The Myths series started in the UK by Canongate publishing (many published here by Grove/Atlantic) has already given us some modern classics: Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Michel Faber’s The Fire Sermon, Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy.
In Ragnarok: The End of the Gods A.S. Byatt chooses to tread a different path to her contemporaries. Eschewing the trend for rethinking mythology through the looking glass of modern psychological realism, the Booker Prize-winning author instead offers us a uniquely personal recollection of the myths of her youth – and suggests a contemporary interpretation of the end of the world.
For those who aren’t already familiar with the story of Ragnarok, it’s the dark, dense Norse mythology that paints its gods as brutal, hammer-wielding warriors and scheming tricksters. Modern audiences may be most familiar with it from Marvel Comics’ plundering of the mythology for its Thor franchise, but that doesn’t even begin to scrape the black surface of wanton violence and mischief that Ragnarok offers. This isn’t a myth for the faint of heart.
Despite being a short book, Byatt’s take on Ragnarok covers a lot of ground. Opening with the framing device of a ‘thin child’ in England during World War Two – a character so clearly based on Byatt herself that this novel might almost be marketed as memoir – it truly comes to life once our protagonist loses herself in the forests of Norse mythology. To the thin child these tales of war and suffering seem infinitely more vibrant and relevant than the Christian myths society tries to impose on her, and they awaken an interest in storytelling and the power of myth that she will carry with her throughout her life – and into her own writing.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods circles around a cluster of Norse myths at its core, and it’s here that Byatt allows her poetic ability to soar. The robust, sinewy prose is undeniably modern in its tone, but Byatt draws resonance from the smallest detail. These myths have clearly remained fresh in her mind since the day they were first read. Occasionally she has a tendency to drift into long lists, particularly when it comes to the flora and fauna that inhabit both her mythical world and the very real fields of England – but it’s a forgivable indulgence when the lists themselves often read like prose poems to the beauty of nature.
These inventories of nature’s bounty also point at one of Byatt’s main themes, the modern plunder of the natural world and the impact of environmental destruction, but it’s a theme that never fully evolves within the story itself. Instead she gives us a short essay at the end of the book, underlining the message that the pages before have only hinted at – it seems that even Byatt wasn’t confident in her ability to convey her theme through the stories of Norse mythology. While this sermonizing postscript feels tacked on to the end of the narrative, however, it doesn’t undermine what has come before it, and Byatt’s prose loses none of its power. In Ragnarok she shows us the Norse apocalypse in all its dark, twisted, chaotic splendor.
It may be the end of the world – but A.S. Byatt still feels fine.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is available this February from all good bookstores, or the Grove/Atlantic website, priced $24.00.