Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

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

16 thoughts on “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

  1. Joanne says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Do you think it would be suitable to read to a child? I’ve been thinking that my 8 year old might enjoy some Norse mythology.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure – I don’t think there was anything in it that would be unsuitable, but Byatt’s writing is very descriptive and detailed. I hope you enjoy it anyway!

    • Helen says:

      It will be interesting to see what her next book is about, though I still have plenty of her older books to read too. I’ve only read this one, Possession and The Children’s Book so far.

  2. christinasr says:

    I love the idea of the entire series of authors taking the myths and re-writing them. And I would love to re-read the Norse mythology after it has been through Byatt’s amazing mind. Your review of it is really great.

  3. FleurFisher says:

    I’m encouraged that you say this is a good starting point for Norse mythology. I love the concept, I love A S Byatt’s writing, but the mythology is new to me and I was a little worried about that.

    • Helen says:

      I knew almost nothing about Norse mythology before I read this book, but I was able to understand everything without too many problems. It was really just the sheer amount of new information that I struggled with!

  4. Lisa says:

    I recently read the D’Aulaires’ Book on Norse Myths, a wonderful introduction to the mythology, which made me curious to read more. This book sounds perfect.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll have to look out for that one. I want to read more books about Norse myth, but nothing too challenging as I’m still just learning the basics!

    • Helen says:

      I love A.S. Byatt too. I only really discovered her last year but she’s becoming one of my favourite authors. I hope you decide to give this one a try!

    • Helen says:

      This is the first book I’ve ever read on Norse mythology, but I’ve been left wanting to read more about it too. It’s a fascinating subject, isn’t it?

      • jessicabookworm says:

        Fascinating. I started by reading a collection of Norse Tales then I moved on to Tolkien’s own retelling of the tale of Sigurd and Gudrun. Both highly recommended, however must warn you the second one is for those who already know something about it first, would be a tricky read otherwise.

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