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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

=book recently read: Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt=

This book is not so much a novel as it is a coherent narrative recasting and meditation upon the many variations of tales spun out of Norse mythology. It's bracketed by the story of a young girl--a fictionalized autobiographical stand-in for a young Byatt during World War II--who escapes into the mythological world of the Norse gods during the terrifying years of the Blitz. The violent tales of Odin, Loki, Baldur, et al., offer what may at first seem surprising consolation to the girl--but not so surprising when you consider that they offer an explanation of the chaos and tragedy she sees in her own world--which cannot be satisfactorily explained by the standard Christian myths she's been fed in Sunday school and in such books as Pilgrim's Progress.

For the girl, Ragnarok makes more sense than the Resurrection. Bad shit happens for no good reason, with no chance of redemption. "Stories are ineluctable," Byatt writes, "Something mus tgo wrong, be awry, whatever the ending to come. It is not given, even to gods, to take complete, foolproof precautions. There will be a loophole, slippage, a dropped stitch, a moment of weariness or inattention." When Baldur's mom treks tirelessly through the world gathering pledges from gods, demons, earthquakes, and mountains that none will harm her son, she neglects to secure a promise from the lowly mistletoe--which, of course, will eventually be used to slay him. How could she have made such a mistake--a mistake any child could see coming a mile away? Well, Byatt says, the answer is shockingly & inarguably elementary "the shape of the story means that he must be harmed."


What the Norse myths present is the existential version of absolute zero: good and evil, light and dark, god and demon, life and death cancel each other out; the world's clock winds down, stops, fire consumes everything, nothing remains. There is no new age. Not every winter is followed by a spring. History is linear, not circular. The story ends; there are no sequels. The end is final. There's nothing and no one coming back. Byatt's "thin little girl poring over her grim book of Norse mythology has seen the worse that can happen and she holds it close to her heart--a talisman against fear and anxiety. She's seen the future and it's painted black. There's no uncertainty about what's behind that last door. Knowing and accepting the worst that can happen is a crooked kind of comfort but it is a comfort. If mythology has a practical purpose this is it's purpose. And of all mythologies, Norse mythology provides the bitterest pill to offer. It's strong medicine but if one can swallow it one is immune to the worst of existential terrors. That is what Byatt's "thin little girl" discovers. She's ready for her Ragnarok.

Byatt is asking, Are you?

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