I've really been enjoying my weekly forays into Greek Mythology. Edith Hamilton presents the myths in a very readable and accessible manner (read that as straightforward and "easy"). It helps that many of the stories and most of the gods have been readily identifiable to me. So I was looking forward to reading A.S. Byatt's retelling of the Norse myth, Ragnarok, as a sort of companion read. Now on a good day I fully expect A.S. Byatt's writing to be complex and challenging. On a bad day (that being a bad reading day for me) it becomes a little too opaque and any drift of the mind just a little bit away from the text means the thread is easily lost and my reading fragmented. It doesn't help that I have no background knowledge or any experience with Norse Mythology. Perhaps with a more careful reading of Ragnarok, that wouldn't matter, but I'm afraid I've not done Ragnarok justice, which is a pity since I was really looking forward to it.
So consider this post as my (very shaky) introduction to Norse mythology and an attempt to try and sort out just what it is I read. It helps that I read this along with a group of other readers over at the Slaves of Golconda and now have the benefit of reading their impressions and interpretations of the book. I think I was tripped up by the lushness of Byatt's prose. A prose style the reader needs to be fully engaged with at all times. The world she describes is both fantastical and violent. To me it felt like a world of darkness and shadows, filled with natural wonders and creatures that seemed to verge on the extreme or even outrageous.
Ragnarok is one of a series of books in the Canongate Myths, which are retellings of the stories that "reflect and shape our lives — they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human." In this case Byatt chose to work with the Norse myth Ragnarok. I had assumed that her retelling, which I knew was set in WWII England, would be a retelling of the story in a sort of "contemporary" environment. Rather she used the framework of a child reading the myth as a way to literally retell the story itself, so she moves back and forth between this fantastical world and wartime England. I'm sure the unnamed narrator, "the thin child" must be Byatt herself who read Asgard and the Gods when she was young. She notes in her excellent essay at the end of the book (which I will be photocopying to have on hand as reference) that it was the first place she discovered the difference between myths and fairy tales (a distinction I'm still not sure I completely understand).
I like Byatt's juxtaposition of Asgard (and forgive me if I am getting names and places mixed up as I don't have quite the handle on everything as I should) with the thin child's world. The thin child has been evacuated from London to the countryside with her mother. Her father has been sent out to Africa to fight in the war, and she does not expect to ever see him again. It's a paradox, she says, that it was probably thanks to the war and being sent to the country that she actually survived since the air was cleaner and the food more nourishing. For her mother, too, the countryside is a lifesaver as she gets to teach bright boys even as a married woman who would not otherwise have such an opportunity.
The thin child spends her time reading John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and a book of Norse myths that belonged to her mother.
"She felt in her bones the crippling burden born by the Man mired in the slough of Despond, she followed his travels through wilderness and the Valley of the Shadow, his encounters with Giant Despair and the fiend Apollyon. Bunyan's tale had a clear message and meaning. Not so, Asgard and the Gods. The book was an account of a mystery, of how the world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real End. The end."
The thin child understands this only too well--the end. It's war and to her it feels like the end of the world, too.
Ragnarok is the Norse myth of the end of the world, or the twilight (which I sort of like the sound of better) of the gods. This is their calamitous ending that results in only human survivors. I'm not sure yet if there is an equivalent in Greek mythology--I've not gotten that far. Byatt vividly brings forth this amazing world from the barest beginnings, the tree called Yggdrasil, and hence springs up the rest of the world around it and populates it with creatures and then gods. But much like the Greek myths, it's not all paradise, and the folly of one or a few brings death and destruction to the rest. I'm not going to try and summarize the myth, since others have done it so much better than I can--please refer to their posts here.
For a very short book there is a lot to sort through and some interesting parallels between our world and that of the gods, and Byatt isn't just giving the reader an entertainment with her story. There is more to poke through and prod. If myths are indeed ways for us to explore our desires, our fears, our longings and remind us what it is to be human, there's meaning to be mined from this work. Now I'm off to the dicussion forum to see if I can find a little help in figuring it all out.
If you enjoy reading mythology and don't mind a challenge, this is one to search out. I hope to read more in the Canongate series (and maybe tackle this one again sometime).