Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
AS Byatt hamish hamilton India
Rs 399 pp 177
The story begins with a thin child. We do not know her name, or much about her except that she was three years old when the war began, and now lives through it, growing up "in the ordinary paradise of the English countryside". She is thoughtful, precocious, and asthmatic, often spending days in bed reading John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and more importantly, Dr W Wagner's Asgard and the Gods. The latter spellbinds her, that story of the pagan Norse gods, of "how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real end". It is not difficult to discern the autobiographical strain in Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, or the reason why the writer AS Byatt chose this particular story to contribute to the publisher Canongate's series of retelling myths.
"The challenge of the myth series," writes Byatt over an email interview, "is to tell a myth without changing anything essential in it, or privately appropriating the story." She has chosen what fascinated her as a child; in a way she is writing for her "childhood self". The events (even in Asgard) are based on incidents described in the Poetic Edda, a 13th century compilation and the Prose Edda, an account written by Snorri Sturluson around the same time. Ragnarok is the story of the future foretold, narrated in the present tense, with that note of grim inevitability accompanying things that are fated to happen. The narrative overrules any play of free will, the thin child discovers: those meant to destroy survive, while it is not given "even to gods, to take complete, foolproof, perfect precautions … There will be a loophole, slippage, a dropped stitch, a moment of weariness or inattention".
The thin child (whose dramatic purpose and presence is also thin) learns about the gods living in Asgard, spending their time playing games, hunting and in sundry other pursuits. She learns about Valhalla, where Odin, the one-eyed chief of gods rules over warriors who fight each other to mortal end during the day and are restored back to life at night, discussing their exploits over copious portions of drink. Odin controls magic, his vengeance might be fearful but his nemesis is Loki, a "reckless and cunning" shape-shifter with a streak of curiosity who feels at home in turbulence. In slaying Baldur, the beautiful, apparently invulnerable god, Loki has crossed a limit and precipitated the final struggle in the battlefield of Vigrid.
Ragnarok, the thin child finds out, etymologically translates as the 'judgement of the gods', of destruction imminent of those who were "not clever enough, and bad". Its more popular translation is 'the twilight of the gods' (owing in part to the title of the last part of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle operas, Götterdämmerung, which draws on the same legend). 'Twilight' proximates the spirit of the story as the gods clash with Loki and his children - the serpent Jormungandr and Fenris the wolf - and all are destroyed. It proximates the spirit of the times in which the child Byatt lives, where the dead of night is torn apart by the drone of fighter aircraft in the sky, where the myth is but a thin veil separating the disaster of imagined times from the ones in reality.
And yet in this exercise of retelling an ancient myth, the older Byatt discovers parallels from her own age. "I realised," she says, "just how powerful were the parallels between the Norse gods who awaited their ending without any capacity of averting disaster, and clever modern human beings, who are still incapable of saving the natural world." This parallel is not accommodated within the story but comes as an essay appended to the main text, where Byatt is able to brutally hold forth about ecological disasters that can actually end the world as we know it.
In what is otherwise a lucid, crisp narration of an ancient legend, this cumbrous, pedantic device works only partially, highlighting the difficulty of retelling a myth in a way that is resonant with the times. It works for Byatt, who says the format allowed her to be "explicit" about the environmental disaster while sticking to the original story. Curiously for one who does not believe in "redemption and restoration", it also allows her to locate a possible saviour figure in Loki, that "detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration".