Myths and fairy tales are often paired, but not for A.S. Byatt. Fairy stories, "endlessly repeated variations on the same narrative patterns," are like "little bright necklaces of intricately carved stones and wood and enamels." Myths, by contrast, are "cavernous spaces, lit in extreme colors"; they are "often unsatisfactory, even tormenting." This is certainly true of the harsh, dark myth Byatt selected for her volume of the Canongate Myth series: "Ragnarok" (177 pages, $24), the Nordic myth of the end of the gods, which is the end of everything.
"Ragnarok" has a terrible beauty: an uncompromisingly ruthless myth celebrated through almost bardic language, vividly visual, yet begging to be read aloud. Here is a passage describing Jormungandr, the World Serpent, playing hide and seek with her shapeshifting father, Loki, disguised as a mackerel: "A mackerel's skin is a vanishing trick. Along its sleekness are lines of water ripples, imitating sun and shadow, cloud light and moonlight dropping through the thick water, imitating trailing weed and rushing waves flickering as the mirror-scales twist. He was there, this visibly invisible fish, and when she made a dash he was a patch of daylight, or nightlight, staining the water only, not solid." Throughout "Ragnarok," Byatt describes the natural world attentively, with aching tenderness.
The gods? Not so much. Unlike a number of writers in the Canongate series, Byatt does not humanize them by giving them personalities and psychologies. They remain forces, attributes, presented in raw, unmediated form. Well, somewhat unmediated. The stories are told as they are encountered by "a thin child" in wartime, evacuated from London to the countryside, worried about her father's survival, and trying to make sense of the terror she intuits in the adults. Odin's Wild Hunt gives the child a context for her father, an airman in North Africa; in the Wild Hunt, a dismounted hunter crumbles to dust. "Airmen were the Wild Hunt," she thinks. "It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control."
In this context -- "There was a war on. Possibly there would always be a war on" -- the distant, cold Norse gods resonate for the child in a way that the stories of gentle Jesus cannot. The parallels to World War II, perhaps all wars, are clear.
The contrast between the magnificent lushness of the natural world and the limited, stupid behavior of the gods points to another contemporary parallel, another end of things, that Byatt makes explicit in her final "Thoughts on Myths": "We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in shortsightedness."
This message is one explanation for Byatt's rejection of the versions of Ragnarok that envision a rebirth after the devastation. "Ragnarok" is an "account of a mystery; of how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real End. The end."
- Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth