Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ragnarok The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. Canongate, 2011

This small book is a retelling of the Armageddon of the Norse myths, Ragnarok, as framed by the mind of the ‘thin child’. This thin child- pretty obviously Byatt herself- has been evacuated with her mother and sister from London to the English countryside. She picks up a book of Norse myth, and finds herself swept up in it, finding it the perfect reading for how she feels about her own life- she does not expect to see her father come back from the war alive, she is aware that her parents feel as helpless as she does, she finds the Norse gods more fitting than the Christianity that is taught each Sunday. She finds an odd solace in the idea that the end is written already, no matter what the gods do to prevent it.

Byatt, curious as most children are (or used to be), presents Loki in a more favorable light than most tellers do. He is the curious one; he wants to know what lives in all the dark corners of the earth and sea. Thor and the other gods are not curious or noble; they seek to torture and destroy Loki’s children simply because they exist. They write their own future destruction.

Inserted into this telling is an ecological warning; that the abundance of plants and creatures that thrived in the English countryside of Byatt’s youth is disappearing. Humans, like the Norse gods, are writing their own doom.

When I picked this book up, I thought it very different from the author’s other works. I didn’t realize it was written for a series of myths retold by famous authors; that explains my feeling that the book was not up to Byatt’s usual many-layered, ornamented style. As a novel, it’s not great; as a myth telling, it is. 

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