Ragnarök: The End of the Gods - A.S. Byatt Update (8/15/12): A week or so ago I listened to the Audio CD and was impressed - again - with just how good this book is. The reader (whose name I've forgotten) does an excellent job, and I gained a better understanding of what I had read from listening to it.

Update (6/6/12): I found the short story I mentioned in my review below. It's from an anthology titled Starlight 3 and called "Wolves Till the World Goes Down," by Greg Van Eekhout. It's told from Hugin's POV (Hugin is "Thought," one of the ravens who are Odin's eyes and ears in the world), and recounts how Baldr plans to permanently die and, thus, break the prophecy of Ragnarök.

In Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt recounts the Norse myth of the end of the world, and she favors the (probably) pre-Christian version where there’s no rebirth into the Field of Ida. Everything ends. Forever.

The earth was Surtr’s. His flames licked the wounded branches of Yggdrasil and shrivelled the deep roots. The homes of the gods fell into the lake of fire. Grieving Frigg, on her gold throne, sat and waited as the flames licked her door sills and ate up the foundations of the house. Unmoving, she flared, shrank black, and became ash amongst the falling ash.

Deep in the kelp forests Surtr’s fire boiled in the foundations of the sea. The holdfast of Rándrasill ripped loose and its lovely fronds lost colour, lost life, tossed in the seething water amongst the dead creatures it had once sheltered and sustained.

After a long time, the fire too died. All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples. (pp. 143-4)

Unlike many authors in the Canongate Myth series, Byatt deliberately avoids recasting the myth to modernize it for her audience, giving the gods human emotions and motives, making them people like ourselves trying to get by or to make sense of the world. She wants, instead, to retain the mythic quality of the story. She wants Ragnarök to be unsatisfactory and tormenting. Unlike the fairy story or a modern novel, the reader shouldn’t contentedly close the cover satisfied that Good has triumphed over Evil and all live “happily ever after.” A myth should leave its reader (or hearer) puzzled and haunted by the world it presents, and humbled by incomprehensibility. (p. 161ff)

Her prose is (like good poetry) precise but lush and vital as in this description of Jörmungandr as she grows into her full strength:

All this time she grew. She was as long as a marching army on land. She was as wide as underwater caverns, stretching away and away into the dark. She spent more and more time in the darkest depths, where no sunlight came, where food was sparse and strangely lit with glowing reds and cobalt blues. She came across mountain ranges in the water, and belching chimneys and columns of hot gas. She sipped at the blank white shrimp down there, and picked the fringed worms from their crevices. Nothing saw her coming, for she was too vast for their senses to measure or expect. She was the size of a chain of firepeaks: her face was as large as a forest of kelp, and draped with things that clung to her fronds, skin, bones, shells, lost books and threads of snapped lines. She was heavy, very heavy. She crawled across beds of coral, rosy, green and gold, crushing the creatures, leaving in her wake a surface blanched, chalky, ghostly. (pp. 71-2)

Or in the description of the thin child’s days in the countryside:

The thin child fished in the pond for tadpoles and tiddlers, of which there was an endless multitude. She gathered great bunches of wild flowers, cowslips full of honey, scabious in blue cushions, dog-roses, and took them home, where they did not live long, which did not concern her, for there were always more springing up in their place. They flourished and faded and died and always came back next spring, and always would, the thin child thought, long after she herself was dead. Maybe most of all she loved the wild poppies, which made the green bank scarlet as blood. She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk – slightly damp, she thought – and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding, for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower-flesh. Which wilted almost immediately between finger and thumb. But there were always more, so many more. It was all one thing, the field, the hedge, the ash tree, the tangled bank, the trodden path, the innumerable forms of life, of which the thin child, having put down her bundle and gas-mask, was only one among many. (pp. 35-6)

The framework in which Byatt tells her myth is the story of “a thin child in wartime.” It’s World War 2, and families are fleeing London and other major cities in anticipation of the Blitz. The thin child, an asthmatic girl whose father is away fighting, finds herself and her mother in the English countryside. She spends her days wandering the countryside and reading Asgard and the Gods and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This gives Byatt the opportunity to address a remarkable thematic range, such as the need to control and order the world (Odin and her father) vs. the darkness that lurks beyond the borders of Asgard or the walls of the garden (Loki and the world outside of the city). Another idea that resonated with me – related to the theme of order vs. chaos – is the pressure to conform. To choose security over risk, exemplified in what happens after the war ends and the thin child’s father – against all expectations – comes home and the family returns to the city:

They went back home, the thin child and the family. Home was a large grey house with a precipitous garden in the steel city, which had its own atmosphere which could be perceived as a wall of opaque sulphurous cloud, as they came in from the countryside to which they had been evacuated. The thin child’s lungs tightened desperately as the fog closed in on her….

The long-awaited return took the life out of the thin child’s mother…. Dailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons, saying she was suffering from neuralgia and sick headaches. The thin child came to identify the word ‘housewife’ with the word ‘prisoner’. Fear of imprisonment haunted the thin child, although she did not quite acknowledge this….

But on the other side of the closed gate was the bright black world into which she had walked in the time of her evacuation. The World-Ash and the rainbow bridge, seeming everlasting, destroyed in a twinkling of an eye. The wolf with his hackles and bloody teeth, the snake with her crown of fleshy fronds, smiling Loki with fishnet and flames, the horny ship made of dead men’s nails, the Fimbulwinter and Surtr’s conflagration, the black undifferentiated surface, under a black undifferentiated sky, at the end of things. (pp. 148-54)

A third, was the need to build up defenses against loss, against futility. The gods huddle behind the walls of Asgard boasting of their prowess, feasting, and occasionally sallying forth to battle the monsters beyond the battlements. The thin child loses herself in imagining an eternal spring of poppied meadows and singing birds.

A final theme that I’ll mention is the inability of gods, men or giants to conceive of any alternative to Ragnarök:

They The End of the Gods three stars but upon reflection and rereading (at random) portions of the book in the course of writing this review, I’m persuaded to revise my initial reaction to four. I enjoyed Byatt’s writing and found a wealth of ideas to consider (or “digest,” as I mention in one of my comments below). In my case, at least, the author succeeded in leaving me puzzled and tormented (but in a good way). And there’s much more to this slim volume than what I’ve touched on here to puzzle and torment the reader, if they so wish.

As the Preacher says, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and it’s all too easy to become nihilistic or apathetic. But I don’t think Byatt is either. There is an underlying optimism that the reader can see in the quote above where she writes “make a better world.” And I’m reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s image of our lives as candles that burn for a time and are then snuffed out. But, oh, what we can do for that time. Or Olaf Stapledon’s [b:Last and First Men/Star Maker, where after a billion+ years of struggle (and 18 separate but human species), Man’s sojourn ends but: “Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.” (p. 246)

With four stars, it should go without writing that I recommend this book without reservation.