Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ragnarok - Myth and Skepticism

With her father fighting the war in Northern Africa, a thin child and her mother flee to the English countryside to escape the bombings of London. With fear and danger around every corner this highly sensitive and imaginative child finds the book Asgard and the Gods, and begins to read.  She also has weekly Scripture lessons with the local vicar and makes frequent mention of Pilgrim's Progress. Norse mythology enthralled the child and fueled questions regarding the truth of Christianity which presented an interesting view of religious skepticism.

She did not understand how such a nice, kind, good God as the one they prayed to, could condemn the whole earth for sinfulness and flood it, or condemn his only Son to a disgusting death on behalf of everyone. 

And then this insight.

This death did not seem to have done much good.

Before continuing, let me make it clear that I'm not trying to step on toes or start a religious war. I have carefully edited out my personal views. We all find different themes in our reading and this is the one that stood out to me. And that's all.

The Norse mythology was fascinating and I must say, Byatt is a wonderful writer. The descriptive language is beautiful, yet tight and spare. Strunk and White would be proud. I can't pretend every name and place was absorbed, but I got the gist of most of the stories and a few sucked me right in. Loki's snake daughter that ate and ate until she circled the globe was gleefully horrifying.

I noticed many, sometimes startling connections between Norse myths and biblical stories. At the beginning we see a great tree where life seemed to spring from and I immediately thought of the infamous one that supposedly played a role in humanity's downfall. The comparisons could go on and on with the Creation of the world by the gods, Loki being a type of Satan, and an earlier war between the Norse gods with the war in Heaven where the bad angels and Lucifer were cast out. Hel/Hell were there as well. The last battle seemed very Armageddonish to me, complete with a Lake of Fire. Of course Ragnarok spells the end of the gods versus a resurrection and judgment for people.

The thin child was adept at finding these similarities and it strengthened her growing skepticism. I was rather amused that she found the idea of Heaven boring in both accounts. Here, she feels bad about the inescapable fates for both Baldur and Jesus.

The thin child considered Baldur the beautiful. He was a god who was doomed to die...The figure in the painting of Jesus talking to the animals, all white gentleness and golden radiance, was also a god who was doomed to die. 

The end of the gods verses the end of faith. Or in the thin child's instance, the logical thought processes that rejected the whole premise outright. Ultimately she saw no difference in the Norse tales and the biblical ones. Her conclusion was this.

That the story had always been there, and the actors and always known it. 

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

I procrastinate everything. Since Byatt's Ragnarok is short, I thought starting it the Friday night before a Tuesday Slaves of Golconda discussion deadline would be ample time. Unfortunately, I ran into that Byatt thing that sometimes trips me up, where she's obsessively going on and on listing, categorizing, something that doesn't line up with my own items-worth-obssessing-over criteria. Remember the marbles in The Biographer's Tale? You have to be in the right mood for that kind of thing. (It's why I hold the opinion that while Byatt at her best is a better writer than her sister Margaret Drabble, Drabble is a more consistently interesting storyteller--for me, at any rate.)

And so when I reached Byatt's Midgard serpent-long list of creatures that live in the sea, with subcategories for all the kinds of sharks and crabs, and her lengthy list of every type of animal, vegetable, mineral, disease, etc., that cried for Baldur to be released from the underworld, I was ready to put this title on my own mental list of Byatts That Don't Work for Me (unlike the more lengthy list of ones I love--The Children's Book's in the number one position there). I couldn't keep from zoning out.

And I hated that. I have such a shallow background in Norse mythology and I'd bought this book the moment it was released in the UK in order to remedy that. Surely the fault was all mine.

So Monday night I started rereading the book that failed to hold my attention on Friday night. I was more focused than I'd been over the weekend, plus in the meantime I'd done some dipping into The Prose Edda and Norwegian Mythology, which I conveniently had--unread-- on my shelves. (I definitely want to read The Prose Edda after this quick dip.)

I was much happier with it the second time round. I even appreciated the lyrical nature of the ineluctable listing of things.

What I, here in the Bible Belt, found most interesting first time through and what I continued to marvel at on the second was the young Byatt's ability to reject Christianity at such an early age. She finds the Old Testament and New Testament gods numbing: neither "the sweet,cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one. . .. made her want to write, or fed her imagination."

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian's burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there had once been people who brought 'belief' to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories, Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks, and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hyrdra and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn't live in her, and she didn't live in them.

The idea of eternity bored her. A string of days "going nowhere" bored her. She prefers the "stories that ended, instead of going in circles and cycles," finding them "grimly satisfactory." The Norse gods who know Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods and the end of the world, is coming, but are too stupid or too resigned to letting the story they find themselves in play out, are the ones she returns to.

Before Ragnarok, I knew of Byatt and Drabble's mother primarily through Drabble's writings, a portrayal that Byatt's taken issue with. Drabble wrote The Peppered Moth in an attempt to better understand her mother, claiming in the novel's afterward she "went down into the underworld" looking for her, mentioning a myth in which a woman rubbed herself with dead rat water in order to gain admittance to the underworld so that she could search for her loved one there. Drabble said writing about her mother left her unable to get rid of the smell of dead rat and mentions feeling biased in favor of her father. Her experience of the mother was one of a manipulative, intellectually frustrated depressive prone to outbursts of rage. Nonetheless, Byatt has stated that Drabble was the mother's favorite.

In Ragnarok, Byatt's describing the time when the same woman was actually happy. She was a highly intelligent woman, "gallant and resourceful in wartime," permitted to teach,  shoehorned back into the life of a housewife, suffering "a fall into the quotidian," once her husband returns. "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'."

Despite the war, the nights spent behind blackout curtains, worrying about the Germans "dealing death out of the night sky," the young Byatt finds these years a kind of paradise. If her family had not evacuated from the city, her asthma may have killed her. The bleak Norse myths hum in her head while she's walking through a countryside covered with flowers. When the family returns to urban life, her father takes an axe to a wild ash tree that's rooted itself on the sill of the garden shed in their walled garden. For a child who's loved the World-Ash, Yggdrasil, the removal of the tree closes a gate in her head. She's now on the quotidian side of life.


I don't know much about Norse mythology. Sure, I know some of the names of the gods but if you asked me to tell you one of the stories I draw a blank. Ask me about Greek myths and I can babble on for awhile. So I was really looking forward to A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. It is part of the Cannongate myths series and if you haven't discovered any of those books yet you are in for a treat.

Byatt chose to not retell the myth as its narrative story as so many others have done like Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad and Victor Pelevin's Helmet of Horror. Instead we have "the thin child," evacuated from London to the countryside during WWII with her mother, her father gone off in the Air Force flying over Africa. The thin child reads Pilgrim's Progress and another book she found, Asgard and the Gods. Byatt relates several different stories of the gods in order to set the stage for Ragnarok, the ultimate destruction. The stories are interspersed with the thoughts and worries of the thin child who finds the story of the Norse gods, and Ragnarok especially, much more satisfying than the story of the Christian god in whom she is supposed to believe.

The story of Ragnarok and the complete destruction of the gods and all life mirrors the darkness and destruction of the ongoing war, the war that seems like it will never end, the war the thin child is certain her father will not return from. Leading up to Ragnarok we learn of Loki's monstrous children. The gods manage to contain them for a time and life goes on. But when Frigg tries to guarantee that her son, Baldur the Beautiful, will never be harmed, she unknowingly sets up the beginning of the end. Frigg gets promises from every living creature to not harm her son but of course, she misses one: the mistletoe (the story is very much like Achilles and his mother Thetis dipping him in the river Styx except for his heel where she was holding onto him). Loki discovers the mistletoe and fashions a spear from it and gives it to Baldur's brother who, along with all the gods was playing at throwing things at Baldur and watching them turn aside harmlessly. Baldur dies, the gods and all the world are devastated by grief. Loki continues to stir up trouble and his children escape their bonds and so begins the war between the gods in which mutual destruction is assured. After all the gods die, nothing is left but darkness.

Yet while the thin child reads of destruction and the real world seems to be heading for its own Ragnarok, she is also in a sort of paradise. The thin child has asthma but out in the countryside and away for the dirty city air she is able to breathe again. She walks to and from school everyday through a beautiful meadow full of flowers and butterflies. She experiences a kind of freedom that she did not have in the city.

Unlike the gods, humanity does not destroy itself, this time, it feels as though there is a this time in the story as though next time we might not be so lucky. The thin child's father returns unharmed and they all go back to their London home. But for the thin child, it is as though she has lost paradise. The dirty city air makes breathing difficult again. She has lost her meadow, and even though her father takes on the project of creating a garden, it is not the same especially after he cuts down a tree the thin child liked. "Dailiness" defeats both the thin girl and her mother. During the war the mother worked as a teacher and now in peacetime she is not to work, she becomes bored and lonely:

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.

A gate closes in the thin child's mind and on the other side of the gate is Asgard and the gods and "the bright black world into which she had walked in the time of her evacuation," and the end of things.

Ragnarok is short and a fairly fast read but it is also a book to savor. I very much enjoyed it and was left feeling a bit sad at the end for the thin girl and for the gods of Asgard. Byatt was also kind enough to include a short bibliography for further reading which I hope to try a few books from sometime.

Cross posted at So Many Books