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.
A Thin Child in Wartime
There was a thin child, who was three years old
when the world war began. She could remember,
though barely, the time before wartime when, as
her mother frequently told her, there was honey
and cream and eggs in plenty. She was a thin,
sickly, bony child, like an eft, with fine hair like
sunlit smoke. Her elders told her not to do this,
to avoid that, because there was 'a war on'. Life
was a state in which a war was on. Nevertheless,
by a paradoxical fate, the child may only have lived
because her people left the sulphurous air of a
steel city, full of smoking chimneys, for a country
town, of no interest to enemy bombers. She grew
up in the ordinary paradise of the English countryside.
When she was five she walked to school,
two miles, across meadows covered with cowslips,
buttercups, daisies, vetch, rimmed by hedges full
of blossom and then berries, blackthorn, hawthorn,
dog-roses, the odd ash tree with its sooty buds.
Her mother, when ...
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).
Full Review (1056 words).
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 ...
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