Review | Ragnarok, A.S. Byatt

I should have loved Ragnarok. It’s well-written and tells the fascinating story about the end of the gods. It’s also fraught with symbolism, conflating the Norse myth of Ragnarok with the tale of an unnamed “thin child in wartime,” who somehow feels a connection to the Norse gods. Byatt draws on fascinating material, and there are a lot of elements that I did like, but overall, I felt detached. I found some beautiful passages to highlight, but I rarely felt compelled to turn the page and keep reading.

As I’ve said, I do like a lot of things in the book. I like the child’s reflection on stories and on “the meaning of belief.” She contrasts the Christian myth in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the Norse myth in Asgard and the Gods — both are myths, yet Asgard is more preferable because it fires the imagination instead of being didactic. Entering a church, the child “took up the burden of being required to believe what she could not believe — and, she knew, […] did not want to believe.” The imposition of belief on Christian stories turns them sour for the child, and I like how she chooses to wage her rebellion against society within the realm of stories. Living in wartime, being exposed to pain and death as a way of life, the child pursues freedom in the stories she chooses to read, and as an avid book lover myself, this is a mode of battle I highly endorse.

I also like that the child prefers Norse myths because they have no “clear message and meaning,” but rather talk about a “mystery, of how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real End. The end.” I can see the appeal of such a story to a child dealing with the senselessness of war, the thought that the world did once make sense, but no longer did and the idea of an end, full stop. The idea of “a real End,” while it applied to the gods, also holds the hope of a “real End” to the war, sometime.

So there’s a sense of wistfulness, even a tinge of desperation in her protectiveness towards the Norse myths. She dislikes the Norse story of the giant Bergelmir building a boat to survive a deluge because it’s too much like the Christian tale of Noah’s Ark: “She wanted to keep this tale separate.” Pure, in a way, from the absolutes she sees in Christianity. Yet there’s always that hint of inevitability — just as the Norse gods are destined to die, so can you sense this child’s ability to live in the world of myths is also destined to end.

Still Ragnarok didn’t really grab me. I like the narrative tone, which sounded like a story teller relating an old story handed down for generations (just like a myth!). I also enjoyed some of the stories from Norse mythology, especially the part after Loki sets off the series of events that lead to the end of the gods. But I think that style also kept me from becoming too engrossed in the story. The reading experience just felt too impersonal to me, and I felt like I was reading a collection of Norse myths for research. The frame narrative of the thin child in wartime has some beautiful insights, yet the detached perspective prevented it from really propelling the bits of researched Norse myths forward.

I read Byatt’s essay “Thoughts on Myths” at the end of the book and found it fascinating. I love the comment that “Every culture that has lost myth has lost […] its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture.” Absolutely. Byatt also observes that we “think less and less in terms of raw myth” and other writers have “assimilated myths into the form of novels.” Presumably then, Byatt has chosen to keep Ragnarok as close to “raw myth” as possible, and in that I think she succeeded. I might have preferred a more novelistic approach, which is perhaps why I enjoyed most the section about Loki and Ragnarok in the end, where the action picked up.

2 thoughts on “Review | Ragnarok, A.S. Byatt

  1. I reviewed this one as well, and I had a hard time finding something to talk about. It was nice to round out my reading with Norse mythology, which I haven’t read before, but it didn’t feel like much more than a collection of stories.

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