“It’s the end of the world as we know it” …

Ragnarok by A.S.Byatt

The Myths series of books by Canongate, is a set I’ve been collecting since their inception in 1995 – I’ve read maybe half of them so far though – something I must address! Every year or two, Canongate are adding titles in the series – short novels by esteemed writers. The latest – by Natsuo Kirono based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi was published in January.  Each of the books takes a tale from world myth and re-tells it. You can read some of my other reviews from this series here, here, here and here.

However, to tie in with my reading of Joanne (M) Harris’ new novel The Gospel of Loki, I turned to A.S. Byatt’s more conventional narrative of the Norse myths and the twilight of the Gods – Ragnarök. Whilst some of the other authors in this series have brought their chosen myths right up to date, Byatt uses a different style – a framing device to tell the old tales in new covers so to speak.

A thin young girl is evacuated during WWII. She is missing her father and struggling to understand her enforced relocation. One day she is given a copy of an old book about the Norse myths, and it transforms her life, allowing her to transport her worries and make sense of everything. All of life is to be found in Asgard and the Gods, or her other favourite book Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian’s burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there and once been people who brought ‘belief’ to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories. 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. But they didn’t live in her, and she didn’t live in them.

The thin child, she is always referred to thus, reads the book and reflects upon it, the idiosyncracies of its author, and the parallels between the stories and her life. At this point, I should add that Asgard and the Gods (adapted by M.W. Macdowall from works by German Wilhelm Wägner) is a real book. It was published in 1886, as a primer in Norse myths for older children. Amazingly, it is still in print – hopefully with its engravings in tact – several of which are reproduced in Ragnarök (see right), and this book was the inspiration for Byatt too. She says in an accompanying essay at the back, “my childhood experience of reading and rereading Asgard and the Gods was the place where I had first experienced the difference between myth and fairy tale.”

So we go through the creation of Asgard, the installation of the gods and godesses led by Odin.  Then we meet Loki whom the thin child likes as ‘alone among all these beings he had humour and wit‘, even though the clever trickster, Odin’s problem-solving adopted brother, often created as many problems by his actions as were resolved.

I felt sad for the thin child when we got to Baldur’s tale. Baldur being a beautiful god who was doomed to die…

Baldur went, but he did not come back. The thin child sorted in her new mind things that went and came back, and things that went and did not come back. Her father with his flaming hair was flying under the hot sun in Africa, and she knew it in her soul that he would not come back.

As Byatt says, “Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting.”  The thin child sees the parallels between the War, the Blitz, her believed loss of her father and the destruction of her normal life and the downfall of the Norse Gods which stems from the death of Baldur, bringing chaos back to the world. Although she comes to believe her father is doomed too, there is a grim satisfaction to be had from the scale of the destruction involving all who touch it, schadenfreude as Wägner would probably say. What the thin child doesn’t know at this point, is that after the battle, the world will be reborn anew.  As REM sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it.“!

The Norse myths are more than just heroics though, the creation of their world was anchored out of chaos by Yggdrasil – The World Ash, and the force of nature is as strong, if not stronger than that of the gods. The myths abound in biological detail, and the thin child notices the flowers and animals surrounding her too, they help her feel alive. At one point Byatt almost goes overboard letting the thin child enjoy the glories of late spring – a list of which takes over two pages, but I’ll forgive this as from daisies to tadpoles, they’re worth it – mother nature in the form of Yggdrasil has it sorted.

I’ve felt rather stifled by Byatt’s full length novels previously and couldn’t even get started on The Children’s Book, but this shorter form being written from a child’s eye view and all about myths was perfect for me.

Ragnarök is both an accomplished novel and a fantastic primer for the Norse Myths, brilliantly retold. (8.5/10)

See also: Desperate Reader and Tales from the Reading Room for other reviews.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
– Ragnarok: the End of the Godsby A.S.Byatt, pub 2011 by Canongate. Paperback, 192 pages including Appendices.
– The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub 2014 by Canongate. Hbk or pbk 320 pages.
– The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, pub 2014 by Gollancz. Hardback.
– Asgard and the Gods: The Tales and Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors, Forming a Complete Manual of Norse Mythology Work (Classic Reprint) by Wilhelm Wägner.

18 thoughts on ““It’s the end of the world as we know it” …

  1. Nish says:

    I am a little intimidated by Byatt. I haven’t read any of her books, but this shorter book sounds like a perfect start to her writing. Lovely review!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Thanks Nish. I have only read two of her novellas – Angels and Insects – loved the first, hated the second if I remember rightly. I gave up on The Children’s book – too dense! This book, being short however and having an ulterior motive to retell well-known myths was different and good. I’m told her short stories are excellent – but I’ve never had the time (nor inclination yet) to delve there!

  2. geraniumcat says:

    I adored this one, borrowed it from the library, but I shall have to buy it before long to re-read. I was even more pleased when I read the Further Reading at the back and found my little brother’s book there – being read by A.S. Byatt somehow lends that extra gravitas!

  3. Alex says:

    I hold go back to this series. I was so disgusted with Philip Pullman’s contribution that I stopped collection them. I should get over it – and myself – and at the very least get a copy of this one because I love Byatt – especially ‘The Children’s Book’ 🙂

  4. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I’ve read a couple of Byatts and enjoyed them, but haven’t found that they stand up well to rereads. But I should give this one at least a first read!

    (Thanks for the link to the Joanne Harris book, as well — I didn’t know that book existed, and it sounds like a lot of fun.)

  5. writingbolt says:

    Two pages of rambling joy/s are better than a dozen pages used to talk about getting a glass of water in vivid detail.

    This war story sounds a bit like a “Chronicles of Narnia” without the escape into the fantasy world. Instead, the girl–who resists what she reads–finds connections to her grim life/situation not unlike Dorothy or Alice taking brief breaks from their lives to wander in colorful foreign lands.

    A children’s book that is too dense? Hard to believe. Ha. See what I did there?

    I’ve never head of this series, Pullman or Byatt til now.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Not sure where your dozen pages about a glass of water reference comes from … is it another Byatt? Forgive my ignorance if it’s obvious. Like your later pun though.

      The Canongate Myths series is interesting – it started off with a blaze of publicity, and books by Jeanette Winterson et al, but has been quiet but steady over the past few years. I have a strong interest in myth and have found all the volumes I’ve read so far to be interesting – the Pullman is also controversial (but I liked it).

      • writingbolt says:

        I believe the book was called “The Education of Little Tree”. I could be wrong. But, in that book (or it may have been “The Power of One”), I swear the author spent roughly a dozen pages talking about a kid coming down stairs to get a glass of water. It’s been many years since I read it, but the image of those pages still comes to mind.

        Thanks hehe:D

        I’m all for myth stories and take-offs of myths. In fact, while I am not a huge fan of “teen lit”, I did like Riordan’s attempt at a sort of (forgive me for saying) “Harry Potter/Vampire Academy” youthful exploration of the myths in slightly unexpected settings (before a tidal wave of lookalikes start(ed) appearing. I read “The Lightning Thief” and then saw the movie…big mistake. Pick one or the other. I’ll take the books over the movies. But, slightly like Riordan–and perhaps this Canongate group–I have been dabbling with my own takes on myths and myth-related stories. I’ve discovered patterns in myths, history and fairy tales. I can trace a line of Athena’s lives through history not unlike how Riordan says the Greek gods have gradually relocated to the U.S.

        Well, for all it’s publicity, I don’t think I heard a peep:P But, I don’t exactly hang out at book stores or meet too many bookworms with whom I can feel comfortable associating (yet)…so that’s no surprise.

        I have no idea where my head was at back in 1995 other than I was dabbling with writing my first epic story/screenplay (which–like James Cameron’s “Avatar”–is taking time to yet complete) and my first autobiography to keep the first portion of my life’s stories fresh (before my brain started to get old). I was still in the school mindset of “I hate being forced to read such thick books” even though some were memorable.

  6. Desperate Reader says:

    I loved this book, I’m a Byatt fan as well as a Norse mythology fan so it ticked all the boxes for me. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her longer books, but it’s as a short story writer that I think she really excels. ‘The Djin in the Nightingales Eye’ is probably my favourite collection and just mentioning it now is making me want to pull it off the shelf.

    I’m reading the Harris at the moment, it’ll be good to see your review, I’m enjoying it but am as yet not entirely convinced by the language. It’s fun though and I have a growing list of references to be checked.

    Again just seeing mention of this book has reminded me of the section with the world serpent – there’s something about Byatt that sticks with me, there are bits that I probably haven’t read in 15 years but I have very clear images/memories of them. There aren’t many writers that I can say that for!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I’m glad I read the Byatt alongside the Harris (which I loved in a different way). I’d like to try some of her short stories – I have the volume you mention Hayley, you’re not the first to tell me she’s a great short story writer – glad to have it confirmed.

  7. Candiss says:

    Great review! I’ve read a few of this series and want to make my way through them all. I have avoided this particular one because I, too, can’t seem to get into Byatt’s longer works. Maybe this will be just the book to push past that impasse!

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