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Apocalypse Then And Now

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Rich in prose and elemental poetry, A. S. Byatt's The End Of The Gods is a retelling of the myth of Ragnarok with a child-like twist in the tale. In Norse mythology, an offshoot of Germanic mythology, Ragnarok denotes the final war among the gods that would steer the cosmos to a cataclysmic end.

The author leads the reader into the story through a thin, bony three-year-old girl whose family is caught in the London blitz during the Second World War. To escape bombardment by the Germans and "the sulphurous air of a steel city, full of smoking chimneys", the child's family moves out to an English countryside untouched by the war. While her father is "fighting in the air in Greece, Africa and Rome", the girl is taken in by the peaceful environs in the ordinary English paradise, ornamented by lush meadows and a rich variety of flowers and plants. When the child turns five, her mother teaches her how to read. Drawn to the world of fairy tales, she starts to imagine, weave and tell herself stories of her own, sorting out mountains, rivers and animals, even the mythical dragon, during her lonely sessions absorbing mystical nature. When the child is gifted a hard-bound volume of Asgard And The Gods, an adaptation of Dr. W. Wagner's work, she reads about "the retrieval of old Germanic world, with its secrets and wonders…"

In a subtle manner, the author draws a parallel between the war-torn world the child inhabits and the mythical end of the world being wrought by the Norse gods. The story of the Norse gods' creation and bloody feuds play out in the child's mind, right from the beginning to the end (Ragnarok). At one point, the author says, "She did not believe the stories in Asgard And The Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive." As the mythical world stands on the brink of Ragnarok, the humans in the story find themselves in an unsettling, catastrophic situation. Byatt mentions how "They became raiders. They overran each others' housesteads, howling and roaring, slaughtering the weak and emptying the meager stores. They drank what mead there was, swallowed the wine as though there was no tomorrow, which they began to believe was true." In the real world, too, thanks to the war gods among the allies-the Nazis and other players- the common man would have sensed an apocalypse with their displacement, bare-to-arrive ration and the constant fear of being snuffed out. The child also fears the end is near and that her father will never come back.

While most of the major gods die in Ragnarok, the surviving ones help the humans rebuild and calm the earth. In the child's world, her father returns to the countryside where his family had taken refuge. His comeback is symbolic of the return of a few surviving gods after the defeat of the Germans in the Second World War.