Ursula K Le Guin
Ragnarök: The End of the Gods
By A S Byatt (Canongate 240pp £14.99)
Retelling a great myth is like performing a famous piece of music: between faithfulness to the familiar score and personal interpretation of it lie many risks and choices. Between the worldview of a Norse skald, or poet, and that of a writer ten or fifteen centuries later, the scope for risks and choices is immense. Ragnarök, A S Byatt's contribution to the Canongate Myths series, is a brilliant, highly intelligent, fiercely personal rendition of the Scandinavian mythology.
Its personal element has particular resonance for me because, like A S Byatt, I was a child during the Second World War. I, too, read the Norse myths, and like her I found they made sense of the strange world we were growing up in. But California was a long way from the north of England, and the versions of the story I knew were very different from hers. She read the translation of Wägner's scholarly edition; I read Padraic Colum's, written principally for younger readers. Colum gave the often incoherent material narrative shape, humanised its brutality to some extent, brought out its harsh humour, and told it in fine, clear prose. Byatt was dealing with something nearer the raw material. But we were both reading a story that moved inexorably through war towards doom.
I don't know another cosmogony that is a tragedy - that kills off its entire cast of characters. This one moves from Darkness through Creation, War, and Destruction, to Darkness. Children are supposed to like cute bunnies and happy endings. Some of them like to hear about Darkness.
In her retelling, Byatt puts the story to two uses: one is to make it parallel a child's experience of war; the other, to make it a parable of the uncontrolled human behaviour that is destroying life on Earth. Though the story is powerful enough to carry a very heavy load of interpretation, this double use of it is not, I think, entirely successful.
We read it in part through the eyes of a 'thin child in wartime', whose father is an airman in north Africa. The child reads of Odin's Wild Hunt riding through the cloudy sky, and imagines people cowering beneath those hoofbeats on the wind as they cower now in air-raid shelters. 'It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control. In the daytime, the bright fields. In the night, doom droning in the sky.'
This is fine. But to me the child's responses soon become intrusive, increasingly so as the narrative takes on an elaboration of language and sophistication of reference far beyond a child's capacity. To halt the narrative as it gathers impetus and explain what it meant to a particular child at a particular time may increase its depth and relevance for some readers, but for me the autobiographical element would have worked better as a framing device.
Courageously, Byatt gives us much of the Norse cosmogony in terms of what science - geology, oceanography, biology - has told us about the origins and complexity of Earth and life. Yggdrasil, the World-Tree of the myth, is shown as the growing web of life itself: a grand metaphor that reveals the richness hidden in the spare language of science. But the language of myth is also spare. Byatt expands it into torrents of lush and dazzling prose. The pace is that of film, rushing through marvels. Though I miss the austerity that leaves visualisation to the imagination of the reader, this insistent brilliance might be just the thing to catch readers used to being shown everything in colour.
To compare the doomward behaviour of the Norse gods with the dire direction of modern civilisation is almost inevitable. We are Odin who half-blinded himself to win his wisdom; we are Loki the shape-shifter and mischief-maker who does stupid things simply because he can; we are the warmakers who will never make peace, the greedy near-immortals who think they can feast off golden plates forever and never pay the price. Fenris the Wolf howls at the edge of our world, and we do not listen. The myth speaks to us and of us, and Byatt luxuriates in letting it do so. She lists the richnesses of the world, the infinite marvels, beauties, grotesqueries, interconnected, mutually nourishing, mutually devouring manifestations of life that will all go down in darkness at the time of Ragnarök, the war at the end of the world. The lists she makes become litanies, incantations, spells to bring before us what was wonderful and may be already lost:
from the vast tracts of bladderwrack to the sea-tangles, tangleweeds, oarweeds, seagirdles, horsetail kelps, devil's aprons and mermaid's wineglasses ... streamlined sharks in many forms, thresher, shortfin mako, porbeagle, tope, leopard shark, dusky shark, sandbar shark and night shark, the hunters of the hunters of the hunted
There were borders of flowers round the wheatfields, full of scarlet poppies, blue cornflowers, great white moondaisies, lamb's succory and throw-wax. Broad-leaved spurge, red hemp-nettle, shepherd's purse, shepherd's needle, corn-parsley ...
There is nothing like this in the original tellings - it is a gorgeous enrichment and interpretation. And like all interpretations, it is a limitation. It says, 'This means that.' The myth is explicit: through stubborn folly and greed the gods bring devastation on themselves and all the world. Of course this applies to us. Yet something in me protests at the use of the myth as prophecy. Yes, it applies to us now. But it always applied to those who heard it, and it always will. It is not our story only.
Byatt describes her child self as finding a 'grim satisfaction' in the myth. And, for all the lavish splendour of her litanies of the living, she greets the end of the world with a grim satisfaction. Some of the old versions suggest survivors of the final war, younger gods, a rebirth. Byatt dismisses these hints as mere contaminations from Christianity. The worst comes. After it, nothing. The story ends in void darkness.
Void darkness, Ginnungagap, is also where the story begins. If the world ended once and for all at Ragnarök, how came the old Norse skalds to the mead halls to sing the story? I don't think they needed Christians to tell them that life is born out of death and light out of darkness, as well as the other way round.
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Ursula K Le Guin's most recent novel Lavinia won the Locus Fantasy Award in 2009.