I read this book in ebook format, quite a while ago now, and had to refresh my memory by looking through it again. It's part of the Canongate Myths series, which I've really enjoyed thus far, and am not sure why I didn't talk about this book when I first read it!
I like A.S. Byatt's writing, and this book highlights her particular style in its retelling of the Norse myths. She frames the myth with the fictional yet autobiographical character of a young girl evacuated from London during WWII, who has just discovered a book of Norse myths. The uncertainty of wartime, the inability to see ahead and know whether the world would continue on or be totally destroyed in a man-made Ragnarok, makes this first reading experience particularly fraught with tension. This child reappears interspersed with the myths throughout this small book.
But, as mentioned in Eva's review over at The Striped Armchair, this isn't a book to read for plot or character as much as for the love of an author's style, for her precise language and the rhythms of her storytelling. It consists of a fairly straightforward retelling of the end of the world according to Norse myth. And I did have a vague familiarity with these stories, but this book draws them into fullness -- the darkness, the betrayals, the violence and bloodshed, all are very evident. Byatt does not try to draw direct parallels to her framing story or try to explain to us what these myths mean, she simply presents them. In fact, in her afterword, I came across a marvellous explanation of myth.
This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories.
And that perhaps is the reason to read this book, and others in this series. Rather than explaining, myths stand alone and outside our individual minds, and point to the great unknown, to the existence of a reality created by and yet also outside our own imagination. Byatt's authorial hand is evident in this book and yet she also seems to be a conduit for a larger, older story. This contradiction explains, for me, the continual appeal of old myths that remain powerful in the human psyche, even without any intent to explain our world.
Ragnarok introduced me to the Norse myths in a way that I hadn't read them before, and the almost stately progression to complete destruction of the world was neatly choreographed and communicated by Byatt. This was quiet, intellectual and utterly bleak, all at the same time. Quite a reading experience, which I'd recommend if you have any interest in the way that myths shape our worldviews even today. Or if you simply want to read another Byatt book and sink into her prose stylings.