When the novelist Philip Hensher interviewed A. S. Byatt for the Paris Review a little more than a decade ago, he asked her opinion of the idea that the personal is the political. Given that this feminist doctrine gave women a way to justify the value of their own experiences to their male peers, and led to an explosion of woman-authored, and woman-centric literature, Byatt might have been expected to embrace it wholeheartedly.
But the distinguished English author, ever the free thinker, did not.
“The personal is not the political,” she responded “…The kitchen is not a paradigm for everything.”
It is a refreshing sentiment, particularly in light of the conventions that still dominate women’s literature (whatever that actually means) today. In the “kitchen paradigm,” because the personal is the political, there is no reason to discuss the traditionally political. As a result, the public has been confronted with a deluge of novels about women who appear to live in a vacuum, assuming no place within the social fabric and showing no concern for the currents of the world beyond their doorstep.
We need fear no such thing from Byatt, whose newest work, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, completely turns its back on the kitchen paradigm. In this masterful retelling of the Norse Armageddon myth, Byatt digs beneath the surface of “quotidian” concerns to get at the most basic themes of existence. Beginning with the creation of Yggdrasil, the World Ash that holds the earth together, the narrative rushes on inexorably to the final clash of the gods when all is annihilated and the world reduced to a “flat surface of black liquid.”
In between these points march a parade of stories unfamiliar to many today: the binding of the giant wolf Fenris, the growth of the enormous snake Jormungandr, the slaying of Baldur the Beautiful, and many more.
Like all myths, the scale of Ragnarok is enormous, seeming to encompass the whole world in its broad strokes. Byatt writes with both tremendous economy and the kind of refinement that is only produced by a lifetime of discipline. Even in an enumeration of the fish of the sea, or the beasts of the land, not a word is wasted
In an effort that may be intended to ease readers into the unfamiliar landscape, A. S. Byatt nests her narrative in the story of a little girl who has been evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. This “thin child”—undoubtedly Byatt herself—has been given the book Asgard and the Gods, an account of the Norse myths, and her journey through the book parallel the reader’s own journey. It is a clever framework that drives home the endurance and universality of the stories.
Armageddon may seem an abstract concept in a world of paying bills and running errands, but it assumes a heightened importance in the context of world war
Byatt accompanies the conclusion of her story with a fascinating discussion of myth itself that notes that “gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities in the way people in novels do.” It is a keen observation that underscores the unconventionality of the narrative for Western readers accustomed to a Christian worldview.
Christianity offers a god who shares certain human aspects and qualities, replacing the deity who is the ultimate embodiment of Justice or Force, with a deity who is a participant in the human struggle. Contrast Jesus in Gethsemane with Thor and Odin on the cusp of Armageddon.
Jesus wavers; the gods do not. They, too, are subject to fate, forced onward to do “what they knew how to do.” In this way, Ragnarok is a stark deviation from the norm to which we are accustomed, and its effect on a reader is that of being thrown into a very cold stream—it both shocks and exhilarates.
Ragnarok may not be a book for a dark night or tough times—but then again, it might. Sometimes the act of confronting a hard truth brings relief. When the thin child recounts her classmates’ trouble in talking about death, and then later claims that “what she needed was…the dark water over everything,” her words resonate powerfully.
“This is how myths work,” Byatt proclaims. “They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind.”
If this is the hallmark of a myth, then Byatt has achieved great success in recasting this ancient story in a new mold and losing none of its original purity. Such a muscular and dense book will not be easily found on the shelves today.