Back in February, Teresa read this, A.S. Byatt’s installment in the Canongate Myth series. It sounded perfect for me, since I have been drawn to Norse mythology since childhood, and to Byatt’s work (especially the stories that tend toward the fabulous) as an adult. In fact, I found it a marvelous read, perfectly suited to the nature of the myths she was retelling, and interesting in ways I hadn’t quite expected.
As Teresa mentioned, the book is told in two strands. One shows “the thin child,” Byatt herself, as it turns out, evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. Her life is in chaos: her father is flying planes somewhere over Africa and may never come home, her mother is teaching and has never been much good at playing with her children, and the thin child’s main companionship comes from books. Asgard and the Gods and The Pilgrim’s Progress people her mind, grip it, light it up, help her make some kind of grim sense of the world around her.
The other strand of the book, of course, is the telling of the myth itself. Byatt doesn’t make an effort to tell every story about every god. She tells the ones that were most important to her: the brutal story of creation, which came from the dismemberment of an impossibly huge giant. The story of the sun and moon, which, as in Greek mythology, are chariots that run orderly across the sky, but — and here is the crucial difference:
There was something strange about these shining and shadowy drivers and riders. Both sun and moon were hotly pursued by wolves, with open jaws, snapping at their heels, loping across emptiness. The story did not mention any creation of wolves; they simply appeared, snarling and dark. They were a part of the rhythm of things. They never rested or tired. The created world was inside the skull, and the wolves in the mind were there from the outset of the heavenly procession.
She tells the stories of Loki, god of fire and water and chaos, and his monstrous children. The story of Naglfar, the terrible ship made of dead men’s nails. And, of course, the story of Ragnarök: the end, the end of everything, the end of the world and the gods and everything there is, that leaves nothing but a black disc spinning in space.
Norse mythology is dark and chaotic. The gods are never invulnerably strong, and nor are they a Gallant Force that Wins in the End: Odin loses an eye for his wisdom; Tyr loses a hand so he can bind the terrible Fenris Wolf; Balder, the gentle, loving god, loses his life and never comes back. It’s lit by glints of gold, and by fire, but it’s dark by nature, and it ends darkly and baldly: this is the end, and that’s all. For Byatt, for the thin child, this account of the nature of the world — things end — was reassuring. It helped her build walls of defense in wartime, and taught her vital lessons. That’s what myth does for all of us, whether we believe it or not.
I’m drawn to Norse myth, too, because of its darkness and unpredictability. (And then Loki got pregnant and delivered an eight-legged horse! And then the snake that was wrapped around the world bit itself in the tail! And then they decided to build a wall around Valhalla! And then…) By contrast, most of Greek myth seems daylit to me, the attributes of each god clear. It may not be pretty, but it’s plain. Norse mythology is completely batty, and I love it. Ragnarök, the end of all things, is the same way: an end so final that it includes even the gods. They know it is coming, and they watch it come, frozen like rabbits: first the environmental changes (Fimbulwinter), and then all the rest. Magnificent chaos. Loki laughing.
This book draws the reader (the thin child) and the act of reading, the myth and the purpose of myth, together beautifully. I loved reading it. The prose is gorgeous. Even if you have never really gotten to know Norse myth, this is a wonderful place to start: at the end.