Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Canongate, New York, 2011

From my local library.  Read as part of Once Upon A Time VI.

Using her own experiences in World War Two as a template, A.S. Byatt retells the Norse myth about the end of the world.

As  bombs begin to rain down on England a “thin child” is evacuated to the countryside. The child tries to make sense of  the world around her, of the difference between the dark, fearful time she experiences  and the peace and love preached in church.  She misses her father, knowing he is flying somewhere over Africa.

The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lives in provisional fear of imminent destruction.  They faced the end of the world they knew.  The English country world did not end, as many others did,  was not overrun nor battered into mud by armies.  But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it… From page 4.

Then the child is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of ancient Norse myths written by Wilhelm Wagner, and she began to understand.  These fascinating, terrifying stories of love, betrayal and revenge help fill in the missing parts of the world.  They seem real and vital, much more real than what adults are telling of the world.

I’ve said it before,  A.S. Byatt is a master story-teller.   She has taken the bitter, violent tales of Thor and Odin, Loki and Balder and given them new life through the eyes of the thin child.  By doing so she renews them for those of us who remember them from childhood or school.  Her language turns dark, dangerous things into creatures of great beauty, even the snake Jörmungandr, a voracious monster who ends up encircling the world, is at times beautiful.  Between sections of myth, the “thin child” begins to find ways to bring the “real” world and the world of the Gods together, and have it make sense.

Byatt connects the myth of the end of the Gods to the horrors of war.  We come to know something of the inner life of a small child living in war-time, of the constant fear that surrounds her, of her questioning.

But the author also connects the myth to the loss and devastation we bring to our world, our home planet.   She tells of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and all the things that live in and on her, even under her.  She even adds the tale of Rándrasil, a huge kelp tree, and the rich sea gardens that lie at her feet.  These passages, filled with a multitude of plants and animals, are an inventory of loss.  The End of the Gods?  Byatt shows us the possible end of so much more.

It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe.  As I read this small book I wanted to hear the words, to be read to.  Maybe someone has created an audio version.  Regardless, this is a book I will add to my personal library.

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18 Comments

Filed under A.S. Byatt, LiteraryFiction, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

18 responses to “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

  1. I’d seen this book on the shelf in our public library but had no idea what it was about until now. Thanks to your informative post, I can see the parallel and what an ingenious comparison Byatt has made. I just have one question, please advice: Do you think if someone, like myself, not well versed in Norse mythology would understand and enjoy the book? I know, it sounds like Midnight’s Children, which deals with a lot of Hindu mythology.

    • Arti , I think you would very much enjoy and understand Ragnarok. Byatt is a brilliant story-teller and might even intrigue you into reading more Norse tales!

  2. “It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe. ” Yes, absolutely. I’ll never get tired of her prose.

  3. I haven’t had the best luck with Byatt in the past, but maybe I will try this one…

    • I think Ragnarok would be a book you would enjoy. The blending of the thin child’s story and Norse mythology worked for me.

  4. I enjoyed this book tremendously. I didn’t know much about Norse mythology to start with, but I think that Byatt did a good job of contextualizing it and making it approachable. I enjoyed the poetic language as well.

  5. I just read another review of this book somewhere (sorry, I forget where, or I’d let you know where), and between you and that one, I think I need to find this book! It sounds gripping, and sad, and moving. I like seeing how myths can become real for us, are applicable to our lives, how we keep them alive.

  6. TBM

    This one sounds good! I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  7. I really must read this author. I keep hearing raves about her (?) books. And this particular one would interest me as I recently listened to American Gods, which focused on quite a few Norse gods and the World Tree.

    • Jenners – Ragnarok would be a great place to start with Byatt’s work, then The Children’s Book. I have yet to read American Gods, even though I saw Gaiman read from it last fall! There have been a gazillion holds on it at my library

  8. I don’t think I’ve read any of this author – I seem to remember really liking the look of one of her books but never actually buying it! This sounds really good. I shall have to make a note!
    Lynn :D

  9. I read this a while back and loved it. Can second the recommendation, to anyone, even people who aren’t that into Norse myths

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