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Book Review : A.S. Byatt

The End of the Gods

The Myth of Ragnarok

By A.S. Byatt

Hamish Hamilton imprint/Penguin Books

By Manju Kak

There is a trend in world literature to make the novel  inaccessible to the lay reader,  to  make him virtually sweat, almost as if it were a conspiracy to deny him understanding. AS Byatt’s newest edition to  the Canongate Myth Series too feels inscrutable, but her formidable reputation makes one plod on to be rewarded finally by exquisite  bounty.  Booker prize winning Byatt, whose novels include, “Possession”  and “The Children’s  Room”  is the author of 15 works of fiction.  In writing this,  she says she wanted to explore the mystery of how the world came together, was filled by magical and profound beings,  and then came to an end.

The End of the Gods  is not a novel,  but an elegiac,  short and grim retelling of the  Norse myths.  Most myths are not cheerful, but  pessimistic,  incomprehensible and intolerable, she says, but they shape one’s mind. In this offering she recalls her childhood discovery of an English translation of the scholarly 1880’s Dr W Wägner’s Asgard and the Gods.  She was  struck that all gods die in the end.

In a parallel narrative she uses the voice of childhood memory; her  alter ego is the `thin child’ who exists much in the head, evacuated to the countryside with her teacher mother. She is a reader and thinker who encounters these myths as she walks through the fields learning the names of flowers that will soon be extinct, Byatt says.  She goes fishing in the North Sea, where a similar scenario is unfolding.

The terror of war-torn England  of the 1940’s is upon her; her father is a pilot in North Africa who may never come back.  The cycle of life, death, destruction and regeneration is around  in news of the London Blitz as well as in the natural beauty of the English countryside. A more intelligent reading sees metaphorical and allegorical allusions to the ecological disasters facing the modern world, species of flowers and stocks of fish, like cod and coral,  dangerously diminished.

Old Icelandic and ancient Norse myths are not  familiar zone to average  Indians, though  allusions to Biblical and scripture lessons are. There is  Odin, the ruler of the gods, with his  attendant ravens of Thought and Memory who  will perish in the jaws of Loki’s  monster -child—Fenris. “This will happen after the  wolf has swallowed the sun and savaged the moon.”  Shape-shifting trickster Loki is also father of  the venomous Serpent who lies coiled round the roots of the world-tree, the ash Yggdrasil, and Hel, goddess of the Underworld. But Loki  will also die. Pain, torture, killing and sacrifice fill these pages in a riot of intoxicating visual imagery that is  essential Byatt  writing.

Ragnarök, or the apocalyptic end  is the destiny of the gods. Like man, the seeds of their destruction lies in them—extraordinarily clever yet vainglorious victims of their own short-sighted  greed. In its final summation,  power is ultimately finite, perhaps a lesson to all politicians in India today.

Byatt reinvents the Scots Yggdrasil as an underwater tree so she can describe  the creatures under the sea. And the death ship, Naglfar, that sets sail at the finale as the gods are dying is a hauntingly  reminiscent image of the  indestructible spilling of oil, plastic et al of our industrialized world.

Byatt, born in 1936,  was three years old when the war broke out. Her  father did return; Europe regenerated,  but the healing of cultures took a longer time, like the `thin child’ who wonders where the good and wise Germans were, those who had written Asgard and the Gods.  Surely for  the continued renewal of the natural world the path now universally acknowledged, is the Buddhist Middle Way.