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It's one of the most powerful myths to have captured the Western imagination. The Norse saga that depicts the battle of the Gods with names like Odin, Thor and the incandescent Baldur pitted against the might of the giants are filled with images of betrayal and defeat as violent nature unleashes beasts of war. As for the final apocalyptic end - Ragnarok - the word itself has an adamantine quality to it. It hangs in a bottomless void, Ragnarok, turning and twisting in the minds of poets, musicians, composers and writers who have interpreted it in their own different ways to signal an end to history, 'The Twilight of the Gods' as it has been called.
When A S Byatt was asked by her editors to re-interpret a myth it was hardly surprising that she should choose 'The Myth of Ragnarok'. As she explains in a final chapter, she was given the book, Asgard and the Gods, when she was a young child. The stirring events were imprinted in her mind, just as they are in the imagination of "the thin child" who forms the protagonist of her recreation of the myth.
This phantom child has been evacuated to the countryside during the war and as she reads, she colours the text with her own understanding of the battle that is raging between the Huns who are the heirs to the Norse myths and her own father, with the flaming red hair, who is fighting them. The overthe-top prose with which Byatt girds her story could be attributed to an over-active imagination of the little girl. There is no way to get around it, as a device the thin child is unbearably twee. As though in recognition of this impulse, Byatt in her afterword mentions that the thinness was not just a physical attribute but "also because what is described of her world is thin and bright. "
"The thin child" serves as a link between the events of Norse pre-history and Byatt's memory of the past and by a further expansion into our present and possible future, or the lack of it. That is Byatt is in a high priestess mode using the myth of the end of the Gods as she has signalled her tale into an end of civilization saga.
Either Byatt is too close to the original and wants to repossess it in her own image whipping up a grand meringue of words to elucidate a complex myth. Or like the Gods, she has been so consumed by her own eminence, she does not recognize that like Loki, the trickster who hastens their end, she's been felled by the felicity of her own words.
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