic shapeshifter, is everywhere and then gone; Thor’s juvenile anger is rampant. Byatt finds temporary consolation in Richard Wagner’s conception of Loge in the Ring Cycle. Loge, only loosely related to Loki, is “the god of fire and the god of thought”, god of both destruction and order. Byatt muses that, “If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid destruction.” But, like the thin child, she knows that, “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.”
Rachel Abramowitz is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.