Monday, 7 November 2011

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

This is a book of lists and names. In Norse mythology, everything has got a name, from the World Ash (Yggdrasil) to the magical rope, Gleipnir (fashioned by the dark elves from six impossibilities such as the sound of cats' footfalls and bird's spittle) that bound the Fenris wolf. At the start the author points out that there is no standard spelling for names, so she won't apologise for using variants, and I won't either. Lists and names are vital, of course, in mythologies, establishing the order of the world and demonstrating dominion over it,  and as the beginning of the Norse world was marked by the naming of things, so is the thin child's in this book, as she moves from Sheffield to the country at the onset of World War II, discovering and cataloguing her new environment. Reading her bird and flower guides alongside her copy of Asgard and the Gods, she ponders Frigg's journey through the world asking every creature to promise not to harm her son Baldur:
She had bird books and flower books, the thin child, and noted them all, tree sparrow, bullfinch, song thrush, lapwing, linnet, wren. They ate and were eaten, it was true, they faded and vanished as the earth turned, but they came back at the solstice, and always would, whereas Baldur was doomed to die, for all the promises. If her father did not come back, he would never come back. [...]
The goddess called everything, everything, to promise not to harm her son. Yet the shape of the story means that he must be harmed.
For the thin child, the Wild Hunt still traverses the sky, in the form of Nazi bombers, and her father has gone to fight. The story of Ragnarök becomes her protection against the horrors of war, as Byatt put it, a counter-myth, that includes the possibility of renewal and regeneration. But, as Byatt acknowledges, this element of regeneration may be a Christian interpolation - Ragnarök was the end of the world, not the beginning of a new cycle, and a book written at the beginning of the twenty-first century is overshadowed by the knowledge of our destruction of our world. As with the Nazi erasure of other races (which started with replacing names by numbers), we are, with increasing rapidity, erasing other species, and no amount of clever science will bring back a species once lost. At the heart of Byatt's book is Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, whose poison kills Thor in the final battle - her once joyous exploration of the oceans, delighting in her fellow creatures, playing with whales, has become as much a prison sentence as her sister's or her father's - hounded and angered by Thor, she has become so vast that she reaches girdles the earth. The shape of this story means that the flat ocean which is all that will be left after the final battle will be an empty, poisoned waste.

Ragnarök is at once a gripping re-telling of the Norse myths and a warning that, as Asgard was doomed to destruction from its very beginning, so is our world. The feckless gods couldn't prevent their end, for all the promises. Neither, is seems, will we.

A final note: I was gratified to see, among the books cited at the end, under the heading, Warnings, is The Unnatural History of the Sea: The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing by Callum Roberts- this is a book which, while laying out the damage we have done, offers a thread of hope for the future if we act decisively. I make no apology for mentioning it - indeed, I am proud to say that the author is my brother. I think it's an important book. Ragnarök, too, is both compelling and beautiful addition to the literature of mythology and a call to action. We can learn from Götterdämmerung - not least, that Ragnarök means Judgement of the Gods, and not, as the German has it, twilight of the gods. What will be the judgement on us?


  1. The sense of inevitability that permeated the whole book really affected me. I don't think what's happening to the world now is necessarily inevitable, but Byatt is certainly right about human hardheadedness.

    Your brother's book sounds excellent, as does the rest of her reading list.

  2. Thank you for this excellent review as it's shown me that I would loathe the book!

    Sister of the more famous Robert? His book sounds good.

  3. This is in my pile and I hope to read it soon (along with all the others in the Canongate Myths series that I haven't read so far. Lovely review.

  4. Nymeth, I think I'd be somewhere between you and Byatt on the inevitability - wish it weren't, but fear it is. For the gods, however, Ragnarök was there from the outset and that offers the implication of the converse - that we *do* have a degree of choice, if we get on and exercise it.

    Gaskella, I've got most of the others to read too. It's a wonderful series.

    Callmemadam, I'd be horrified to have put you off, but I don't think it was ever going to be your sort of thing, was it? I liked it so much I'm going to have to buy it - thought I was being so clever getting it from the library, too.

  5. This is why I read her sister rather than her. I got lost just in the words. :<)