Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's always Armageddon somewhere

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
by A. S. Byatt

Byatt's Ragnarok is that rare book that I pick up with no expectations, no preconceptions. I hadn't read any reviews, wasn't even aware that it had been published when it simply appeared on the new book display at my branch one day. When I finally got around to reading it, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had read this story before.

Of course I had. "Ragnarok" is an Old Norse word meaning "the fate of the gods" or, more broadly, "the end of the world." Byatt's book is a fanciful recasting of the mythological stories in the Poetic Edda, a collection of heroic and mythological poems from medieval Iceland and the main source for the study of Norse mythology. The poems in the Poetic Edda encompass the whole span of the world's existence, from its murky beginning and the long age of gods and giants to the current age of humans and the coming cosmic war that will end in a welter of fire and ice and blood and the complete destruction of all that ever was. As a erstwhile academic who specialized in Germanic mythology, I have read the Eddic poems more times than I can count. Those ancient tales are stuck in my head for good and always. But that's not what I'm talking about.

Byatt frames her ecologically engaged retelling of the Eddic myths within the story of an unnamed young girl evacuated to the safety of the English countryside during the Blitz in World War II. The girl (known only as "the thin child") bides her time in rural exile, waiting only for her airman father to return home from the the burning skies over North Africa and Italy. She finds no solace in the church her schoolmates attend and no wisdom in the books they must read. But then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods (a translation of a translation of the Poetic Edda) and at last sees a world she recognizes: rich and mysterious, beautiful and terrible, and shot through with apocalyptic violence. She's hooked as surely as the Midgard Serpent on Thor's fishing line, and she immerses herself wholeheartedly in the Edda's perilous realm. The girl's obsessive reading is no escape, but rather a way to try to find sense and meaning amid the oppressive reality of global, industrialized war.

And there's the familiar part. Stop me if you've read this before: it's the Second World War and a young person is traumatized either by the experience of the Blitz or by the loss of home and family when she is packed off to the safety of rural England, and while there she stumbles into a hidden world whose terrors and mysteries are a dark reflection of the outside world. Sound familiar? Of course! It's C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and John Connolly's Book of Lost Things. Move the setting to the Spanish Civil War and it's Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Make the protagonist a teenaged American soldier captured in the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in Dresden during the Allied firebombing of that city and it's Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Or remove the element of real-world war completely and it's the Harry Potter series.

I don't know what to make of this pattern, and I'm sure that my list captures only a fraction of all the books and movies that follow it. So keep your eyes open; you never know when a story will lead you down the rabbit hole and show you the world as it truly is.

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