Ragnarok: The End of the Gods – A.S. Byatt
Grove Press, February 2012
Review copy through Netgalley
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Ragnarok is A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Scandinavian myth of the end of the world, the moment that the Gods kill each other and destroy all that they know. In retelling this myth, Byatt has taken a girl, “the thin child”, who reads the myth during her childhood in war-time Britain. The reader veers in and out of the story of the myth, through the eyes of the child, following how the child makes sense of her own world, with her father away on war-duty, and the world of the myths told in Asgard and the Gods.
In order to enjoy Byatt’s retelling, you need not be familiar with the story of Ragnarok. In fact, I have never read a version of the myth myself, and have only caught glimpses of the idea of the end of the world as represented in it. Byatt’s prose is beautiful and lures you right in. And even though I had to adjust to using the child’s perspective and appropriation of the myth for her retelling, in the end this is exactly what made Byatt’s book so interesting to me.
At the end of the book, Byatt explains why she chose to represent the myth as she did, reflecting on the autobiographical inspiration for the thin child, the idea of the relation of Ragnarok as inevitable to the contemporary loss and carelessness about the Earth’s nature, but also on the process of reimagining the specific genre of myth for modern readers. Byatt defines the differences between fairy tales and myths as concerning the kind of story telling they represent: fairy tales are narratives, straightforward, satisfactory to the reader, featuring characters with full personalities. Instead, myths, to Byatt, are often unsatisfactory, need not be narratives at all, and often feature characters that have no all-round personalities, just attributes.
“Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible. The numinous, to use a word that was very fashionable when I was a student. The fairy stories were in my head like little bright necklaces of intricate carved stones and wood and enamels. The myths were cavernous spaces, lit in extreme colours, gloomy, or dazzling, with a kind of cloudy thickness and a kind of overbright transparency about them.”
I enjoyed Byatt’s reflections at the end of the book, because it was exactly this different world view represented in the mythical parts of the book that captured my interest. Not because of the content of the myth, per se. I hate to admit it, but I even found it hard to not let my thoughts wander during the first few chapters detailing a part of the myth pertaining to trees. Instead, it was because Byatt paints such a vivid picture of the differences in world view between Scandinavian mythologies and Christianity, and yet has the child approach both as stories, which she could enjoy but did not believe in. Rather, the child seems to find meaning in the fact that both Asgard and the Gods and The Pilgrims Progress were stories that impressed her and lived on inside of her. Byatt does not criticize belief per se, but she shows how people search for and appropriate stories when they construct their own world view, through the eyes of “the thin child”.
In a way then, Byatt’s Ragnarok can be read as a somewhat post-modern and humanist perspective on meaning making through religious myth. This is reflected in her “A Note on Names”, published at the beginning of the story, in which she explains why she used different names used in different regions for the same character:
“Myths change in the mind depending on the telling – there is no overall correct version.”
But it is a theme that recurs throughout the book. In her story, Byatt has the child prefer Asgard and the Gods over Christianity, at one point, because the child feels she can make more sense of the crumpling world of war in that way. Byatt certainly seems to prefer myth over Christianity, seemingly identifying the latter with a more static and strict worldview. And this is exactly what intrigued me. On the one hand, Byatt had me thinking to myself: “here I have been studying religion for years, and I feel I am finally making sense of the utter difference between a circular world-view, a mythical one, and the more linear Christianity”. On another level, while Byatt states she represents myth in a less modern way than her predecessors in the Canongate Myth series, by retaining Gods as characters with attributes instead of personality, she makes something as old as myths modern in a different way, by emphasising the constructionist and changing nature of myths. Then again, on yet another level, she really does only underline something inherent to the nature of the old custom of what we now call myth-telling, it having always been a tradition of re-telling, without every word being strictly set in stone.
I enjoyed Ragnarok very much, perhaps less so for the parts in which the myth itself was retold, and more because it made me stop and think, every few pages. I am still processing what I have read, and I cannot wait to return to this short book someday. In the mean time, I am anxious to finally read some of Byatt’s other fiction.
Other Opinions: Desperate Reader, She Reads Novels, Things Mean A Lot, Rebecca Reads, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Lindy Reads and Reviews, A Librarian’s Life in Books, Eve’s Alexandria.
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