Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ragnarok – A.S. Byatt

For me one of the most attractive things about the Ragnarok myth is that it is the end of the gods rather than the end of the world so it’s rather galling that this is generally dismissed as a later Christian nod towards resurrection. I see it as a perfectly brilliant way of being able to have your mythical cake and eat it; by assuming Ragnarok has happened you can move onto new beliefs whilst still leaving room in your imagination for an older world view which on a wild winters night - or the disconcerting white nights of a northern summer - or during the cataclysmic reality of a world war may not seem so very far away from possibility. I mention this because A.S Byatt also dismisses the idea of renewal and I thought I might hold it against her, but she does it in such a way that I can't. She really is very, very, good.

I’ve been anticipating this book for what has probably been the best part of a year now, I even read ‘The Penguin Book of Norse Myths’ in preparation (and very good it was too). A.S. Byatt is without doubt my favourite living writer particularly when she’s writing short stories and novellas. It might have been a question as to whether this book could ever live up to my hopes for it – honestly it far exceeded them.

It’s a good myth to start with, though I think this is the point to say that I’m a bit vague about the difference between myths and fairy tales. I think I can tell the difference when I’m reading one but an actual definition remains elusive, not least because I feel that there are elements in many myths which are basically fairy stories but put them all together and they become more than the sum of their parts. Most deities are fairly one dimensional but the Norse men had Loki, a shape shifting Lord of Misrule, a god of chaos and curiosity, both Odin’s foster brother and the agent of Ragnarok. In short a complicated character.

What Byatt does with Ragnarok is tell it through the experience of a thin child in wartime. The child takes what she needs from her reading which is not necessarily belief but something more like recognition. Meanwhile Byatt uses (and I liked this too) the traditional structure of the cycle to add in her own lists of things that the child does believe in – nature and the weather, although we know what the child doesn’t, that these common things are no longer common, the destruction continues.

As all good story tellers should Byatt also adds her own distinct twist to events. The chapter on Jörmungandr the world serpent is my favourite and will bear several rereading (as will the whole book).   Jörmungandr in this telling is cast into the sea as a small creature who eats then devours and all the time grows until she spans the earth. All the time she becomes ever more monstrous and angry until the day when she’ll join her father and brother for the final battle.

Like all the best books finishing this has left me feeling slightly bereft, intent on reading again soon, and desperately curious to follow up with more reading around the subject. The hard back is pricy, the kindle version more reasonable, I’m glad I got a proof copy and didn’t have to wait for the paperback because I think this may be the best book I’ve read all year – there is stiff competition for this title, none of them have been duffs. Honestly this book is worth picking up. 


  1. I don't know much about Norse myths - a failing I must rectify. Glad to know this is Byatt at her best.

  2. I too am not as familiar with Norse Myths as say the Greek, Roman and Egyptian, but I'd always wanted to know more. I've only read a few of the Myth series but plan eventually to read them all. It's good to know you really enjoyed this one.

  3. I read a negative review of Ragnarok in The Sunday Times and was disappointed and rather put off it. I wish I could remember now what the reviewer's criticisms were. But I am really pleased that you enjoyed it, to the point that I am feeling all cheered and keen again. I will have to hang on until the paperback though.

  4. Helen, I thought it was excellent. Short and wonderful story telling which was very much in the spirit of the cycle as I've seen it written elsewhere - I keep wanting to say the original but obviously haven't actually read the real source material. The Guardian review today was a bit picky as well but I think I'm right and they're wrong.

    Chasing bawa - I really liked it. I find lots of details in the Norse myths really appeal, but want to read something Egyptian now.

    Gaskella, I keep saying it but I really liked this book.

  5. I didn't know this existed but I'm V excited! I'm slightly obsessed with Norse Myths at the moment and I'm reading some of the Icelandic Sagas too. Laxdaela Saga is amazing. This is definitely going on my list.

  6. Overdue, it's well worth a read, I want to read more saga's Laxdaela sounds like a good starting point, thank you - also lovely to see you back and blogging.