Ragnorok by AS Byatt (Canongate)

Jacket of Ragnarok by AS ByattThe word “Ragnarok”, AS Byatt tells us in this textured, numinous retelling of Norse myths, has two possible interpretations: one correct, one a misreading. The incorrect (but more beautiful) one stems from “Ragnarøkkr”, which means “twilight of the gods”. The right meaning comes from “Ragnarök”, meaning “judgement of the gods” (“Regin” being the word for gods, and “Ragna” its genitive plural.) It is this latter that interests her: the total, beautiful destruction of the world – and not only the world, but the gods themselves.

Byatt’s reading – part of a series of reinterpretations of myth published by Canongate – focuses on her own experience of Tales of Asgard as a child. In Ragnarok this thoughtful little girl is called “the thin child” – “partly because she was thin, but also because what is described of her world is thin and bright, the inside of her reading and thinking head.” It is wartime, and the child’s father is away. She imagines him burning in a plane above Africa. As the myths take root in her mind, she seeds their sense of hopelessness away as a store for the possibility that he might not come back.

The thin child is unusually thoughtful, wondering “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For her the tales of Jesus preaching to woodland animals that are fed to her by the Church are unsatisfactory (“except maybe the snake which had not asked to be made use of as a tempter. The snake wanted simply to coil about in the branches.”). She is instead drawn to the weirdnesses of the Norse myths, where “the stone giants made her want to write. They filled the world with alarming energy and power.” While not believing in the Norse gods, “they were coiled like smoke in her skull humming like dark bees in a hive.”

Energy and power drip from Byatt’s writing. The thin child cannot contemplate the gods slaying the frost giant Ymir, so she reduces everything in her mind till the world “resembled a thick glass ball, inside which the mist blew like ropes.” It’s a crystalline, evocative image, with its own mythic resonance. There are echoes of Byatt’s last novel, The Children’s Book (particularly the tales told by the main character, Olive Wellwood, to her children).

Central to Ragnarok, and the catalyst of the end of the gods, is the story of Baldur the Beautiful, doomed to die. Byatt handles this with an archaic, archetypal tone that encompasses and transcends the ages. Baldur is the brightest of all the gods; since his mortal fate is known, his mother, Frigg, makes an exhausting journey throughout the whole world in order to ask everything not to harm him. But “the shape of the story”, of course, dictates that she leaves something out: mistletoe. This leads the trickster Loki into gulling Baldur’s blind brother into killing him. It pulses with poignancy, taking root in the mind, spreading its dark tendrils as the myths occupied Byatt’s own.

There are too many glittering sentences to quote here in full, but one thing remains to be said: Byatt, in a mini-essay at the end, explains that she is also using the myth as a warning against the cleverness of humans. The gods were destroyed by their own mistakes. “The surface of the earth was like a great embroidered cloth, or rich tapestry, with an intricately interwoven underside of connected threads.” So it is for us, and we humans must learn to recognise that, before we face our own Ragnarok, and nothing is left but a strange, empty disc.