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.
I just picked this one up (on a whim) at the library the other day. It’s sitting on a table waiting its turn among the other books I picked up. A.S. Byatt is an author whose work I’ve never quite gotten into but always thought I ought to give another try. Your serendipitous review might just have bumped Ragnarok up to the front of the line. Thanks for helping me choose what to read next!
I really love Byatt — Possession might be my favorite of hers, but I also adore her short stories, especially The Black Book and The Djinn in the NIghtingale’s Eye. And this is a wonderful piece.
Thanks for the suggestions! I should try her short stories (or at the very least Possession, with all of its acclaim). The only book of hers I’ve read is Babel Tower. I read it years and years ago and there are still images from it that stick with me even though I found it difficult to get into the story(ies). At any rate, I’m excited about reading Ragnarok (after I finish Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, which I picked up after reading Teresa’s review and which I’m really enjoying).
I loved this book too, and for similar reasons – Ragnarok is a terrific myth full of wonderful imagery and terrifying darkness, but it’s also the idea that it’s the end of the gods, people sort of survive so it always seems to me that it may or may not have happened yet. The way Byatt told the story of the midgard serpent was the bit of the book that really stuck with me though, I loved what she did with that.
Ah, but Byatt resists the idea that people survive it. I liked that, because I resisted it, too, when I read it; it seemed off somehow. The end is so final. But I totally agree with you on that long chapter about the serpent. It was so, so vivid, and I’d never read that story before. Just fantastic.
I too admired and enjoyed Ragnarok, though I can’t say I find comfort in the idea of the end of the world. But I do feel that Byatt handles this myth (and most material of that kind, in fact) well, well enough to get people like me past my objections and to get me to feel it’s another Byatt masterpiece.
I thought it was splendid, and even though the end of the world may not be comforting (except in certain circumstances, which I thought she drew very well), she certainly made it magnificent.
I read Possession by Byatt. This book is on my long term list of books to read. It may move up if I get on a mythology kick. Thanks for the look into the book.
Did you enjoy Possession? I thought it was fantastic — back when I read it, I was practically handing it out on street corners!
I read this just a few weeks ago and even though I have barely a passing knowledge of Norse myth I loved it! Byatt is a marvelous storyteller.
Oh, I’m so pleased you liked it! That proves that someone who doesn’t know Norse myth would enjoy it, too. I’ve been reading Norse myth since I was little, but I was convinced you didn’t have to in order to like it. Wasn’t the reader/myth stuff great?
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