Hovering somewhere between fiction and fact, A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök: The End of the Gods is a compelling reimagining of Norse mythology. Starting in childhood, the stark and bleak icons of a world where even the gods die captured my fantasy in a way that the more real myths of my own faith did not. Like “Greek mythology” the tales of the Norse don’t come in an authoritative canon. Like the tales collected by the brothers Grimm they are bits and pieces that Byatt brings to life with honest description and the willingness to trust the outlook of a child. Mythology is too often castigated as puerile and of no inherent worth. We would not, however, be human without it.
I suspect we all secretly envy the gods, begrudging them their strength, but especially their immortality. Most myths admit that gods might die, but often they come back or become greater for their demise. Ragnarök is the final death of the gods. In fact, it isn’t so far from the “heat death of the universe” that some scientists warn us is surely coming. All good things come to an end. Even gods. The Christian God, who becomes omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient over time, loses something of his likableness for it. Vulnerability lends us a sense of sympathy. Who cannot help but weep for Balder? Odin, the God hung on a tree, dead and brought back to life is swallowed by a wolf. Even mighty Thor succumbs to the poison of the serpent. The world feels impoverished for their loss. Victorious gods have a way of making warriors of their worshippers. Maybe we have something to learn from the gods of the folk.
Mythology is out of fashion among academe. The only money it brings in is from the movies it inspires. Truth may be had for bargain basement prices, so why pay to learn what makes us believe in the impossible? Reading of the end of the gods instills a kind of inspiration that orthodoxy only smothers. No, these deities never really lived. These events never really happened. Still, humans have always found mythology to be uniquely satisfying. Ragnarök explains a chaotic world where our ideas of justice and fairness are often left disappointed. As Byatt points out, Loki is a compelling figure perhaps because he represents what we all know to be true—visions of control are only delusions. In a world with one, monolithic, monotheistic God, we find things hard to explain. Postulating a world where the gods know that they too face an end, even if only in fiction, may help us better understand a world where facts just don’t add up.