Intriguing retelling of a classic Norse myth

2011-12-14 00:00

CANONGATE Publishers have asked a number of well-known authors to retell or refashion myths of their choice for a contemporary audience.

A. S. Byatt, a serious and uncompromising writer, has chosen the most uncompromising of all myths — the Norse Ragnarok: the end of the gods and with them, of the world. Often translated as the “twilight” of the gods, for Byatt, Ragnarok is more final than that. There will be no subsequent new dawn. This is the story of the end.

Byatt does not dress the myth up as a modern parable. She tells, in presumably autobiographical detail, of the “thin child” who, when her father was serving in the Second World War, was living in the country with her mother. Among the books available to her was Asgard and the Gods, and it fired her imagination, seeming much more persuasive than the gentle Christianity she was also introduced to. The life of the thin child is only there in so far as she reads the myths, and in her mind, conflates their vision of destruction and conflict with the war, only partly understood by her, that is preoccupying the adults in her world. She sees the inevitability of the end of the gods as the same inevitability of her father’s non-return.

In fact, he does return, but by then she has learnt that life is precarious and doomed, that the Norse gods are not the kind of figures we can relate to, or who care about humanity. They are primal and frightening, and Byatt’s telling of their stories in this short, intriguing book is frightening too. The parallels are there: the gods, caring for nothing other than their own gratification, destroy their world.

In a fascinating final chapter, Byatt talks about myth. She stresses she did not want to humanise the gods, but that they are already all too human – “limited and stupid”. We might do well to heed the awful warning of their end.

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