Book review: Ragnarok by AS Byatt

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Ragnarok by AS Byatt Canongate, 177pp, £14.99

SOME of those who have contributed to Canongate's Myths series have given us modern versions, the old myth in a new setting. This approach allows the authors to treat mythical figures in the way that we expect characters in novels to be treated, that is, as beings with personalities and psychologies capable of being explored and assessed. There is nothing new in this approach to myth; writers have been re-working old myths in this manner for centuries. AS Byatt, while admitting that "the civilisation I live in thinks less and less in terms of raw myth", has eschewed this way of treating her subject.

Her chosen myth, which comes in varied forms, Icelandic, Scandinavian, German, is the story of Ragnarok, which she calls "the myth to end all myths, the myth in which the gods themselves were all destroyed". These larger than life figures, capable of transforming themselves at will into beasts, birds, fish and serpents, cannot credibly be humanised.

Indeed they are devoid of human interest, which is a problem for the writer. We may respond to the myth and recognize the monstrous irresponsibility of these gods. We may think that it is very much a myth for our time. "We are," Byatt writes in an end-note, "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." In other words we are behaving with the same selfish stolidity as the Gods of Asgard, and as they destroyed their world, we are destroying ours. So, it may be claimed, this myth of Ragnarok has a resonance that may set us trembling. Not that we can learn from it. The Nordic gods destroyed their world and themselves because they were what they were; just as we are what we are.

However, it is one thing for the author to deny herself the freedom to present these gods and giants and monsters as human characters - which they aren't, because each can be summed up by a single attribute; it is quite another to make them interesting, which, lacking individuality and complexity, they can't be, any more than the superheroes of comic books can. We need a human element. This is supplied by the person called "the thin child", the little girl who, as a wartime evacuee from the Steel City (Sheffield) is enthralled by "Asgard and the Gods", which she reads by torchlight in bed while German bombers roar overhead.

One assumes "the thin child" is now Dame Antonia herself, and this an effective humanising narrative device. The pleasures afforded by this treatment of the myth are numerous. Byatt paints beautiful and fantastic word-pictures, glittering verbal special effects. The little narratives within the big narrative are sometimes gripping, sometimes - unintentionally - amusing. There are moments of pathos, notably the death of Baldur the beautiful and innocent god (subject also of a fine poem by Matthew Arnold) and the journey into hell in an attempt to secure his release and return to life is brilliantly recounted. Then there are many nice observations, such as this comment on the precautions his mother, Frigg, had taken to keep him from harm:

"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 precautions. There will be a loophole, a slippage, a dropped stitch, a moment of weariness or inattention" - as happened to Thetis when she tried to make her son, Achilles, invulnerable. "The goddess called everything, everything, to promise not to harm her son. Yet the shape of the story means that he must be harmed…" Quite so.

Yet for all the vigour of the writing, and the brilliance of the author's imagination, this is a short book which feels like a long one. Byatt's decision not to invest the gods of Asgard with human qualities means that they are not very interesting in themselves. The one exception is the mischievous Loki, part god, part demon, agent of destruction, because he is granted cleverness - just as the serpent is the most interesting figure in the first books of Genesis. The rest, without that spark of humanity, are decidedly dull; there is no reason to care for them, and when their world crashes to destruction, one may be inclined to say "so what?" For the truth is that the various stories on which Byatt exercises her very considerable art are for the most part either silly or boring. Really, the myth needs music, which is of course what Wagner supplied when he took some of it over, fused it with native German myth, and made The Ring. "Gtterdmmerung" is tremendous and moving: despite the recurrent presence of "the thin child", Ragnarok is only a piece of intellectual and imaginative virtuosity.