A.S. Byatt is an English author who is internationally renowned for her novels, poems, and short stories. She has won too many awards to mention; however, the one that stands out for me is the Booker prize for her novel Possession. I’ve always been interested in how myths shape and reflect our lives, so when I saw the publisher’s blurb for her new novel, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, I had to give it a try.
Do you like fantasy? All fantasy is based on myths. Do you like drama? There is little that can equal the family drama of the gods – now there were some real dysfunctional family members! Do you like battles? Nobody can battle like a bunch of ticked off, petty, jealous super powerful gods.
“Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible…The myths were cavernous spaces, lit in extreme colours, gloomy, or dazzling, with a kind of cloudy thickness and a kind of overbright transparency about them.” A. S. Byatt – The Author’s Note.
Ragnarok is a major battle foretold in Norse mythology that will destroy the gods, will include major natural disasters and will submerge the world under water. Sound familiar? The Norse legends also said when the world emerged from being drowned, it would be born anew and repopulated. Believe it or not, these ancient myths have influenced modern music, comics and Manga, video games, TV shows, and movies as well as novels both directly and indirectly.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is a novel quite different from the ones we normally review; however, as you can see above, myths are still much more influential in our lives than many people realize. This review is also going to be approached differently because of the way the novel is written. Please read on and decide for yourself if this is something you might like to read.
A.S. Byatt interweaves the legends of various gods, primarily Norse gods, with the story of a young girl living through the Blitz in England during World War II. Surely anyone living through that period had to think it could mean the end of the world, at least the world as they knew it. Her father had left to fight and no one could tell her when or even if he would return, so she decided that must mean she would never see him again. She grieved for him to herself, without telling anyone or asking if her grief was justified. As most children would be, her emotional needs were barely visible to the adults around her during this time of crisis because they were finding it hard enough to cope with their own emotions.
“Her father was away. He was in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only existed in books. She remembered him. He had red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god…In her soul she knew her bright father would not come back.”
No one was telling her anything about anything, probably in an attempt to protect her. That meant she, like all children, had to make up the reasons for why things were happening because she had to understand it somehow. She discovered a book, Asgard and the Gods, and she looked to it, as very bright children will do, to try to find a way to explain the world that was falling apart around her.
“The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lived in provisional fear of imminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew. The English country world did not end, as many others did, was not overrun, nor battered into mud by armies. But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it.”
The language in Ragnarok: The End of the Gods flows like a beautiful waterfall. I found myself weeping at its beauty and becoming spellbound by its sheer poetry. I would have read this novel for the writing alone. I sincerely believe A.S. Byatt could turn the phone book into prose so beautiful it would make me gasp. Now I know that sounds like I’m gushing so I’ve decided to provide a few quotes below so you can hopefully get a small glimpse. That said, short quotes like these just can’t capture the way her prose flows and paints vivid pictures of these gods of myth and legend.
“Tales were told of other creatures in the society amongst the spreading branches. At their crown, it seemed, stood an eagle, singing indifferently of past, present and what was to come. Its name was Hraesveglr, ‘flesh-swallower’; when its wings beat, winds blew, tempests howled. Between the eyes of the huge bird stood a falcon, Vedrfolnir…A busy black squirrel, ‘drill-tooth,’ Ratatoskr, scurried busily from summit to root and back, carrying malicious messages from the bird on the crown to the watchful black dragon, curled around the roots,…”
“Whales and dolphins hang motionless, sifting the singing through the echo-chambers of their heads. The sounds can act like oil on the ocean, making a dull calm, or a glistening calm, seen glassy from under, and sparking from above. There are other tunes which perturb currents, and send great tongues of water bellowing up, as high above the thin surface as the tree is above the holdfast.”
“The gods built Asgard beautifully. They made tools and weapons, gold pots and beakers, for gold was plentiful, gold disks for hurling and carved gold figures to play games of draughts and chess. They had made the dwarves and trolls, the dark elves and the light. It was at this point that, almost casually, to please or amuse themselves, they made human beings.”
By and large this story is an exploration to determine if we humankind have learned anything at all from our past mistakes or whether we will be doomed to repeat them over and over until we finally destroy ourselves and bring about our very own Ragnarok. There are also very interesting comparisons drawn between the gods we consider to be of myth and the gods of the Old Testament, because the child has to relate the mythological gods to some kind of god she recognizes.
Through the eyes of a child trying so desperately to understand the world around her, a world that appears to be headed for total destruction, we see the kinds of questions that humans have always asked themselves. If you’re like me, in addition to being thoroughly entertained, you’ll come away from Ragnarok: The End of the Gods with much to think about concerning where we are as a species, what we have and haven’t learned, and where we’re going. This is an amazing, deep, and wonderful novel. Although I recognize it may not be for everyone, I highly recommend it.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is being released on February 7, 2012, but it should be available for pre-order from any of your favorite booksellers below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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