Seduced by the cover and the promise of something a little different from her norm (having read ‘Possession’ and ‘The Children’s Book’), I picked this up in its beautiful hardback form and for once allowed the impulse a rare indulgence.
Part of The Myths series, which includes Margaret Atwood’s, ‘Penelopiad’, the publisher Canongate invited select writers to retell a myth in their own way and this is A.S. Byatt’s contribution.
Ragnörak is a Norse myth, the story of how things came to be and how they and world are destroyed after a series of conflicts, revenge takings, mutations and natural disasters. Byatt’s version is neither a short story or novel, more of an insight into the myth, the perspective of a thin young girl in wartime, an immersion into the created world and its end, concluding with the author’s thoughts on myths.
Coming to it without knowledge of the mythological background, I found myself immediately immersed in life forms that grew and transformed, creatures that came into existence, hunted, survived, wrapped their tentacles around and invaded trees, forests, lakes, streams, oceans and the planet.
Strange but alive, it is a kind of living nightmare; the young girl (who I immediately came to think of as the author as a young girl) tries to understand and make sense of the world around her, while rereading her ‘Asgard and the Gods’ stories that invade her imagination and develop her awareness and understanding of belief or disbelief as it turns out.
She did not believe the stories in ‘Asgard and the Gods’. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive.
The pages are infiltrated with images of nature in abundance, colours, textures, millions of living things and creatures, moving, sliding, digging, squirming, biting and gulping, with an omnipresent sense of foreboding. The Gods celebrate as they always do with fighting and shouting, self-destruction an ever threatening accomplice. Jörmungandr, the angry, sensuous, snake with an insatiable appetite is particularly haunting and memorable.
In her ‘Thoughts on Myths’ at the end, Byatt notes the difference between fairy tales and myths, the former giving the reader the pleasure of recognizing repeated variations on similar narrative patterns, while myths often torment, puzzling and haunting the mind who reaches into them.
We are reminded of the world we live in and the corruption, contamination, pollution and ultimate destruction of the living organism we inhabit and can only wonder if we too are destined for such a fiery end. For me, it was more of a beginning, another entry point into the mysterious and meaningful realm of ancient mythology.
Ursula K Le Guin, Literary Review