A.S. Byatt - Ragnarok, The End of the Gods (excerpts)


The thin child stored this picture of the end of things, like a thin oval sliver of black basalt or slate, which was perpetually polished in her brain, next to the grey ghost of the wolf in the mind, and the gleaming coils and blunt snout of the snake in the mind. She read for what she needed, and chose not to imagine, not to remember, the return of gods and men to the refurbished green plain of Ida, which was related in Asgard and the Gods. The careful German editor of that book observed that this resurrection was probably a Christian contamination of the original bald end. That was enough for the thin child. She believed him immediately. What she needed was the original end, the dark water over everything.
       The black thing in her brain and the dark water on the page were the same thing, a form of knowledge. This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The black was now in the thin child's head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered.

She had stored Ragnarok against the time when it would become clear that her father would not come back. Instead, one night, after midnight, when the blackout was still over the windows, he came back, unexpected and unannounced. The thin child was woken, and there he was, standing in the doorway, his red-gold hair shining, gold wings on his tunic, his arms out to hold her as she leaped at him. Walls of defence against disaster crumbled in the thin child's head, but the knowledge of Ragnarok, the black disk, held its place.

They went back home, the thin child and the family. Home was a large grey house with a precipitous garden in the steel city, which had its own atmosphere which could be perceived as a wall of opaque sulphurous cloud, as they came in from the countryside to which they had been evacuated. The thin child's lungs tightened desperately as the fug closed in on her.
       There was something of Bunyan's allegory about the places to which they returned. The old house was in Meadow Bank Avenue, an oval space like a long pan, from which a steep, narrow path sloped down to a place called Nether Edge. The thin child was quite a bit older when she understood the beauty of the words, Nether Edge, as opposed to just saying them quickly and thinking of the place where the butcher had his shop, with his hatchets and knives and bloody limbs of creatures, where the huge buses raced and boomed, where the stationer sold sherbet, newspapers and gobstoppers.
       In the midst of Meadow Bank Avenue was a large oval patch of grass which was the Green, surrounded by a low fat grey stone wall on which you could sit. At one end was a group of tall trees, beech and oak. It must once have been a village green, where Blake's children were heard at play. Modern children still played on it, but it had been immured in the spread of suburb.
       The thin child's father, in his spare time, which diminished as he became more and more successful, took to building a garden. There was a small flat lawn and a wash house, behind the house, and at the end of this exiguous lawn a wooden arch which the child remembered from the days of her infancy, an archetypal arch, covered with archetypal roses, red, white, sugar-pink. Under the arch the garden fell precipitately down towards Nether Edge. The roses had run wild in the war. They spread in thorny thickets like those in fairy tales. The thin child's father, singing as he worked, curbed and trained them, fastened them to the rustic poles of the arch, licked his pricked fingers and laughed. He ordered stones from the countryside, grey stones like those which were cleverly built into the walls that kept in the moorland sheep. He began to set the plunging garden in order with dry-stone stepped terraces, holding in flowerbeds with lilies, Shirley poppies, rose bushes, lavender, thyme and rosemary. He made a pool from an old stone sink, in which swam tadpoles and a stickleback the thin child caught in a net on a picnic, a furious red swimmer she named Umslopogaas. It was a pretty garden in its newness, despite the soot in the air. The thin child loved her father, and loved the garden, and wheezed.
       The thin child's mother, who had been gallant and resourceful in wartime, might have been expected to find a happy ending in the return to the comfortable home from which she had been exiled. In fact she suffered what the thin child, much later, learned to call a fall into the quotidian. She was not a mother who had ever been any good at playing with her children, and the thin child could not remember her reading aloud, however inexhaustible the books and stories she gave the child. During the war, when she was teaching, she had had friends. There was Marian who wore a green hat with a dashing pheasant feather and played games of Robin Hood, running through woodland, shooting bows and arrows. The thin child's mother looked on, in an agony of embarrassment and uncertainty about this behaviour. The thin child watched her mother, and took notes. But her mother did inhabit the countryside and its stories. The boys she taught clearly loved her. They gave her living creatures — a hedgehog dripping fleas on the carpet, a tank full of great crested newts who tried to escape at breeding time and died, shrivelled, under the gas cooker. The hedgehog was released into the field at the bottom of the garden, and its donor was told it had escaped. He brought another, equally flea-ridden, the next day, which was also released. There were vast slimy clumps of frogspawn, and then tanks full of inky tadpoles who ate each other. The thin child's mother went on walks, in those days, and lovingly named all the flowers. The thin child had a complete collection of books of Flower Fairies with well-written verses and elegant pictures. Dogrose, Lords and Ladies, Deadly Nightshade, violets, snowdrops and primroses.
       The long-awaited return took the life out of the thin child's mother, the thin child decided many years later. Dailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons, saying she was suffering from neuralgia and sick headaches. The thin child came to identify the word 'housewife' with the word 'prisoner'. Fear of imprisonment haunted the thin child, although she did not quite acknowledge this.
       The outdoor spaces of her wartime, the wheat-field, the meadow, the ash tree, the hawthorn, the hedgerow, the muddy pond, the tangled bank, became a thing in her mind like the black slate or basalt. They were compressed to a spherical tuft with pushing roots and shoots, with creeping, crawling, flying and swimming things, with a patch of fierce blue sky, another of green grass, another of golden corn, and another of the dark earth under the dense hedge. It was a small world, into which she had been exiled or evacuated. It was the earthly paradise that once had been.
       She still read in bed at night, returning often still to Asgard and the Gods, and to The Pilgrim's Progress, lying on her stomach in her bedroom doorway to catch the landing light on the pages, creeping back like a snake if she heard movements below. The blackout was over. Moonlight came in through her bedroom window and wild shapes flailed and gesticulated across the ceiling, whiplashes, brooms, rearing serpents, racing wolves. When she was very little she had feared them. Now she watched them with delight, and made stories and creatures from them. They were made by the wind in the branches of a wild ash tree that had planted itself, as those trees most tenaciously do, on the sill of the garden shed.
       The thin child's father said it must come down. It was a wild tree, out of place in an urban garden. The child loved the tree, and loved her father, who had been restored to her against all her grim expectations. She watched him take an axe to the tree, singing as he hacked, making logs, a stump, bundles of brushwood out of the living wood. A gate closed in her head. She must learn to live in dailiness, she told herself, in a house, in a garden, at home, where there was butter again, and cream, and honey, good to taste. She must savour peacetime.
       But on the other side of the closed gate was the bright black world into which she had walked in the time of her evacuation. The World-Ash and the rainbow bridge, seeming everlasting, destroyed in a twinkling of an eye. The wolf with his hackles and bloody teeth, the snake with her crown of fleshy fronds, smiling Loki with fishnet and flames, the horny ship made of dead men's nails, the Fimbulwinter and Surtr's conflagration, the black undifferendated surface, under a black undifferentiated sky, at the end of things.


Myth comes from 'muthos' in Greek, something said, as opposed to something done. We think of myths as stories, although, as Heather O'Donoghue says in her introduction to her interesting book on the Norse myths, there are myths that are not essentially narratives at all. We think of them loosely as tales which explain, or embody, the origins of our world. Karen Armstrong, in her 'short history of myth', says that myths are ways of making things comprehensible and meaningful in human terms (the sun as a chariot driven by a woman through the firmament) and that they are almost all 'rooted in death and the fear of extinction', Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, sees myths as dreamlike shapes and tales constructed by the Apollonian principle of order and form to protect humans against the apprehension of the Dionysian states of formlessness, chaos and gleeful destruction. Tragedy controls the primeval force of music by presenting us with beautiful illusory forms of gods, demons, men and women, through whom apprehension is bearable and possible. He wrote:

Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture. The forces of imagination and the Apollonian dream are saved only by myth from indiscriminate rambling. The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, ubiquitous but unnoticed, presiding over the growth of the child's mind and interpreting to the mature man his life and struggles.

       Nietzsche's heroes were Aeschylus and Sophocles whose characters are mythic beings. He did not approve of Euripides, who tried to humanise the actors in these stories, give them individual 'characters' and personalities.
       Even as a small child I was aware that there was a difference between reading myths and reading fairy tales, or stories about real people, or stories about imaginary real people. Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology, though Freud used the mythical life of Oedipus as a way of describing the machinery of the unconscious. They have attributes — Hera and Frigg are essentially jealous, Thor is violent, Mars is warlike, Baldur is beautiful and gentle, Diana of Ephesus is fertile and virginal. I remember, seeing that goddess in the stony flesh for the first time, with her many-layered breasts, that I understood there was a sense in which she was more real than I was or would ever be — more people believed in her, thought about her, saw their world in ways dependent on her existence.
       Mythical beings are also more and less real than characters in novels. Don Quixote tries to enter the world of myth and the disparity between his real and his imagined worlds becomes almost a mythical force in itself. Anna Karenina, Prince Myshkin, Emma Bovary, Gustav von Aschenbach are human characters with idiosyncrasies and individuality — but their tales are complicated by the presence in them of impersonal myths. Aschenbach is a battleground for Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysos; Prince Myshkin is a human being trying to be a Christlike man. For several years I used to teach an evening class on Myth and Reality in the Novel in which we looked at the mythical forms which found themselves as one thread in more (or less) realist fictions. My own novels also have threads of myth in their narrative, which are an essential part of the thought and the form of the books, and of the way the characters take in the world.
       I chose the Norse myth of Ragnarök because my childhood experience of reading and rereading Asgard and the Gods was the place where I had first experienced the difference between myth and fairy tale. I didn't 'believe in' the Norse gods, and indeed used my sense of their world to come to the conclusion that the Christian story was another myth, the same kind of story about the nature of things, but less interesting and less exciting. The myths didn't give me narrative satisfaction like fairy stories, which seem to me to be stories about stories, to give their reader the pleasure of recognising endlessly repeated variations on the same narrative patterns. In fairy stories - if you accept the bloody violence, and the horrible things that happen to the bad characters — the point is a pleasurable and satisfactory foreseen outcome, where the good survive and multiply and the bad are punished. The Grimms thought their collected fairy tales were the ancient folk religion of their German ancestors but there is a difference. Hans Andersen did not write impersonal fairy stories of this kind, or not often — he wrote nuanced stories with characters, personalities and feelings in them, authored stories, works of the imagination. I felt he was trying to frighten or hurt me as a reader. I still think he was.
       Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible. The numinous, to use a word that was very fashionable when I was a student. The fairy stories were in my head like little bright necklaces of intricately carved stones and wood and enamels. The myths were cavernous spaces, lit in extreme colours, gloomy, or dazzling, with a kind of cloudy thickness and a kind of overbright transparency about them. I met a description of being taken over by a myth in a poem my mother gave me, W.J. Turner's poem 'Romance'.

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams.
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

I dimly heard the master's voice
And boys far-off at play -
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had stolen me away.

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school —
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

I walked home with a gold dark boy,
And never a word I'd say,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had taken my speech away.

I gazed entranced upon his face
Fairer than any flower —
O shining Popocatapetl
It was thy magic hour.

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
They had stolen my soul away!

I recognised that state of mind, that other world. The words in my head were not Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, but Ginnungagap, Yggdrasil and Ragnarok. And in later life there were other moments like this. Aeneas seeing the Sibyl of Cumae writhing in the cave. 'Immanis in antro bacchatur vates.' Or Milton's brilliant Snake crossing Paradise, erect upon his circling folds.

When Canongate invited me to write a myth I knew immediately which myth I wanted to write. It should be Ragnarök, the myth to end all myths, the myth in which the gods themselves were all destroyed. There were versions of this story in which the world, which had ended in a flat plane of black water, was cleansed and resurrected, like the Christian world after the last judgment. But the books I read told me that this could well be a Christian interpolation, and I found it weak and thin compared to all the brilliant destruction. No, the wolf swallowed the king of the gods, the snake poisoned Thor, everything was burned in a red light and drowned in blackness. It was, you might say, satisfactory.

I found it harder than I had expected to find a voice for telling the myth that was not vatic, or chaunting, or admonitory in the wrong way. The civilisation I live in thinks less and less in terms of raw myth, I think, and the idea of many other writers in the Canongate series has been to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies. There is also a particularly interesting retelling of the stories by the Danish novelist Villy Sørensen, published in Danish as Ragnarok, En gudeforttælling and in English as The Downfall of the Gods. Sørensen grew up, he says, in the world influenced by the Christian teaching of N.F.S. Grundtvig, who argued in his Northern Mythology (1808) that the war between the Norse gods and the giants was 'the fight of the spirit against the baser side of human nature — as culture's perpetual fight against barbarity'. The followers of Grundtvig believed that the 'new world' depicted in a poem in the Elder Edda as arising after the catastrophe of Ragnarök — which was named Gimle - was an analogy of the Christian Second Coming, the new heaven and the new earth foretold in Revelation. Sørensen suggests, as did the German scholars who wrote Asgard and the Gods, that because the tales were written down by Icelanders who were already Christian, their interpretations and forms may have been influenced by Christianity. The Danes thought in terms of Ragnarök followed by Gimle after their defeat by the Prussians in 1864, and Sørensen's version is part of a Scandinavian attempt to rescue the myth from the Germanic (and eventually Nazi) connotations involved in the history of Wagner's Götterdämmerung.
       Sørensen's way of rescuing and retelling the Norse myth is to humanise it as a battlefield between power and love, with Loki — both god and giant — as a central and conflicted figure. Sørensen's Valhalla is human and domestic. His gods have feelings, doubts, psychological problems. He ends, not with Gimle, but with the end of the world — he has chosen, he says, between Ragnarök and Gimle, and aroused great anger amongst religious Danes by doing so. What he does, in a very interesting way, is precisely what I felt prohibited from doing.
       I tried once or twice to find a way of telling the myth that preserved its distance and difference, and finally realised that I was writing for my childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods. So I introduced the figure of the 'thin child in wartime'. This is not a story about this thin child - she is thin partly because she was thin, but also because what is described of her world is thin and bright, the inside of her reading and thinking head, and the ways in which she related the worlds of Asgard and Pilgrim's Progress to the world and the life she inhabited.
       The war might well have destroyed the thin child's world. She built her own contrary myth in her head. Even if — indeed when — she herself came to an end the earth would go on renewing itself. The fair field was full of flowers, the sky was full of birds, the tangled bank hid a world of struggle, water was alive with swimming and wriggling things. The death of the gods is a linear tale, with a beginning, a middle and an end. A human life is a linear tale. Myths proceed to disaster and maybe to resurrection. The thin child believed in the eternal recurrence of growing things, and in weather.
       But if you write a version of Ragnarök in the twenty-first century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness. Every day I read of a new extinction, of the bleaching of the coral, and the disappearance of the codfish the thin child caught in the North Sea with a hook and line, when there were always more where those came from. I read of human projects that destroy the world they are in, ingeniously, ambitiously engineered oil wells in deep water, a road across the migration paths of the beasts in the Serengeti park, farming of asparagus in Peru, helium balloons to transport the crops more cheaply, emitting less carbon whilst the farms themselves are dangerously depleting the water that the vegetables, and the humans and other creatures, depend on. I wanted to write the end of our Midgard — but not to write an allegory or a sermon. Almost all the scientists I know think we are bringing about our own extinction, more and more rapidly. The weeds in the fields the thin child sees and thinks of as eternal are many of them already made extinct by modern farming methods. Clouds of plovers do not rise. Thrushes no longer break snails on stones, and the house sparrow has vanished from our gardens. In a way the Midgard Serpent is the central character in my story. She loves to see the fish she kills and consumes, or indeed kills for fun, the coral she crushes and bleaches. She poisons the earth because it is her nature. When I began working on this story I had a metaphor in mind — I saw the death-ship, Naglfar, made of dead men's nails, as an image for what is now known as the trash vortex, the wheeling collection of indestructible plastic in the Pacific, larger than Texas. I thought how it had grown from the plastic beakers Thor Heyerdahl was distressed to find floating in the empty ocean, on his Kon-Tiki voyage in 1947. But I wanted to tell the myth in its own terms, as the thin child discovered it.
       I have said I did not want to humanise the gods. But I always had in mind the wisdom of that most intelligent thinker about gods, humans and morality, Ludwig Feuerbach. 'Homo homini deus est', he wrote, describing how our gods of Love, Wrath, Courage, Charity were in fact projections of human qualities we constructed from our sense of ourselves. He was talking about the incarnate god of Christianity, a God in man who to Feuerbach was a man made god. George Eliot translated The Essence of Christianity fluently and flexibly, and its influence is strong in her work. But there is a sense in which the Norse Gods are peculiarly human in a different way. They are human because they are limited and stupid. They are greedy and enjoy fighting and playing games. They are cruel and enjoy hunting and jokes. They know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world. Homo homini lupus est, wrote Hobbes, man is a wolf to man, describing the wolf inside, Hobbes who had a grim vision of the life of men as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Loki is the only one who is clever and Loki is irresponsible and wayward and mocking.

Deryck Cooke, in his splendid study of Wagner's Ring Cycle, I Saw the World End shows how intelligently Wagner constructed his character, Loge, from the available sources of the myths. Wagner's Loge is, Cooke says, the god of fire and the god of thought. The Loki of the old myths is only half a god, and possibly related to the giants and demons. It is probably a false etymology that connects the Germanic fire spirit Logi with the Loki of the Eddas, but Wagner's Loge is both a solver of problems and the bringer of the flames that destroy the World-Ash. As a child I had always sympathised with Loki, because he was a clever outsider. When I came to write this tale I realised that Loki was interested in Chaos — his stories contain flames and waterfalls, the formless things inside which chaos theorists perceive order inside disorder. He is interested in the order in destruction and the destruction in order. If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration. As it is, the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.