Excerpt of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
(Page 2 of 3)
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Much of her reading was done late at night,
the end of the world with a concealed torch under the bedclothes, or
with the volume pushed past a slit-opening of the
bedroom door into a pool of bleak light on the
blacked-out landing. The other book she read and
reread, repeatedly, was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's
Progress. She felt in her bones the crippling burden
born by the Man mired in the Slough of Despond,
she followed his travels through wilderness and
the Valley of the Shadow, his encounters with
Giant Despair and the fiend Apollyon. Bunyan's
tale had a clear message and meaning. Not so,
Asgard and the Gods. That book was an account of
a mystery, of how a world came together, was filled
with magical and powerful beings, and then came
to an end. A real End. The end.
One of the illustrations showed Rocks in the
Riesengebirge. A river ran through a cleft, above
which towered tall lumps of rock with featureless
almost-heads, and stumps of almost-arms, standing
amongst thrusting columns with no resemblance
to any living form. Grey spiked forest tips clothed
one slope. Tiny, ant-like, almost invisible humans
stared upwards from the near shore. Wraiths of
cloud-veils hung between the forms and the
reading child. She read:
The legends of the giants and dragons were
developed gradually, like all myths. At first
natural objects were looked upon as identical
with these strange beings, then the rocks and
chasms became their dwelling-places, and finally
they were regarded as distinct personalities and
had their own kingdom of Jotunheim.
The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny
pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that
it was the precise degree of formlessness in the
nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was
so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work
to make them live, and so it did, again and again,
never the same life twice, as the artist had
intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log,
seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could
briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing
branch could be a snake, complete with shining
eyes and flickering forked tongue.
This way of looking was where the gods and
giants came from.
The stone giants made her want to write.
They filled the world with alarming energy
She saw their unformed faces, peering at herself
from behind the snout of her gas-mask, during
Every Wednesday the elementary-school children
went to the local church for scripture lessons. The
vicar was kindly: light came through a coloured
window above his head.
There were pictures and songs of gentle Jesus
meek and mild. In one of them he preached in a
clearing to a congregation of attentive cuddly
animals, rabbits, a fawn, a squirrel, a magpie. The
animals were more real than the divine-human
figure. The thin child tried to respond to the
picture, and failed.
They were taught to say prayers. The thin
child had an intuition of wickedness as she felt
what she spoke sucked into a cotton-wool cloud
She was a logical child, as children go. She did
not understand how such a nice, kind, good God
as the one they prayed to, could condemn the
whole earth for sinfulness and flood it, or condemn
his only Son to a disgusting death on behalf of
everyone. This death did not seem to have done
much good. There was a war on. Possibly there
would always be a war on. The fighters on the
other side were bad and not saved, or possibly
were human and hurt.
The thin child thought that these stories - the
sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the
barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human
make-ups, like the life of the giants in the
Neither aspect made her want to
write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it.
Excerpted from Ragnarok
by A.S. Byatt. Copyright © 2012 by A.S. Byatt.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.