In Ragnarok, A.S. Byatt looks at Norse mythology from the perspective of a little girl (referred to as simply ‘the thin child’) who has been evacuated to the countryside during World War II. When the thin child receives a book called Asgard and the Gods, she is fascinated by the myths it contains, including Ragnarok, the story of ‘the end of the gods’. She reads the book over and over again and the myths help to sustain her throughout the war.
In the first half of the book we are introduced to some of the important characters from Norse myth, including the gods Odin, Loki (the thin child’s favourite) and Baldur, Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungandr, the serpent who wraps herself around the world. Byatt uses wonderful, rich prose to bring all of these characters to life and there are some beautiful descriptions of nature and the environment too – I particularly loved reading about Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and Rándrasill, the Sea Tree. Later in the book, when the destruction of the world begins, there are some equally vivid and well written descriptions of how all of these things were destroyed, and it’s difficult to read Ragnarok without noticing some parallels with the world we live in today.
Throughout the book Byatt moves back and forth between the myths and the framing story of the thin child, showing us how various parts of the myths relate to the child’s own life in wartime Britain, how she makes comparisons between Norse myth and stories from the Bible, and how the myths help her to cope while her father is away fighting in the war. When the child is not reading Asgard and the Gods she’s busy discovering the beauty of the world around her, learning the names of the flowers and trees that surround her new home.
In her author’s note at the end of the book, Byatt tells us why she chose to write about Ragnarok, and it seems that the thin child’s story was very autobiographical, which I had already guessed. She also explains the differences between myths and fairy tales and this was interesting to me because I’m not sure I would have been able to define the differences myself! According to Byatt, characters in myth only have attributes and not personalities the way characters in fairy tales do. This means we don’t actually get to experience the emotions and feelings of the gods in Ragnarok; instead the myths are told in a straightforward, factual style.
I am definitely not an expert on mythology and before I started this book I only knew a few of the basic facts of Norse myth. Although this is just a short book, it contains a huge amount of information, most of which was completely new to me, and I did feel slightly overwhelmed but overall I would say it’s an excellent introduction to Norse mythology. I could really feel the enthusiasm of the thin child (and Byatt herself) for the myths she was reading and by the time I’d finished the book I felt some of that enthusiasm too.
This book was a fascinating read and I would recommend it as a good starting point for other people who are also new to Norse myth, but if you already have a good knowledge of the myths I’m sure you’ll enjoy discovering them again through the thin child’s eyes.
I received a copy of Ragnarok through Netgalley