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What We’re Reading: Ragnarök

Post by Elizabeth Coleman
Posted August 23, 2013 in NoveList Bookshelf, NoveList Plus

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Ragnarök: The End of the Gods

by A.S. Byatt

"The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended."

As a student of mythology, I am always interested to see how modern writers approach the old stories, wondering if they will be to keep the spirit while infusing it with new vibrancy. In Ragnarök, A.S. Byatt does not disappoint. She deftly evokes a world of ice and fire, from its luminous creation, to its bleak, inevitable end. Readers already familiar with these tales will appreciate Byatt’s beautiful and often poignant re-telling while new readers will enjoy Byatt's rich and provocative picture of this fantastical world headed to its doom. There is Yggdrasil, the world tree, which nourishes the land, and its oceanic counterpart Rándrasill. There are the monsters -- Fenris, the wolf, who delights in violence, Jörmungandr, the serpent whose appetite cannot be quenched, and Hel, made of living and dead flesh, who rules the Underworld. And then there are the gods themselves -- hot-headed Thor, grief-stricken Frigg, mischievous, shape-shifting Loki and the rest, who crash and twirl, laugh and fight and die throughout these pages.

Byatt’s descriptions are thorough and some readers may find her long-winded -- the description of Yggdrasil alone takes up an entire chapter; but her fans from previous works, such as The Matisse Stories and The Virgin in the Garden, will recognize and appreciate her eye for the minutiae. Byatt paints a picture of a wondrous place that has curious parallels to our own Earth. Indeed, Ragnarök is not only a story about the gods, it is also the story of the thin child in England during WWII, trying to make sense of a world seemingly gone mad.

The thin child, who is likely Byatt herself, has escaped the threat of bombs in London and moved to the northern English countryside with her mother and sister. When she comes across a book of Norse myths, the stories seize her imagination. It is through the thin child and her experiences in a time of war, that these ancient tales are retold. In her mind she begins to equate the myths with what is happening in the world. The pilots in North Africa, where her father fights, become associated with Odin’s Wild Hunt, for example.

Ragnarök is for fans of Norse mythology and A.S. Byatt, those newly come to both, and any who appreciate good storytelling. Recommended by Elizabeth Coleman