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Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt.

July 31, 2012

Why are myths so powerful?

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods,  by A.S. Byatt. Grove Press (2012), Hardcover, 192 pages

A powerful retelling of Norse myths, as read by a thin, asthmatic young girl living in the British countryside during World War II.

Byatt captured me right from the start, plunging me into her vigorous rendition of Nordic myths unfamiliar to me.   The precision of her words, the pace and tension of her writing, and the grim awareness of impending doom were compelling.  Yet my question remained.  Why are these myths so powerful for me, an adult not often drawn to myths?

In part, Byatt answers that question through her creation of “the thin girl,” bright, curious, and asthmatic, living in the countryside to be away from the bombs falling on London.   The story of her need for these stories is interwoven with Byatt’s telling of the myths.  The thin girl lives with war.  Her father is fighting in Africa, and she has no hope he will return.  Planes fly over the countryside, and news of fighting and death is inescapable.  She is taken to the church with its stain glass window of Jesus, meek and mild, surrounded by bunny rabbits, but Christianity seems dull and irrelevant to her.  It is the Nordic myths, with all their colorful gore that hold her attention.  She doesn’t “believe” them, as she is told to believe in Christianity, but “the myths stay coiled inside her.”  The death of the gods is very real for her, something she needs to read about.  Resurrection can be ignored.  At night she dreams of her parents made helpless by the Nazi.  She likes the fact that that the gods can be stupid and dumb and will be judged, unlike the all-good, all-powerful God of Christianity.  When the war is over and her father returns unharmed, the family goes back to a London suburb, the thin girl misses the countryside and the myths she read there.

Byatt ends the book with her own views on myths and their importance.  She sees myth as depicting impersonal forces without the personal, psychological forces of fairy tales.  They also lack assured happy endings of other narratives.  Byatt also confirms the autobiographical nature of “the thin girl.”  In addition, she writes of how we today face the same kind of lurking dangers as global warming and chaos approach.

This week, as I read Ragnarok, I was overwhelmed with my own health problems, my dog was dangerously hurt, and budget cuts that were threatened at the library my husband directs.  Like the thin girl, danger was palatable for me.  More generally, I cannot escape the vulnerability of our entire globe, the ongoing financial crises, the fiasco of American politics, and global warming.  Somehow, the gods and their self-inflicted destruction give me more satisfying images of upcoming disasters than all the charts and videos of future floods and heat waves.  Because I can visualize the death of the gods, as Byatt tells it, I can control my own panic about the future.  And like the thin girl, we have all survived.

Read on my NOOK, for the discussion on Slaves of Golconda.  See other reviews there.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2012 10:29 am

    The analogy between your own situation and Byatt’s is makes a deep and sad read. I do hope you are feeling much better now.

    • August 6, 2012 5:21 pm

      Thanks. I am doing better if still a little slow. And thanks for liking my various reviews.

  2. August 3, 2012 11:08 pm

    A Word Less World. Ain’t we all strangers?

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