Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Title: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
Author: A.S. Byatt
Genre: Mythology, literary fiction
Publisher: Canongate Books, 2011
Source: NetGalley
Read for: Review

Told through the eyes of a thin child ravaged by asthma, World War II, and her father's absence to fight, A.S. Byatt gives an adaptation of the Norse myths. From the beginning to the earth in Yggdrasil to the end of all things, Ragnarok, Byatt draws lines between our modern paradigms and the violent extermination of the Norse gods.

I have been interested in Norse mythology for a long time. My senior year of high school, the first time I read Edith Hamilton's Mythology, there was a very short section (probably less than ten pages) at the end of the book about Norse mythology, and I was captivated. Later, as I studied C.S. Lewis in college (best class of my undergraduate experience, hands down), I became intrigued again as he described his fascination with "northerness" and his love for the Norse myths. However, I've never really pursued the myths before now. The Prose and Poetic Eddas intimidate me, as I struggle with very old texts (yes, I am one of the heathen that can't stand The Odyssey and The Iliad, although the stories themselves are interesting). When I saw Ragnarok on NetGalley, I had to snatch it up. While I haven't read A.S. Byatt before, I am aware of her reputation, and it didn't steer me astray.

The writing is impeccable. Byatt's words are stark and sparse, not overabundant in imagery, but they evoke powerful imagery. The first half of the book, when the world is just beginning, is full of descriptions -- a tree in the sea with a myriad of creatures living from it, the wolves chasing the sun and moon across the sky, Loki's horrific brood of monstrous children. These first few pages are somewhat slow, but the images were vivid in my mind. Later, when the action picks up -- when Fenrir is bound, when Baldur is slain with the golden mistletoe -- the descriptions are not sacrificed, although they take a backseat to the action. The A.S. Byatt novel waiting for me on my TBR pile is being pushed up in the lists -- I am excited to experience her writing again.

The frame story of the thin child in wartime also provides an interesting perspective on the Norse myths. The lines between her life and the gods are subtle, but powerful once they are unearthed. Byatt describes the child's disillusionment with church and the depictions of Christ, "the kind god," a deity that she is unable to relate to in the violence and uncertainty of war. She finds truth in her book of Norse myths -- while she does not "believe" in the Norse gods, she believes in the world they represent. She believes in the violence and senselessness of it, in the fallibility of the gods, and in the blankness that shrouds all existence after the gods are fallen. Even when the war ends and many of her doubts and fears are shown to be unfounded, the thin child still believes in the world of the Norsemen, not the world of the kind Christ. This parallel to our modern day was interesting and gave the myths more meaning for me, although I do find it interesting that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who were adamantly Christian (as I am myself) found meaning in the myths as well.

Having recently read The Silmarillion, it was also exciting to see the parallels to Tolkien's work. I had not specifically read that Tolkien shared Lewis' enthusiasm for "northerness" (although their friendship makes it likely, in retrospect), but in Ragnarok I saw variations on many of Tolkien's characters, and it was easy to see that the Norse myths were a mine of inspiration for him.

I am torn between feeling slightly dissatisfied with the frame story and being astonished with its brilliance. It is clear to me why Byatt kept the frame story as thin as the child it was about; the story was just a way to tie the myths to the modern experience, a way to set them off, as a well-chosen frame sets off beautiful art. However, possibly because I am a person who is always craving more of a story, I wouldn't have minded more information about the thin child. I liked her; I wanted to know her better. While the story was certainly well-proportioned, I was left slightly unsatisfied.

However, this book was a stellar introduction to the Norse myths, and has whetted my appetite for more information. This is a must-read for those with an interest in mythology.

3.5 stars

Warnings: Violence


  1. I'm reading this right now, so it's great to get your opinion on it. I'm not coming at Ragarok with the same interest in Norse mythology you've had, but I've been curious about Byatt's work for years. I've read a short story or two by her, but never quite made it beyond buying her books to actually READING them. I'm only about 20% through, and I've been feeling a little of that dissatisfaction with the frame story and how slight it is. I'm sorry to hear that that part isn't fleshed out more as the story goes on, but I'm eager to see how it ties together as well as you write. And based on the quality of Byatt's writing so far, I suspect that the rest of her books will be moving up my TBR list as well!

    -- Ellen

    1. In return, it is good to know that I am not the only one who is disappointed by the thinness of the thin child's story. Sometimes I wonder if I am just not as literary as I should be. I am looking forward to reading what you think of the rest of the story, and your future Byatt reads. :)

  2. Wow! You have really inspired me to add this to the TBR list. Great review -- it hits all the right notes to be a book I might love. Thanks.

    1. Thanks! I hope you enjoy it and look forward to reading your thoughts when you do. :)

  3. I had not specifically read that Tolkien shared Lewis' enthusiasm for "northerness" (although their friendship makes it likely, in retrospect), but in Ragnarok I saw variations on many of Tolkien's characters, and it was easy to see that the Norse myths were a mine of inspiration for him.

    It would be much more accurate to say that Lewis' shared Tolkien's obsession with northerness. Most people think Tolkien was a linguist -- technically, he was a philologist, a professor of Anglo-Saxon, also possessing an impressive knowledge of Old Norse. The Norse epics -- The Eddas, Beowulf, the Volsunga Saga -- were his home territory, and mined them like crazy. If anything, he shared those stories with Lewis. And it makes reading those epics sort of delightful, to spot all the things he used in Middle Earth.

    1. In Lewis' autobiography Surprised by Joy he describes his fascination with "northerness" developing in his teenage years through reading, which is before he was acquainted with Tolkien. However, I'm sure their shared fascination was a strong foundation for their friendship.

  4. I've become interested in Norse mythology lately and I've always liked WW II novels, so this combination seems appealing. I'll have to check it out.

    1. I think this is one you would really like, Pepca! Especially because you are such a Tolkien fan.


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