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Sunday 17 November 2013

Ragnarök The End of the Gods – A S Byatt

In Ragnarök, another of the Canongate myths series, Byatt explores the world of the Norse Gods juxtaposed against the story of a young girl evacuee growing up during World War II. I should say, at this point, that I absolutely love the Norse myths and I have recently finished reading the quite wonderful Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland which is amazing and which I’ll blog about a little bit later, probably. So I was expecting a lot from this book.

The Norse elements of Ragnarök are wonderfully written. Byatt weaves the myths out of nothingness into being with prose that is both light and deep, and which draws heavily on the Nordic tradition using kennings and poetical language that is so well done that it is barely noticeable. One of the great strengths of this short novel is the way in which Byatt brings the world of the Nordic Gods to life, as in this passage about the sea tree Rándrassil:

In the kelp forests grew a monstrous bull-kelp, Rándrassil, the Sea-Tree. It gripped the underwater rock with a tough holdfast, from which rose the step like a whiplash taller than the masts or rooftrees, the stipe. The stipe went up and up from the depths to the surface, glassy still, whipped by the winds, swaying lazy. Where the water met the air the stipe spread into thickets of fronds and streamers, each buoyed up by a pocket of gas, a bladder at its base. The branching fronds, like those of the Tree on land, were threaded with green cells that ate light. Seawater takes in red light; floating dust and debris take in blue, weeds deep down in the dim light are mostly red in colour, whereas those tossing on the surface, or clinging to tide-washed ledges, can be brilliant green or glistening yellow.

The weaving of the Norse myths into the story of a little girl trying to make sense of a world in which bombs are raining down on the earth, which seems to be the end of the world like Ragnarök, makes for a brave and interesting comparison and Byatt also uses the girl as a vehicle to explore the differences and similarities of the Norse myths and the Christian myth. Jesus is likened to Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg who is beautiful and good and true and doomed to die, and in his death the end of the world of the Norse Gods begins. Norse and Christian heaven the girl finds boring. Telling the myths through the eyes of the girl allows for a light and interesting introduction, but for me there was something that didn’t quite work in this weaving. Perhaps it was that the girl herself seemed to have no identity. Throughout the story she is only ever referred to as ‘the thin child’ and we learn little about her other than how she perceives the world through the myths and how it mirrored the world in which she was living. In a way this lack of an identity made the child seem unreal, less real certainly than the Gods about which she was reading.

Overall I found Ragnarök an enjoyable story and where it succeeds is how it introduces the reader to the world of the Norse Gods without being overly academic or heavy. Instead it gives a gentle introduction which left me wanting to know more and in fact I have gone on to read the Crossley-Holland book, as I mentioned, and also have explored some of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda which are the more primary texts laying out the world of the Norse mythologies. I did find the use of the girl as a vehicle a little disappointing; though I could see how making the link between Ragnarök and World War II, how to a child (or an adult for that matter) it may well have seemed that in battle the world was coming to an end, there was something lacking in the way this was explored and I was left wondering if the thin child of the story represented Byatt herself or was simply a prop around which the story had been built.

If you’re interested in learning a little about the Norse myths I would say this is a good place to start, and it is true that A S Byatt writes beautifully and introduces the world of the Norse Gods with a delicate and poetic touch. But if you are interested in knowing more about the stories, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book of Norse Myths gives a more detailed overview and tells the stories more directly and, perhaps, more beautifully than Byatt herself.

Ragnarök The End of the Gods receives a world-ending 8 out of 10 Biis.

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