I received a review copy of A. S. Byatt’s “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods” from the publisher through Netgalley. It is the most recent installment of the Canongate Myth Series, which features reinterpretations of legends and myths by contemporary authors.
A loosely autobiographical tale, “Ragnarok” tells the story of a thin girl in wartime who reads Asgard and the Gods. She imagines the figures of Norse mythology as she frolicks through fields of flowers. The grimness of Norse mythology parallels elements of the thin girl’s life. She realizes that her father is never coming home from the war, and she has nightmares of Germans hiding under her bed. In such a world, she finds the tales of Loki, Baldur, and Odin to be more satisfying and relevant than the stories she learns in Church.
One of the things that makes this book unique as a retelling of myth is the way that Byatt doesn’t try to give the characters modern personalities, but rather gives them the same attributes by which they are characterized in the original legends. Loki was my favorite, as he delights in the forces of chaos.
Chaos pleased him. He liked things to get more and more furious, more wild, more ungraspable, he was at home in turbulence. He would provide turbulence to please himself and tried to understand it in order to make more of it. He was in burning columns of smoke in battlefields. He was in the fury of rivers bursting their banks, or the waterfalls of high tides throwing themselves over flood defences, bringing down ships and houses.
With Loki’s character, Byatt captures that odd sense of satisfaction derived from wildness and disorder.
The story of Ragnarok is a story of destruction, and of the fallibility of even the gods. The ending is inevitable and grim, and yet the story itself is beautiful. The thin child clings to the stories as she begins to understand the pressures of the adult world and to realize the fallibility and humanity of her own parents.
I enjoyed this story tremendously, although I do wish that the author would have italicized the handful of quotes from Asgard. Byatt’s poetic language made me happy, although it might not suit readers who become frustrated by long descriptions of nature. Up until this point, I had not read much Norse mythology. This book served as a good introduction.
As many of you know, I’m a bit obsessed with Ursula K. Le Guin. She also wrote a review of “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods,” which can be found here.