The Carnivore Reviews: Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt
The Omnivore often likes to sink its teeth into something a little meatier. In celebration of A.S. Byatt’s new addition to Canongate’s Myth Series, we have roped in our very own reviewer, and visiting scholar, Michael Tadzio Morgan, to star as The Carnivore, giving you a taster of Grande Dame Antonia’s latest:
Ragnarok: the End of the Gods, by A. S. Byatt
An excellent story which fusses over its own post-mortem.
At the end of days, the Norse pantheon takes on a suicidal mood. On the one hand, the ancient Gods are the proud but weary defenders of a moral conviction which is flowing from the world; paralysed by indecision, gloriously resigned to their decline. On the other, there is the gleefully chaotic and self-destructive trickster Loki, the anti-hero of the tale and perennial outsider: inexplicable, ambiguous, and the epitome of motiveless malignity. Through their arrogant attitude towards Loki and his monstrous, bastard children, the Gods sow the seeds of a whirlwind which they eventually must reap.
As A. S. Byatt points out in her forthcoming work Ragnarok: the Twilight of the Gods, every generation seems to rediscover a new layer of relevance in the myth. And by the unpredictable fiat of the God of Publishing, this latest release in the Canongate Myths series seems to anticipate – with near oracular prescience – the tenor of current events. Following the riots which gripped the United Kingdom last week, the Norse myth of the Ragnarok – the twilight of the Gods and the consumption of the world-tree in fire and water – must seem particularly resonant. Indeed, at the high point of the hysteria, one half expected Sky News to announce that a half-blind Prime Minister had been swallowed by a wolf.
For Byatt herself, the myth reflects the mood of wartime Britain when she originally read the myth, and the potential apocalypse which ecological and economic disaster now herald. Byatt achieves a dual perspective on the myth by staging the work as the protagonist’s reading of Asgard and the Gods – a scholarly treatise by a German academic. Throughout, the “thin child” reads and interprets the myth, filtered through Byatt’s retelling. The child therefore acts as a guide or key to the text, pondering the God’s actions and discreetly translating the odd word in Ancient Norse.
The result is an unusual mix of explication and narrative, shuttling between the sublime grandeur of the apocalypse, and the lush nature writing of an idealised childhood. Byatt succeeds, however, in managing to draw endless parallels between these two disparate narrative modes, by juxtaposing the Arcadian retreat of the evacuee’s countryside with the prelapsarian fertility of Asgard. The thin child worries that her godlike father will not return from the war, while the older author fears for “a new extinction, of the bleaching of the coral, and the disappearance of the cod – fish the thin child caught in the North Sea with a hook and line, where there were always more where those came from.”
In this way, Byatt provides the reader with a simultaneous (re)vision of the Ragnarok myth, a thinly veiled autobiography, an allegory for Nazism, and a scholarly framework within which the myth and its transformation can be understood. Fitting this formal and intellectual breadth, the tone and idiom employed range from the precise nature language of Ruskin or Hopkins, to the sublime heights of Miltonic bombast. All these modes are handled beautifully, as you might expect from Byatt. For me, the most satisfying points in the work were the descriptions of the world-tree’s marine equivalent, Rándrassil:
In the kelp forests grew a monstrous bull-kelp, Rándrassil, the Sea-Tree. It gripped the underwater rock with a tough holdfast, from which rose the stem like a whiplash taller than the masts or rooftrees, the stipe. The stipe went up and up from the depths to the surface, glassy still, whipped by winds, swaying lazy. Where the water met the air the stipe spread into thickets of fronts and streamers, each buoyed up by a pocket of gas, a bladder at its base. The branching fronds, like those of the Tree on land, were threaded with green cells that ate light. Seawater takes in red light; floating-dust and debris take in blue; weeds deep down in dim light are mostly red in colour, whereas those tossing on the surface, or clinging to tide-washed ledges, can be brilliant green or glistening yellow.
One might say of this, as the thin child does of the descriptive language of Asgard and the Gods that “it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory.” At the same time, as this quotation demonstrates, Byatt invests her younger self with a degree of percipience and intelligence which is almost smug. At times, Byatt could be of writing not a myth of apocalypse, but of self-creation; the genesis not of the world, but of the author.
This jarring self-consciousness is a familiar experience when reading Ragnarok. One footnote – a writerly tick which Noel Coward described as “like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love” – aridly reminds the reader that “this part of the story was first told by Richard Wagner”. Elsewhere, the slim volume is similarly padded out with illustrations, a final “Thoughts on Myths”, a bibliography, and even a note on the typeface. This scholarly apparatus illuminates little, and mars Byatt’s real achievement, which at times reminded me of Ted Hughes’ translations of The Metamorphosis and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.
Nevertheless, Byatt’s reinvention of the myth is undeniably exciting. She alters the myth to endorse the theory than one of the three creators of humanity, Lodur, should really be the anarchist Loki, writing that “the thin child liked to believe he was, for it strengthened the links of the chain of the tale if he was there at the making of men.” The logic here is fascinating: the representative of Dionysian force of destruction and chaos becomes at once a life-giving and creative principle. Yet for all the subtlety of Byatt’s mythic understanding, do we also need to be told that the rule of three is “a rule of stories, both of myths and fairy tales”? Like the world-engirdling snake of Norse mythology, this dazzling and intriguing book ultimately threatens to consume its own tail.
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