In Norse myth, the end of the gods is simultaneously foretold and retold. The Allfather Odin and his fellow gods are born in cosmic violence and abide on Asgard, a world separate from but interconnected with Midgard, the human world. The forces of chaos and order cause divine mishaps and hardship. Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods, is the final confrontation and mutual destruction of these forces.
In modern Europe, Norse myths have typically found greater kinship with the secular ego of Teutonic culture than that of the English. Their most famous invocation in high art remains Wagner’s Ring Cycle; the term Götterdämmerung, the name of its last opera, is a German translation of the word Ragnarök.
A.S. Byatt’s new book, The End of the Gods, narrates one version of this chain of events. Hers is neither a novel nor a fable. In this story, the myths are discovered by a young girl in World War II-era England, who finds a copy of W. Wagner’s Asgard and the Gods, and through it a world which both explains and confronts the realities of her own “bright black world”.
With subtlety and gravitas, Byatt slips in and out of a narrative of discovery, in which the nameless “thin child” begins to see a universe held in the branches of Yggdrasil, the Great Ash-tree. It is a world in which a monstrous serpent encircles the sea, a wolf slavers in divine captivity, waiting to spring upon its custodians, and the writhing of Loki, bound beneath the coils of a snake dripping venom upon him, causes earthquakes in Midgard.
The End of the Gods— The Myth of Ragnarök: Penguin India, 177 pages, Rs 399.
Byatt is not always a graceful novelist, but in this small, subtle book, her literary intellect shines. She forsakes straightforward allegory. The thin child experiences the terrors of Britain under fire in an impressionistic way, while the elemental strangeness, the not-humanness of the world of the Aesir, becomes a true picture of a quiet inner landscape. The story is told in light prose, full of the imagery of old trees, great cold seas, ice storms, fish and birds. It evokes the oral quality of both a myth and a children’s story.
The book ends with the descent of Ragnarök, a pitiless, efficient eventuality. So also does the thin child’s own war end. As one world dies and another begins to be reborn, the thin child is confronted with the prospect of peace and “dailiness”, for which the myths have no lessons to teach.
Another British writer once mined the consonances of the grave fatalism of the Nordic myths—so different from the polyphony of Hellenic classicism—and a world war. It is not difficult to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium and detect both his horror of war (he was a combatant in World War I) and a despairing solace in its inevitability. Byatt also shows us how building a myth lends both purpose and consolation to our histories of violence.
But the spirit of Tolkien’s work is his deep and complex Christianity. Byatt, with real satisfaction, refuses all religious comfort in her book. In an afterword, she tells us why she avoids the supposed late emendation to the myth where a few survivors, divine and human, may come together to heal and renew the world. To the thin child, the “cross grandfather” worshipped in church cannot sufficiently explain a world annihilating itself, nor animate its brief glories. The gods are like us, Byatt argues. Love, wrath and courage are human qualities which we invest with divinity. Evil is human work, too; that is how man becomes wolf to man, she writes repeatedly, quoting Thomas Hobbes. Homo homini lupus est (and how Tolkien the linguist would have flinched from the discordant interruption of Latin).
In fairness, the Nordic myths can only tell us as much as their narrators choose. Look at Marvel Comics’ Thor, nominally starring the same hero of Asgard, but really a character in a totally different kind of modern American myth. But Byatt understands what made these old stories work, and why they work for us. Her book succeeds beautifully in making both these effects clear.