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The End of the Gods in the English Countryside

March 15, 2012 by Reader's Connection

RagnarökDuring the Blitz, the German bombing of English and Irish cities during World War II, a thin child–no other name is given to her–was moved with her mother to “a country town, of no interest to enemy bombers.” While there, she was given a book about Norse mythology. The wild, violent beings and happenings in those myths spoke to her, in part because “the thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lived in provisional fear of imminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew.”

With Ragnarök: The End of the Gods A. S. Byatt breathes new life and death into these sagas. A child’s experience of war and an adult’s fear of what we are doing to this planet somehow come together in this little book with Odin and Thor and Loki and their lot.  And Byatt’s Loki is much more frightening, more vicious,  than I remember his being in other treatments of these myths. There’s no stopping this guy, or god, or whatever he is.

My favorite passage is a visit to the land of the dead. (The ruler of that land, whose name is Hel, isn’t big on bargains, if you were thinking of making the trip.) I thought of Orpheus and Aeneas when I read about the journey, but I also thought of the recurring dream described by police lieutenant Al Pacino in the movie Heat, where he’s sitting at a banquet table with the bodies of all the murder victims he has ever discovered. They look at each other, and then they look at him.

Vicious isn’t really a word I should use when discussing these gods. Human attributes, positive or negative, don’t quite apply. We have entered another world.

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