For a book about the end of everything, this is a lovely piece of literature. And strange. It’s the Norse version of the apocalypse, but it’s also the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl who believes her father will die in the Second World War.
Byatt’s Ragnarok is actually my first encounter with a more descriptive version of the myth than can be found on its Wikipedia page. I knew several aspects of the tale, but this was the first time everything was connected for me, from Yggdrasil to Loki in his chains.
Succinct, clever, and well-written, it’s a good example in how to write about yourself without writing a book just about you. It’s also about as lyrical as a novel can be before it shifts from prose to poetry, and sings with the wisdom of a mature and talented writer.
‘Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hydras and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be.’
Often with Norse myth adaptations I find the distinctly non-anglicised names steal attention from the rest of the prose for their unusual pronounciation. Many, like Ginnungagap and Jörmungandr do not ‘fit’ into English (not that anyone should expect them to), and draw attention to the inherent falsity of translation. Byatt’s writing has a wonderful ability to embrace these complex words.
Ragnarok uses an intellectual lexis, delving into old words that are almost, but not quite, forgotten, creating a work that is both foreign and familiar to read. It’s the first time I’ve read a book in which an author has done this without coming off as a walking thesaurus, or imbuing the text with an unpleasant density.
‘Loki wanted to learn from it – not exactly to master fire or water, but to map them. But beyond the curiosity there was delight. Chaos pleased him. He liked things to get more and more furious, more wild, more ungraspable. He was at home in turbulence.’
Like all the oldest tales, Ragnarök is an inherently epic story, and Byatt’s novel is part adaptation, part homage to the original myth. Her respect for the folklore sings through every line, together with her burning desire to do it justice.
I think she succeeds in creating something which has just the right balance of originality and intervention, though since the myth is not from my own culture I’m probably not the best judge. My conviction that this is a good version of the story stems from the fact that I would absolutely love to find the Arthurian legends of my native land written like this.
Really the only thing I can find fault with is the creeping way in which Byatt portrays her own critical, slightly condescending attitude towards Christianity. I’m not religious, and I don’t think this text is offensive to those who are, but I do believe the theme would have benefited from taking more of a back seat.
‘The sisters were spinners, who twisted the threads of fate. They were the gardeners and guardians of the Tree. They watered the tree with the black well-water. They fed it with pure white clay, aurr. So it decayed, or was diminished, from moment to moment. So it was always renewed.’
In short, this novel is a really good introduction to the flesh of Norse mythology, especially if you would like to read something with more subtlety and intelligence than might be found in a children’s novel.
And if you already know the mythos well, it’s just as enjoyable as a beautiful, artistic portrayal of the end of Asgard.