The premise for A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse myths is both simple and compelling: A girl (whom Byatt calls only “the thin child”) is sent from the wartime London blitz to the presumed safety of the English countryside. There, in an “ordinary paradise,” she walks daily through bomb-free meadows and fields, falling in love with the profusion and variety of flowers and plants she finds there.
The child’s father, a fighter pilot, is far away, in Greece, Africa and Rome. Her mother is free to give the girl a life of the mind, traditionally only given to male children. At 3, and loving books, the thin child is taught to read. One day, her father is shot out of the air. It is never discussed, but she knows he is never coming back. She remembers him, with bright blue eyes and flaming red hair, as being “like a god.” Loss fills the girl with despair, though she is too young and too socially constrained by the customs of the time and place to know how to name or discuss it.
Her book-born life of the imagination begins with a chiaroscuro of fairy tales: moons and suns; dragons and dwarfs; wolves and foxes; forests and darkness. She builds her own stories out of these tales, tales of “wild riders and deep meres, of kindly creatures and evil hags.”
These imaginings are enormously expanded upon, and influenced forever, when her mother gives her Asgard and the Gods. “The stories belonged to the ‘Nordic’ peoples, Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders.” The thin child is living in England, a northern land invaded and settled by Vikings. “These were her stories. The book became a passion.”
Ragnarok takes us into Valhalla, home of Odin, Thor and, for me most compellingly, the shape-shifting trickster Loki. Byatt’s Loki is as clever, as beautiful and sexy as the situation requires, or as ugly and malevolent. His beauty is “always affirmed, yet hard to see … always glimmering, flickering, melting, mixing … the shapeless mass of the waterfall … the invisible wind that hurried the clouds in billows and ribbons … amused and dangerous, neither good nor evil ... the gods needed him because he was clever, because he solved problems. When they needed to solve problems, mostly with giants, Loki showed them the way out.”
He also fathers three rapacious children, whose ever-expanding greed would bring an end to the Norse gods and the world they and their disciples bestrode. One is a super-powered wolf, another a violently vicious black and blue giantess. The most intriguing, and ultimately most destructive of these, is a small female snake, with scales of dull gold and bright blood red. A ravenous need to kill and feed makes her grow her so huge that she girdles the world and fishes out its waters until, too fat to move, she curls up in the shoals and along the shores of large countries, killing with fangs and accreted venom any creature that comes near.
The parallels to our modern world are unmissable to even the most obtuse, but the images and urgency of Byatt’s writing keep the reader as engaged as was the thin child, meditating on modern applications on greed and unfettered growth only after catching one’s breath at book’s end. And, if you dream after reading, you may well dream of this book. I did.
Byatt, who acknowledges in an afterword that she was the thin child, transmits her passion to the reader with a turbulent waterfall of images cascading from every page. Some books are so image-rich, so pulsing with life, that the reviewer does not know which passages to choose for quoting – one has to fight writing out the entire book – which is not acceptable literary criticism (and would, quite unfairly, reduce book sales). Do read this book. Read every page of it. It is a great gift from the greatly gifted.
There is a wealth of reading that cross-references A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse myths. A few of the richest are:
D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths
As with D’Aulaire’s book of Greek myths, it’s nominally a children’s book, but a splendid “road in” to myths for readers of all ages.
The Sagas of the Icelanders
Along with the Eddas, the core of Nordic myth. Icelandic myths spread and cross-pollinated throughout the ancient world.
The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People
Thomas Keightley’s definitive compendium of the mythic bearers of great power and magic in compact size.
The Penguin Book of Scandinavian Folktales
An illuminating delight from cover to cover.
The Book of Goddesses and Heroines
The anima power and magic in myth, with Nordic goddesses liberally represented in Patricia Monaghan’s work.
Parabola: Tradition, Myth and the Search for Meaning
This unique and superb quarterly is now 35 years old. Highly recommended, and always seeking articles by and for the mythically addicted (parabola.org).
Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett, also mythology-addicted since childhood, agrees with A.S. Byatt that myths are far more powerful than fairy tales.