Genetic testing, bought for me as a present some years back, reveals that I am, on my fathers’ side (plural intentional) Norse. I have common DNA with men in Uppsala, Copenhagen, and a couple of small villages in western Russia. I have a blood condition common around the Mediterranean, also, which, along with those Russians, indicates that it is likely that an ancestor of mine visited Byzantium and brought home a bride. Upon learning that, I became interested in Norse mythology. I’ve learned about Odin, and Thor, and Freda, and Hel (yes, the original Hel,) and many other gods worshipped by my ancestors. And I have always been curious about Ragnarok.
Ragnarok, in the short version if you don’t click the link, is a story about events at the end of the world. Thor manages to kill a monster snake, but is killed in the process. Odin dies, Freda dies, everyone in Valhalla dies, oh, it’s a bloodbath. The good guys do win, but holy smokes, at such a cost.
I always wondered why anyone would include such a terribly pessimistic story in their cultural mythos. Everybody dies! So what’s the point? Right?
Except, after reading Neal Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. (See my review on Amazon from February 18th for more.) Gaiman tells the story so clearly and enjoyably that I finally got the whole story on Ragnarok, which is darned difficult to do reading the Eddas. The fact is, of course, that everybody doesn’t die. I knew that, but I didn’t know what happened next.
Two of Thor’s children survive. Two of Odin’s children survive. One human couple survives by hiding deep in the branches of the World Tree. So, one might surmise that the Norns are still down there at the roots dealing out fate, right? And Balder, the nicest, most beloved, all-around good person of everyone at Asgard, comes back from the underworld, because, well, why not, huh? The former Asgardians set up a new city at the site of Asgard, a better one. The world starts coming back, better than ever. And one day the gods are out sitting in the grass when they notice something shining in the sun, mostly buried in the grass. It turns out to be a chess piece, representing one of the gods. They find a chess piece for each of the gods, in fact, even Balder himself. Then they set up a game, and Balder, whose smile is like the sun coming out after a rain, reaches down and makes his move. Then, as Gaiman puts it, the game begins anew.
Wow! So, there is no end to the world, really. But it is terribly, destructively, difficult to defeat evil. But, the game always begins anew, in a better place, with better players. Holy cow, does that remind you of anything?
Like how the Great Depression and World War Two ushered in a newer, better, world, based upon the virtually total destruction of an old one? The Renaissance? The Industrial Revolution? Today?
Like all stories, Ragnarok is a metaphor. In this case, it is a lesson in how tough it is to put down evil and build a better world, but that in spite of that, good always triumphs, and a new, better, situation emerges. If we give it our absolute all. Damn, but I felt better after reading that book!
And there you go! Metaphor! Sure, there are people who don’t get it. Well, too bad for them, huh? But for the rest of us, we can march into Ragnarok fully knowing that a bit of what we hold dear will survive, while our enemies (whatever that means in a given case) will be wiped out. Take that, snake! I’m not saying that you should consciously insert metaphor into all of your stories. I’m saying that if they are good stories, the metaphor will be there, and be what’s making them so good. Wow. And all about reading about a mythical battle at the end of the world!