Author: A.S. Byatt
Series: Canongate Myths
Published: First published 6 September 2011 by Canongate. This edition published 1 February
Publisher: Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
My Rating: 9/10
Ragnarok is not quite the story that the blurb of my edition implies – a modern retelling of a Norse myth featuring a child living in the English countryside during World War Two. Rather, it is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young child reading and re-reading Asgard and the Gods, endlessly fascinated by its stories. The child – known only as “the thin child” – is not the focus of this book, but rather a means for Byatt to write for her “childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods”. In this manner, Byatt not only relates a set of rich, mysterious and beautiful mythical stories, but leads the reader through the musings about reading, storytelling, mythology and religion that occupy her philosophical young protagonist.
The thin child is a classic book lover and fantasy fan:
She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains, and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark.
She frequently reads late at night, under the covers with a torch, or in the sliver of light from her bedroom doorway. When we dive into the pages of Asgard and the Gods with her, we aren’t given the text of the book itself, but a rewritten version that recreates for us the same sense of awe that the thin child experiences. The feel of Ragnarok is partly a product of the Norse myths themselves, but mostly an effect of Byatt’s writing – it’s lush and vivid, bringing to life a bizarre world in which humans play no real part (they’re created after dwarves and elves and then promptly ignored). She also chooses to hold true to the style in which the myths were told. Most of the other authors who wrote for the Canongate Myths series chose “to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies”. Byatt however, writes something more akin to what she calls “raw myth”:
Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology […]. They have attributes – Hera and Frigg are essentially jealous, Thor is violent, Mars is warlike, Baldur is beautiful and gentle, Diana of Ephesus is fertile and virginal.
At the beginning we’re told of Yggdrasil, the World Ash and Rándrasil, the Sea-Tree. The thin child ponders the question of how something came from nothing, leading us to the Norse creation myth, wherein a giant is born from chaos and is later slain by the first gods, who dismember his body and use it to create the heavens and the earth. Later we learn about Asgard, home of the gods, and encounter the divinities themselves. There’s Odin, the sinister, damaged god who lost an eye drinking magical knowledge from a fountain. The thin child’s favourite character is Loki, “a being who was neither this nor that”, a trickster who alone among the gods possessed the ability to change his shape and even his sex. She admires his humour and wit, and finds his changeable shapes and cleverness attractive.
Byatt relates the stories that eventually lead up to Ragnarök, which “means the darkening of the Regin, i.e. of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word Rök to mean Judgement, i.e. of the gods’”. The thin child likes Ragnarök because it a real, bloody ending not a cyclical one, and unlike the Christian stories, it’s not humans who are judged but the gods themselves. They are flawed and stupid in a disturbingly familiar human way – they “know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world”.
In reading Asgard and the Gods, the thin child contemplates the tropes of storytelling – the way prohibitions are there to be broken (like one God gave to Adam and Eve), the recurrence of the number three, the way the youngest of three children is always the most important, and how in every story something must go wrong and not even the gods are powerful enough to stop it. She notes how myth differs from the fairytales, and how “[t]hey cannot be explained and do not explain” but haunt her nevertheless “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive”.
The thin child’s fascination with myth means that it becomes intertwined with the way she thinks about her own life. Her father – who’s been away at war for years – is portrayed as a mythical figure, fighting battles in the air in places that, for the thin child, exist only in books. She remembers him as having “red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god”. At church, she can’t help but compare the Norse myths to the Christian stories, and comes to the realisation that Christianity too, is a set of man-made myths, only far less interesting than the Norse ones. Consequently, she can’t believe in either, even if she can take pleasure in their stories. A particularly interesting illustration in Asgard and the Gods, when seen in relation to the landscape of her home, gives her an idea of how myths are created:
The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log, seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing branch could be a snake, complete with shining eyes and flickering forked tongue. This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from.
In a shadow of the way Byatt loved Asgard and the Gods, her Ragnarok also gave me “an intense, uncanny pleasure”. She very beautifully achieves her aim of recreating a sense of the profound reading experience from her childhood. Ragnarok is an exquisite book that I feel I could re-read multiple times, savouring the details and letting myself be as enchanted as Byatt was. The eARC I received for this review will not be sufficient – this is a book I need to have in hardcover to grace my shelf for years.