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A. S. Byatt’s “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods”

April 17, 2012

I’m awfully busy these weeks (and thus my paucity of posting).  Indeed, this week for me is something of a perfect storm of deadlines, mediating conflicts, and various day-to-day frays.

But I’m never too busy to steal a few minutes reading a book.  I thought I’d jot a few comments on an (admittedly slim) volume that I recently read –  before I must plunge back into less enjoyable tasks.

Recently, I enjoyed reading A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök:  The End of the Gods (it appeared in February in the US and in 2011 in Britain.)   Byatt’s Ragnarök is elaborately written in the form of an autobiography a young girl in wartime Britain who simultaneously is reading Asgard and the Gods and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  The central story is told as a retelling of the Norse Ragnarök (Twilight of the Gods) with reference to Wagner’s GötterdämmerungThe simultaneous retelling of this Northern tale, together with the World War II war references, and discussion of ecological apocalypse (which is less sermonizing that it might seem – after all, the original “Twilight of the Gods” features a series of natural disasters finalized by the almost complete destruction of the world in flood – except for two human survivors. 

Byatt’s rendition is not really about the story of Ragnarök as much as it is about the many ways in which myth is presented, and a meditation on religion and belief.  She explains part of her rationale in an elaborate (and slightly heavy-handed) afterword, which is also the basis for her Guardian essay that appeared last Fall.  In both her afterword and her newspaper essay, she writes:

Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible – the numinous, to use a word that was very fashionable when I was a student. The fairy stories were in my head like little bright necklaces of intricately carved stones and wood and enamels. The myths were cavernous spaces, lit in extreme colours, gloomy, or dazzling, with a kind of cloudy thickness and a kind of overbright transparency about them. I met a description of being taken over by a myth in a poem my mother gave me, WJ Turner’s "Romance".

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams.
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

I dimly heard the master’s voice
And boys far-off at play –
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had stolen me away.

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school –
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

I walked home with a gold dark boy,
And never a word I’d say,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had taken my speech away.

I gazed entranced upon his face
Fairer than any flower –
O shining Popocatapetl
It was thy magic hour:

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day;
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
They had stolen my soul away!

I recognised that state of mind, that other world.

The words in my head were not Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, but Ginnungagap, Yggdrasil and Ragnarök. And in later life there were other moments like this. Aeneas seeing the Sibyl of Cumae writhing in the cave. "Immanis in antro bacchatur vates." Or Milton’s brilliant snake crossing Paradise, erect upon his circling folds.

In the end, Byatt seems to use Ragnarök  as a guide also to her own writing.  What we have here, in fictional format, is Byatt’s interpretive guide to the use of myth in her several novels.

While Byatt’s comparison of Ragnarök to early stories in Genesis may be, perhaps, a bit too pointed for some readers, she has firm control of her material and presents a work that demands attention.  And, in the year of the predicted Mayan apocalypse, 2012, it seems like a timely read.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2012 10:46 am

    Based on your recommendation, I’m looking forward to reading Byatt’s Ragnarök. Your description of this “autobiography [of] a young girl in wartime Britain who simultaneously is reading Asgard and the Gods and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress” reminds me of an Annie Dillard extended essay: “An Expedition to the Pole.” Dillard simultaneously has her readers consider her own story of making it to a comfort zone in a rather quirky Catholic Mass and the histories of expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole.

  2. April 17, 2012 3:31 pm

    That’s an interesting comparison. I have not read that Dillard essay, but I’ve read other material by Dillard. Dillard and Byatt are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum in their writing style — Dillard with a very conversational style, Byatt with a very formal (and, in places, somewhat florid) style.

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