Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt is a lot of things. It is, yes, a retelling of the famous Norse myth. It is also a story about a girl during World War II struggling with religious belief and wondering if her father will come home. It is, in some small sense, also an exercise in literary criticism. The mixing together of all these things makes for an excellent book.
I pre-ordered this book before it came out in February, but for a variety of reasons, it spent several months on my shelf. By the time it got to me, what had been serious enthusiasm for it had lapsed into a kind of hopeful pessimism. That is, I wanted it to be good, but for reasons I don’t understand, I’d decided it probably wouldn’t be. I am glad to have been wrong.
Byatt tells the story of Ragnarok via the perspective of Byatt the child, referred to in the text as “The Thin Girl.” Byatt alternates chunks of the myth with narrative about the girl discovering the book during WWII blackouts in England. Reading it and thinking how similar it was to the stories she got in church. Reading it and thinking about how her father wasn’t going to come home.
The interweaving of the two narratives is enchanting and wonderfully conveys the way a child experiences things. How everything they read shapes the world. Byatt confides that reading the myth was one of the things that made her realize that none of the stories she heard in church were really believable. That is, it taught her that all gods were myths. Being allowed inside her thought process is fascinating.
This is not to short-change the writing of the actual myth. Byatt’s prose when she tells the story of Ragnarok is both gorgeous and engaging. She gives extra care to her descriptions of Loki, the Thin Child’s favorite.
He was hard to find when he was a mackerel, a single insignificant mackerel, away from the shoal. A mackerel’s skin is a vanishing trick. Along its sleekness are lines of water ripples, imitating sun and shadow, cloud light and moonlight dropping through the thick water, imitating trailing weed and rushing waves flickering as the mirror scales twist. he was there, this visibly invisible fish, and when she made a dash, he was a patch of daylight, or nightlight, staining the water only, not solid.
Prose of this level is commonplace in this book. That is to say, it’s gorgeous cover-to-cover.
I can’t adequately explain the effect this book achieves. The melding of the two narratives tells you a bit about Norse mythology, but more interestingly, it tells you a lot about the effect myths and stories can have on a child and how that effect could survive into adulthood. In the end, when her father does comes home and the world ends for the gods, you feel you have gotten more than just a retelling of a myth. You have been allowed to explore the most intimate nooks of a writer’s mind.