Could there be an end more final, more absolute than the end of not just the world, but of the gods themselves? In Norse myth, Ragnarök is the cataclysmic battle in which the Gods themselves die. In A. S. Byatt’s contribution to the Canongate myths series, this event is shown to have captured Byatt’s own imagination when she was a young girl who immersed herself in Asgard and the Gods during her stay in the English countryside as an evacuee from London during World War II. In this novella, Byatt revisits both these myths and her childhood self who clung to them.
In the afterword to the book, Byatt says that the gods of myths are not like characters in novels; they are not people with psychologies. They have attributes, and in this book, Byatt is content to let them remain so, although she comes close to giving a personality to the contradictory and complex Loki, the one god who earned her sympathies as a child. This is not a book about the gods as people but a book about the myths and stories that capture and transform us.
Byatt interweaves her retelling of the Norse myths with recollections of herself, the “thin child,” reading and reflecting on these stories. The thin child finds Odin and his compatriots far more exciting to read about than the Christian God she learns of in church. That story makes no sense to her, and she cannot bring herself to believe it. She doesn’t believe the Norse myths either, but she’s caught up in them; they become “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive.” What reader hasn’t had a story get under her skin in this way? Who can explain how and why this happens? Why this story and not that one?
For me, that question of being captured by stories is at the heart of this book. As a Christian myself, I find the very story that the thin girl rejected to be the one that hums in my own skull. And as I read of her distaste for it, I wanted to leap in and tell her all the things she missed about it. Not that I wanted to point out theological errors, but I wanted her to see the images and ideas that hold as much drama and mystery for me as the image of Yggdrasil, the world-tree, held for her. This reaction kept me at a distance from the book for a while. I wanted to argue with the thin girl, rather than to ask why she felt this way. What was it about the Norse myths, which could be just as brutal as any biblical story, that gave her comfort?
The answer to that question is never given explicitly; I’m not sure it’s a question that can be clearly answered. Byatt writes that myths “are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The black was now in the thin child’s head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered.”
The thin girl had no use for the version of the Ragnarök story in which the world starts anew. When she read that some believed this vision of a new life was a later Christian addition, that notion was enough to allow her to set the more hopeful ending aside and dwell on the black ending she needed. Ragnarök was the story she felt she needed, and the story ending up transforming her. This is what stories do for us all.