Myths Singing off the Page: A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok

RagnarokReview by Robert Goodman
AS Byatt, the grand lady of English letters, is best known for her lengthy tomes exploring the minutiae of English life. As she admits in an illuminating afterword to Raganrok: the end of the gods, Byatt’s books often contain a thread of myth. Byatt draws a distinction between fairy tales and myths. In fairy tales we learn something, despite their violence and magic, good triumphs and evil is vanquished. Myths are not so clear cut. Myths are about archtypes, they often follow well worn story lines but not necessarily to any neat conclusion or happy ending. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the tales of the Norse gods and their ultimate destruction in the final battle of Ragnarok.
As with many of her novels, Byatt tells the story through the eyes of a fictional version of herself – the thin child ‘sickly, bony, like an eft, with fine hair like sunlit smoke’, evacuated from Sheffield to the countryside during the Blitz. This is not only a device for engaging the reader but a deliberate means of recounting the myths as Byatt herself encountered them, untrammelled by interpretation and deconstruction, but infused with a precocious child’s perspective of a world at war.
That is not to say that Byatt wants this book to be free from other interpretation or deeper meaning. Byatt wants to say something about the world as it is today and the environmental degradation being wrought by the proliferation of humanity. To do this she deliberately, repeatedly, and quite beautifully catalogues living creatures, as if creating a literary ark, in order to recreate a world that has gone or that is under threat. A world that may end up going the way of the Norse gods – finally and irrevocably. Just as an example:

In spring the field was thick with cowslips, and in the hedgerows, in the tangled bank, under the hawthorn hedge and the ash tree, there were pale primroses and violets of many colours from rich purple to a white touched with mauve… There were vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots, and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bittercress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celandines, campions and ragged robin.

While all that makes this book sound a little overladen with symbolism and gloom it is anything but. Ragnarok, from its opening page is poetic and engaging. It is predominantly a retelling of Norse mythology from creation stories through to the final battle of Raganrok which saw the destruction of the gods and their world. The interplay between the thin girl as reader and discoverer of these myths and the retelling of the myths themselves is deftly handled. And the environmental message is only lightly referenced until elucidated more fully in Byatt’s afterward.
This is a rich and rewarding experience, as a way into Norse mythology for those who have never encountered it, as a fresh retelling and interpretation of those stories for those who might have more than a passing acquaintance and more generally for lovers of poetic literature that sings off the page.
Ragnarok: the end of the gods
A.S. Byatt

Canongate Books, 2011
Various formats, various pricing