Ragnarok retells the finale of Norse mythology. A story of the destruction of life on this planet and the end of the gods themselves: what more relevant myth could any modern writer choose? Just as Wagner used this dramatic and catastrophic struggle for the climax of his Ring Cycle, so AS Byatt now reinvents it in all its intensity and glory. As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new wartime life. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods - a book of ancient Norse myths - and her inner and outer worlds are transformed.
War, natural disaster, reckless gods and the recognition of impermanence in the world are just some of the threads that AS Byatt weaves into this most timely of books. Linguistically stunning and imaginatively abundant, this is a landmark.
Like myth itself, Byatt's retelling of the Ragnarok story can feel unsatisfactory, or at least unsettling, failing to offer readers a tidy conclusion or a happy ending... Instead, it will continue to unsettle readers long after its final page, prompting reflections on the inevitability of mortality - both personal and global - and on the power and potential of a fundamentally flawed species to change behaviors before it's too late. (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).
Though the cadences are like those of a fairy tale, a narrative seen through the eyes of a child, the chilling conclusion is not.
Starred Review. A highly unusual and deeply absorbing book.
The Daily Telegraph (UK)
Byatt's prose is majestic, the lush descriptive passages – jewelled one minute, gory the next – a pleasure to get lost in.
The Independent (UK)
How best to present a vision of existence so widely reverberant and yet so at variance with the most dominant western Weltanschauungen: Judaeo-Christian, Freudian, Marxist? Byatt remembered her own first reception of it, as a little girl, through the medium of Asgard and the Gods by W Wägner (1880). So the sequence of mythic events here have passed through a double crucible: an objective 19th-century scholar's intellect; an insightful but innocent girl's sensibility. Her use of the second device, of 'the thin child,' is brilliantly effective.
The Guardian (UK) Ragnarok is a clever, lucid, lovely book. But it isn't a novel, or even a story in the usual sense. It's a discourse on myth, woven in and around a polemic about pollution and loss of species diversity: Yggdrasil the World Tree reinscribed as a doomed ecosystem. Byatt's ideas lie close to the surface; moreover, the author herself is waiting patiently at the end of everything, to make sure we take her point.
A. S. Byatt's Ragnarok is the most recent addition to The Myths series, published in the UK by Canongate and around the world by various publishers. Launched in 2005, The Myths series has brought together remarkably talented authors to put their own stamp on ancient myths from around the world, including many that are familiar to Western readers.
"The civilization I live in thinks less and less in terms of raw myth, I think," Byatt writes. "The idea of many other writers in the Canongate series has been to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies." Byatt takes a different approach to her chosen myth: framing a fairly conventional retelling in a modern setting and thereby creating an allegory with contemporary repercussions.
What's remarkable about The Myths series is the exquisite variety with which these noted authors approach their source material. The series includes, among others:
Prospero, the sorcerer on whose island of exile William Shakespeare set his play, The Tempest, has been captured and imprisoned in Hell, and time is running out for his daughter Miranda and for the great magician himself.
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