Sunday, February 12, 2012

Byatt's Ragnarok

Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2011.
192 p.

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.

Byatt says:

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.


  1. I started reading this last week but haven't gotten very far, but so far it does seem like a book to appreciate for the writing, rather than the story.

  2. I haven't been a huge fan of Byatt's writing so far, so I am not so sure what I would think of a book that people are appreciating simply for it...

  3. I've been working steadily at myths and fairy tales this year, and I realize that I know very little of the Norse Myths. *hangs head* (It definitely wasn't part of school curricula when I was studying, only the Greeks/Romans.) I'm really looking forward to this one in particular, though it's a ways down my Canongate list! I have a feeling it's a single-sitting read...would you say so?

  4. Teresa - yes, there's not much "character development" because it's not really about characters. Just the Gods who really don't change...just keep fighting! ;)

    Kailana - if you don't already like Byatt's style I'm not sure you'll want to read this one, unless you are fascinated by Norse myth as well. Everyone has their own taste, for sure.

    BIP - yes, I think it could be a single sitting, though I read in a few short chunks. I certainly feel like I understand the mood of Norse mythology now.

  5. I loved this! I didn't think it was a single sitting read (though it's short enough that you could) because I kept stopping to think about it, and then setting it aside to savour what she'd said. I read lots of Norse mythology as a child, it followed naturally on from my love of the Greek and Roman myths.

  6. I like the idea of myths "inhabiting the mind."

  7. Geranium Cat - you're right, the pacing of the book does seem to require some thought as you go along. Quite dense prose.

    Shelley - loved her take on this. Myths as inchoate images in the mind. She discusses it in more depth in the afterword as well, fascinating stuff.


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