The End of the World as We Know It: Review of A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarök

Ragnarök offers a chance to peek into the author’s mind.

“There are two ways, in stories, of winning battles—to be supremely strong, or to be a gallant, forlorn hope. The Ases were neither. They were brave and tarnished.”

Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt

This is not exactly a novel. Not exactly fiction, not exactly autobiography, not exactly allegory. Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt’s reweaving of the Norse cycle of myths is, for such a short book, epic. Ragnarök is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which since 1999 has published retellings of famous myths by accomplished authors the world over (you might recognize Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from the list of Canongate titles).

Ragnarök loosely tells the story of the thin child, an otherwise unnamed waif who is a loose representation of Byatt in her childhood, sent to the English countryside during World War II. She finds herself surrounded by flora and fauna that differs greatly from her city world, and she finds a book about the Norse gods, written by a meticulous German scholar, that opens up her imaginative playground and, indeed, her world view. We follow her as she traipses, book-bag in one hand and gas-mask in the other, through fields of flowers and dreamscapes of great Norse battles, puzzling out what she believes to be true about the world around her.

As this isn’t a traditional novel but rather a retelling of a myth cycle, there is no plot to speak of. And yet the book is dense. Not unlike Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, we are given a younger avatar of the author, are seeing the world through that younger self’s eyes, and yet are being given analysis in a very adult voice. This isn’t told in the singsong tones of a ten-year-old narrator; this is Byatt-as-Storyteller narrating what the thin child thought and how she was changed by the war and the countryside and the book of myths. As the thin child delves further into the myth cycle, we get to see the myths retold. What linear narration there is belongs to the stories of the gods, beginning with the creation of the gods’ world to the creation of this world from the body of the dead giant Ymir to the inexorable destruction of it all. Byatt tells of the coming of the Frost Giants, the gods’ world Asgard and the rainbow bridge Bifröst, the pursuits of all the gods, the inevitable capture and imprisonment of Loki and his children, and finally, finally of the destruction: Ragnarök.

Byatt adopts a slightly archaic tone that is perfect for the subject matter: she sounds like she is telling myths and legends without ever sounding pretentious. This artifice is the most natural way of telling stories of one-eyed Odin and the trickster Loki, Loki’s monstrous children and dead warriors fighting forever in Valhalla and the beautiful, doomed Baldur who must fall at the hands of his fellow gods. Throughout we have the thin child’s narrative—not framing the myths so much as interweaving with them—comparing these Norse myths to the Christian myths she taught in school and church, deciding that both are stories and that she doesn’t “believe” with faith in either story cycle. The thin child loves that the “proper” ending for these myths is truly the end: unrelenting, undifferentiated darkness. The gods destroy themselves and the world, and there is no promise of rebirth, no Christian resurrection, and in this she finds awful beauty. The thin child ponders the meanings of the war going on around her, what might seem like a possible end of days for herself and her country, through the lens of her myths. In a true bit of loveliness, these myths that become all important to the thin child have been catalogued, translated, and analyzed by a “careful German editor,” a voice from the country that is attacking the thin child’s home, a voice that is nothing like the propaganda she hears elsewhere.

Loveliness abounds in this book. Byatt’s love of words, love of shaping the story, gets full play here. As the gods create their world by naming things so too does Byatt. The thin child “liked seeing, learning, and naming things. Daisies. Day’s eyes, she learned with a frisson of pleasure…vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bitter-cress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celan-dines, campions and ragged robin.” Likewise within the telling of the myths themselves, we are given sentences to sink into such as, “Filter-feeding sponges sucked at the thicket of stipes; sea-anemones clung to the clinging weed, and opened and closed their fringed fleshy mouths. Horn-coated, clawed creatures, shrimp and spiny lobster, brittle-stars and featherstars supped.” I can get happily lost in this ocean of lovely language. Byatt creates and recreates worlds for the thin child and for her readers to dive into, just as the gods create the world from the body of Ymir.

Byatt uses the myths to discuss obliquely problems of the modern world. For example, she considers the fact that our world was built from the skull—in the mind, as it were—of Ymir, and that the sun and moon are pursued across the sky each day by howling, snapping wolves. A cosmological tale to explain the movement of the heavenly bodies across the sky, certainly, but Byatt also draws upon the idea of wolves in the mind, forever causing anxiety, unrelenting in their vicious, violent pursuit. Likewise, the World-Tree, Ygdrassil, and the Sea-Tree, Rándrasill, described in such loving, interconnected detail, make for beautiful metaphors of our own planet’s ecology; their destruction speaks to the ecological havoc being wrought by us upon our world. And in the end, the gods’ own nature brings about their doom. Their inability to stop being destructive, their inability to break free of the story they have shaped for themselves, means that the always inevitable (ineluctable, as Byatt says) ending, the Ragnarök they all knew was coming, cannot but come. Byatt is not directly pointing and saying “See, humans? You are in the same position!” She is not smug or knowing, and yet there are parallels to be drawn from these stories that are apt for our times.

For those who are new to Byatt, this is a great first read: packed full of ideas and beautiful language, but accessible and not arduously long. For Byatt fans, Ragnarök offers a chance to peek into the author’s mind. It reads both like a prequel and a summation of her body of writing, her interests, and some of her major themes. As the thin child explores questions of religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian cosmogony as juxtaposed against the Norse, you can see where the roots of Byatt’s interest in the Fabian Society and the Theosophical Society may have begun. In reading, as a child, about the great, female, serpent Jörmungandr who wraps herself around the earth, perhaps the adult Byatt found the creative spark to write Christabel LaMotte in Possession, whose works focused on Melusina, the half-serpent fairy, the good mother/bad serpent archetype.

Dense and bright, full of wonder and the wistfulness of passing time, Ragnarök is a myth cycle for the modern era. When I finished I turned to the beginning and read it again, to spend a bit more time with the thin child, and with mottled Hel and mourning Frigg, sly Fenris and brawny Thor, and their universe, which seems as though it will go on forever—their universe, which is always informed by the understanding that the end of the gods, Ragnarök, must one day come.

Five out of five blue pencils

Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt, published in Canada by Random House, © 2011

Available at the Random House site, Amazon.ca, Indigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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