Review: Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
Imaging the end of things, when you are a child, is perhaps impossible. The thin child, despite the war that was raging, was more afraid of eternal boredom, of doing nothing that mattered, of day after day going nowhere, than she was of death or the end of things.
Ragnarök is the latest in Canongate’s ‘Myth’ series, in which the world’s most respected authors retell a myth in the manner of their choice. Stories have been contributed by Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, Jeanette Winterson, Alexander McCall Smith, and others. Now it is A.S. Byatt’s turn. She gives us a retelling of the Norse legends, entwined with the reflections of a child reading them—a young girl in wartime England, who is quite possibly the author.
Ragnarök is a meditation on belief, the nature of stories, and the destruction of worlds. It is gentle, solemn, and inexorable, like a myth itself. Byatt begins with ‘the thin child’ and her acquisition of Asgard and the Gods. The girl dips in and out of this book. Byatt thus relates the Norse tale of creation. She introduces the shape-shifter Loki and his children. She then describes the binding of the wolf Fenrir, the growth of the great serpent Jörmungandr, the fate of Baldur the Beautiful—all symptoms of the decline of the gods, leading inevitably to Ragnarök, the last battle, after which no life remains.
I enjoyed Byatt’s retelling. Like the author, I read the Norse legends as a child. I had the pleasure of remembering the tales that impressed me. I liked the thin child, who reads and questions and knows that her father, a war pilot with flaming hair and blue eyes “like a god”, will not return. I liked the sense of impending doom that propels the narrative. I wished for more of this in the chapters where the author creates her settings. The minute detail of her descriptions—of Yggdrasil the World-Ash, Randrasill the Sea-Tree, or just an English meadow—can be exhausting. They are undeniably beautiful, though.
I never liked Norse mythology much, perhaps because it ends in annihilation. In her afterword, Byatt offered me another reason. She writes “the Norse gods are peculiarly human…” She talks of their pride, their greed, and their blindness. The gods know that Ragnarök is coming, are “transfixed, staring at it, like rabbits with weasels”, but are incapable of doing anything to avert it. Byatt is, of course, speaking of us, and the destruction of our world. The thin child believes that the gods were “not clever enough, and bad”. Their end, according to the child, is “grimly satisfactory”. What of us? Byatt maintains that she did not intend to preach, but I think she does, cloaking it in the myth.
When I first read the book, I missed its final chapter. I stopped at the end of Ragnarök, in the world of black liquid. There is a more hopeful ending, though (or so I thought), for the thin child in peace time. She finishes her book and begins again. Ragnarök simply waits.
By Amy Stevenson