Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt is the latest in the Canongate myths series, which has had myths re-imagined by contemporary authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood (whose retelling of the Odyssey as The Penelopiad is highly recommended). As you can probably tell from the title, Byatt has chosen the Norse myths, from creation through to Ragnarök - the end of the world. It is much more a literal retelling of the myth than the freewheeling interpretations other books in the series make. She does however include a framing device of a young girl, called only the thin child, living in World War Two Britain. We read the myth through her eyes, a device that is only moderately successful.
Much of Ragnarok is Byatt’s version of the Norse myths. Instead of following modern conventions of character, she writes them in a style more akin to their original forms. The gods are archetypal, and their behaviour is symbolic of the world around us, rather than a psychological portrayal. The prose is, as expected, beautifully written. The imagery she conjures up of Ginnungagap (the void before creation), of Jörmungandr (the serpent who circles the world), and the final awful silence after Ragnarök, is vivid and engaging. I’ve read a reasonable amount of classical epic poetry, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with this form of storytelling. I wonder though whether some readers will struggle to engage.
Byatt intends the thin child to be our window into this mythical world, and uses her to make two thematic links between our world and myth, which I’ll get onto in a bit. I don’t think this device really works. Partly this is because the thin child herself is a passive interpreter, and is as characterless as the archetypal gods. Rather than giving us insight to the Norse myths, I found her an interruption to the narrative flow of myth, and felt the explanatory role she played in interpreting the stories she is reading was unnecessary.
Byatt was herself a young girl during World War Two, and the child is a thinly veiled self portrayal; apparently Byatt even read the Norse myths at this age. In this child’s mind the destruction of Midgard and the wartime threat of impending doom become inextricably linked. Humans, like the gods of Asgard, are trapped in never-ending cycles of violence. The people who originally told these myths may have disappeared, but the truths the myths portray are as valid as ever.
The child is also a device to explore our modern natural world; as she walks to school, or plays, we are told of the plants and birds she sees - an ode to the British countryside. Over the course of the novel, as the myths move from creation to the destruction of the world, Byatt slowly draws a parallel to the state of our environment. The countryside Byatt describes is disappearing, and the same thing is happening all over the world. The world as we know it is in peril because of human behaviour. The Norse gods continue their drinking, brawling and general cavorting while they wait for Ragnarök. As do we.
Of the two thematic points I think the second is more effective. It is more subtly handled. I wondered if I was reading too much in it until I neared the end of the novel and decided it was intended. Weirdly the book contains what is clearly an afterword (not that it is labelled as one) in which Byatt explicitly explains her intentions in writing in mythic style, and her themes. The fact that it was felt necessary, I think, shows what is problematic about this book. I enjoyed it, but at times I felt I enjoyed it at an intellectual level, rather than being drawn into the story. Whenever I felt the story was getting underway, the thin child popped up to explain the myth, or a purely thematic passage appeared. It is a small book, but I felt it would have benefited from less being attempted; the combination of her themes, the myths themselves and the secondary story in wartime Britain is just a bit much being crammed in.
Byatt is a compelling writer - both Possession and The Children’s Book are fantastic novels. While Ragnarok has its faults it is an interesting addition to the Myths Series. Her depiction of the mythic world is beautiful. She captures both the joy of life and creation, and the cruelty in the stories, and Ragnarök itself is vivid, yet unsentimental.
The wolves tore the throats out of the horses and turned to the drivers of the chariots, sun-woman, night-mother, moon-boy and the boy in the bright chariot of day. Somewhere in the middle air, as the chariots rolled in their fall, the wolves tore apart sun and moon, day and night, drank their blood and swallowed them.
It isn’t a book for everyone, but I did like it. Just, perhaps not as much as I would have liked.