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When A.S. Byatt was a young child, she spent hours reading about the bloody fate that befell the Norse gods. Since she was reading while WWII was raging, it's no wonder the myth and the war drew sparks off each other in her imagination.

In Ragnarok, part of the Canongate series on myths, Byatt does not merge the stories or force their comparison. Nor does what happens to a thin child evacuated to the British countryside, who is certain she will never see her father again, overshadow the mythical world.

Instead, Byatt presents two entwined, long setpieces -- one of the evacuated thin child, who is nameless, and the other a retelling of the destruction of the gods with just a touch of meta commentary. She ends with a comparison of the destruction of the gods to the destructive acts of foolish mankind today. Again, Byatt is not forcing a comparison but noting that today, people are trying to destroy the world as surely as the gods' actions made their fate a foregone conclusion.

Like Loki, the thin child likes to see and learn about things. And like the gods and modern human despoilers, she can be callously destructive:

She gathered great bunches of wild flowers, cowslips full of honey, scabious in blue cushions, dog-roses, and took them home, where they did not live long, which did not concern her, for there were always more springing up in their place. They flourished and faded and died and always came back next spring, and always would, the thin child thought, long after she herself was dead. Maybe most of all she loved the wild poppies, which made the green bank scarlet as blood. She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk -- slightly damp, she thought -- and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding, for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower-fresh. Which wilted almost immediately between finger and thumb. But there were always more, so many more.
In one of the interesting asides, Byatt muses on whether anything the gods could have done could have changed their fate. No matter what they did, however, there is the impression that things would still turn out this way. This is not a fairy tale where there are heroes who win fair maidens and fair maidens who are rescued, nor is this fiction purportedly under the control of an author (although the notion that characters speak to an author is not addressed). This is myth. This is going to end badly.

As Byatt notes when Frigg is traveling around the world asking all to promise to not harm Baldur:

The thin child knew the promise could not hold. Something, somewhere, must have been misssed, must have been forgotten. Stories are ineluctable. At this stage of every story, something must go wrong, be awry, whatever the ending to come. It is not given, even to gods, to take complete, foolproof, perfect (italics) precautions. There will be a loophole, slippage, a dropped stitch, a moment of weariness or inattention. The goddess called everything, everything, to promise not to harm her son. Yet the shape of the story means that he must be harmed.
For a book that is only 171 pages, Byatt densely packs in setting the stage to display the breadth, width and depth of both the world of the gods and that of the thin child, reveals the acts that will culminate in Ragnarok itself -- especially the death of golden god Baldur and Loki's subsequent flight and capture -- and the end of that world as the gods are destroyed.

After the end of the gods, the thin child's wartime ends. Her story is not one of heroic acts and brave deeds, but is instead the very essence of quiet drabness and the realization that there are no longer great dreams to be dreamt. The thin child, with what Byatt calls a thin world, has been a framing device to get the reader back to the frame of mind when the acts of the gods mattered to the way the reader considered the real world outside the covers of a book.

Byatt concludes with thoughts on myths. These include her choices for not including an aftermath of Ragnarok, called Gimle, that is sometimes likened to a Christian second coming, and that she did not build characterizations and motivations for the gods beyond the basics -- they are not full-fledged characters on purpose. These choices well serve Byatt's belief that myths are porous. The way they are told always says something about the teller, and usually about the world of the teller. Perhaps fittingly for a retelling that incorporates WWII, Wagner's Norse gods are wrested away from their Nazi admirer. She compares and contrasts aspects of the story with Christian mythology and anchors the Norse gods with a larger framework of Western civilization.

Last week I wrote about current novels that are rewrites of other novels or which feature real people as characters. They usually fall short of the original material and I wonder why bother. This isn't the same as building on a literary tradition. I consider the honest retelling of a myth to fall in the building category. It's a distinction that may not matter to many readers, but to me it is the difference between tracing a drawing, coloring it in and calling it your own, and creating your own painting that is not a copy of the Mona Lisa, but which brings to mind her smile.

Myth is part of civilization's foundation. Byatt is writing about when creatures agreed to not harm golden Baldur, but her words brought to mind the way myth binds us together with stories told in common:

Everything was held together by these agreements. The surface of the earth was like a great embroidered cloth, or rich tapestry, with an intricately interwoven underside of connected threads. She walked through the fields to school, in spring and in summer. There were borders of flowers round the wheatfields, full of scarlet poppies, blue cornflowers, great white moondaisies, buttercups, cowslips, corn buttercups, lamb's succory and thorow-wax. Broad-leaved spurge, red hemp-nettle, shepherd's purse, shepherd's needle, corn-parsley. In the long grass in the meadow were milkmaids, orchids and knotgrass.

Under the earth worms were busy, millipedes ran, springtails flourished, all kinds of beetles dug burrows and laid eggs. Maggots and caterpillars squirmed; some were eaten by fledglings and harvest mice, some changed miraculously into butterflies, white and gold, umber and purple, bright blue, pale blue, int-green, spangled with stripes and frills and eyes on black velvet. Up out of the corn came skylarks, spiralling and singing. Plovers tumbled overhead, crying, peewit, peewit. She had bird books and flower books, the thin child, and noted them all, tree sparrow, bullfinch, song thrush, lapwing, linnet, wren. They ate and were eaten, it was true, they faded and vanished as the earth turned, but they came back at the solstice, and always would, whereas Baldur was doomed to die, for all the promises. If her father did not come back, he would never come back.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jun 12, 2012 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Community Spotlight.

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