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.