Although I grew up with D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, I have never been familiar with traditional Norse mythology. I have a Scandinavian heritage, so this seems a bit sad to me. When I saw that A.S. Byatt’s new addition to the Canongate Myths series was about the end of the world according to Norse mythology, I decided it was finally time to delve in to the Norse myths.
D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants (originally published 1967, republished 2005 as D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths) is a great starting point, as was their Greek Myths volume that I regularly reread and poured over as a child. Using the D’Aulaires’ straight-forward prose and a nice balance of illustration, this introduction for children covers what seems to be the most important traditions and people in Norse mythology. Coming from a good understanding of the Greek myths, I was interested to see how the mythologies overlapped a little, and yet how different they were overall. The Norse Gods were mortal, and while they were not as promiscuous and otherwise involved with the lives of the humans, they still had an ongoing tradition of disagreement and rivalry. I was fascinated to learn about the blood-brother god who wasn’t a god: Loki. I was hungry for more, although to get a familiar with the Norse mythology as I am with Greek mythology, I realize I’d have to reread D’Aulaires’ volume a few more dozen times.
However, I don’t believe one needs an introduction to Norse mythology to fully appreciate A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok (published in the U.K. in 2011; to be published in the U.S. in February 2012). In Ragnarok, Byatt creates the world of the Norse gods and brings it alive with rich prose. The background mythology I read in D’Aulaires’ is expanded ten-fold in Byatt’s novel, and the myths and stories became both beautiful and horrible by Byatt’s life-giving writing. Byatt’s story helped me embrace the myths, feel the significance of the various gods, and become emotionally involved in the destruction of the world as the Norse myths taught it.
Byatt frames her mythological retelling with a young thin girl, who is reading Asgard and the Gods as she lives in the quite countryside during World War II. The thin girl does not receive a name, for it is not really her story. Rather, it’s the story of how myths become a part of our lives. The thin girl sees connections between the Christian myths she’s taught in church (and in her copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress) and the Norse myths she comes to love. Yet, she cannot claim “belief” in either of the traditions. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the Norse myths are her favorite. Once those myths became a part of her life, her perspective of the world around her is colored by the happenings of the gods she has come to love.
The girl’s developing perspective on the world is intriguing especially considering the ongoing war that she has fled to the country to avoid. The fact that the volume of mythology she is reading is originally from Germany, the land of her enemies, causes her pause in her considerations of how the world works. Her absent father becomes a figure in her own personal mythology of life. And the country landscape – trees, flowers, and colors – becomes a vital part of her daily life and her understanding of the traditions, from Yggsdrasil to the rainbow bridge to Asgard.
I loved how Byatt wove the two stories effortlessly. There were times when I began a chapter unsure if Byatt was taking me back to Asgard or if she was describing wartime for the young child. Because we are told the myths from the perspective of the child, who is learning them, this blending of life seemed so real-to-life. She herself cannot separate her real life in wartime, in the countryside, from the mythological world that has swept her away during her time of relative freedom to read and explore.
The ultimate end of the world, according to the Norse tradition, was a rather horrible scene. Personally, I loved how the thin girl’s story wove into that too. Although the end of the novel was sad, I loved that all she had come to love about living in the country (and the ways the war had become a part of her life and her mother’s life) became likewise horrible as they re-entered the smoggy city. The “Ragnarok” of the novel was in one sense the end of the Norse gods as the tradition holds. But it was also, for the thin girl, the end of her childhood, the end of the world as she would long for it the rest of her life.
Byatt’s afterward, which explained her thoughts and intentions in writing the novel as she did, likewise brought the entire mythological novel in a circle. As a whole, I found Ragnarok superbly executed. And although an understanding of Norse mythology is certainly not required (Byatt will give you what you need), it got me excited to read more about the traditions. I want to reread Byatt’s masterpiece on occasion just so I’ll come to a better understanding of the Norse myths, so that I’ll feel as comfortable discussing Balder and Odin and Loki as I feel considering my “friends” Zeus and Athena and Hercules.
I read a review copy of Ragnarok via netgalley.com