Whilst it is the business of myth to put powerfully enigmatic stories in the places that we find numinous and inexplicable – like the start of the world, for instance – probably none are quite so fascinated by destruction and disaster as the Norse Myths. The one word ‘Ragnarok’ most vividly evokes this collection of stories, and refers to the final apocalyptic battle of the Gods in which they all die, bringing their world down with them. It was interesting to me to think that this was the myth that A. S. Byatt would choose to update for the Canongate series, when I think of her as such a controlled writer, so coolly organised and mentally astute. What she has written is a tribute to the difficult nature of Norse mythology, an unflinching account of its radical strangeness, and its dark, demonic passions. And then she has added on the end a neat, intelligent overview that carefully steers these awkward myths into an academic parking place.
Unlike other writers in this series, Byatt has resisted the impulse to turn the myths into an allegorical story. Instead, she has chosen to focus on their reception by using as a focaliser the autobiographical figure of the ‘thin child’. The thin child has recently been evacuated to the country with her mother, her father being sent to certain death (she believes) in the air force. She is reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and then this, Asgard and the Gods, written by an academic German author. For the thin child, the Norse myths have emotional resonance with her own world, plunged into warfare that may well last forever, or so it seems. They certainly make more sense of what is happening around her than the gentle, tepid myths of Christianity which she wishes she could believe but cannot. The narrative that unfolds now follows on from, and elaborates, the thin child’s experience of reading the Norse myths.
The creation of the world in which the Norse myths take place is a perplexing one. In the gulf of nothingness, Ginnungagap, stretched between icy wastes to the north, hellish hot ones to the south, a giant is formed, Ymir. The first Norse Gods set upon the giant and slaughtered him, making their world out of his body. In its centre they placed the home of the Gods, Asgard, and around it were the gardens of Midgard, where other giants lurked. Odin, the leader of the gods lived in Valhalla, the hall where those slaughtered in the endless daily battles were brought back to life. For these Gods are even more capricious and argumentative than the Greek and Roman ones, existing only in conflict. Somewhere in this world (and if anyone can enlighten me as to how they fit in, please do), there are two great natural resources, the tree of life, Yggdrasil, and the sea-tree, Rándrasill. These are important in Byatt’s retelling of the myth as they support a huge and complex eco-system, a rich flourishing of plant and animal life that spawn great passages of lyrical, concentrated Byatt prose. The almost excessive attention the author gives to this natural world is there, I think, to balance out the destructive nature of the Gods, but also to give the reader an idea of what they waste and plunder.
At the centre of the Norse myths is the figure of Loki, the God of mischief and misrule. Loki is clever and intelligent, but he is also irresponsible, a trickster. His power is that of the demonic, the fierce uprush of energetic life that can be turned to good or evil, the ferocious spirit of humankind that metes out creation and destruction without purpose or plan. We see this in his dual family life – one ‘regular’ family in Asgard, but three demonic children, spawned from his shapeshifting liaison with a wolf-giantess. These children are suitably disparate – a wolf, a snake and a giantess. Knowing that these children spell doom to the Gods, Odin does his best to contain them. The giantess, Hel, is sent to the freezing cold lands in the north to look over those who have not died in battle. The snake is thrown far into the sea, where she grows outlandishly large, eventually swallowing her own tail as she encircles the world. The wolf is set upon by the Gods who try to tie him down, and finally manage it on the third attempt. This is the thing about the Norse myths: they are hard to hold in the mind because they exist on a foundation that is inconsistent, jagged, disparate. You can see it in the impossible-to-imagine world of the myths, you can see it in the three ‘unorthodox’ children that Loki fathers. And it struck me again in the magical bindings the Gods create to hold Fenris the wolf down, fashioned on commission by the dwarves:
‘And the dwarves made a supple skein from unthings. There were six, woven together: the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird. The thing was light as air and smooth as silk, a long, delicate ribbon.The world of the Norse myths has its seemingly constant repetitions, like the resurrection of the Gods, but this is a pecularly constructed world, one that shivers on the edge of imbalance for all its richness and recklessness. When the Gods suspect that Loki is behind the death of their beloved Baldaur, the beautiful God who brings spring and liveliness into their world, they decide they’ve had enough of his behaviour. They track him down and overcome him. But this whole story, the only thing that feels like a proper story in Byatt’s retelling, the death of Baldaur and the God’s revenge, sets in motion the ultimate destruction of the world through an entropy that ressembles environmental crisis:
The spring of the world was gone. There was a rainbow but it was watery and incomplete, patches of hectic colour here and there in the thick cloud, which never seemed to lift. The tides, swelled by tears, were irregular and unpredictable. Things on the earth drooped in their wetness which would not quite dry. Yggdrasil had stains of mould and decay. Rándrasill was scraped bare, in places, by rasping tongues licking up tearwater. A kind of sloth was at the heart of things.Loki breaks free, followed by his bad children, and in the ensuing battle with the Gods, everything, but everything, is destroyed. Having recounted the myths from the perspective of the thin child, who is pleased with this finality, Byatt then adds a coda from the perspective of the adult she has become. Myths, she says, are not explanations, they are not allegories, and yet the contemporary parallel with a world spinning towards ecological disaster exerts its own magnetism:
If I were writing an allegory [Loki] would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration. As it is the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.This is a perfectly shaped ending to a series of myths that resist coherence and easy assimilation, that are rich in resonance but recount folly and misadventure with the greatest possible consequences. Byatt writes a strange, hybrid text here, neither story nor analysis, although containing elements of both, and as ever her work requires an alert and responsive reader. She doesn’t make this heterogeneous narrative slip down the reading throat. But she gives us a lot to think about, which is precisely what a good myth should do.