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

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

Since The Children’s Book was published in 2009 I’ve picked it up a few times but have been put off by the length (over 600 pages of small print in the paperback edition) and also by the very mixed reviews. It seems that people have either loved this book or have found it almost impossible to get through. After I read my first A.S. Byatt book, Possession, earlier this year and found it easier to read than I had expected, I decided it was time I stopped feeling intimidated and tried this one too. I enjoyed it but now that I’ve read it I can understand why it might be a love it/hate it type of book. If you’re not interested in the historical and cultural events of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, if you don’t like reading fairy tales, if you prefer books with more action and less description, then this may not be the right book for you. It’s such a complex novel with so many layers I would find it impossible to write a summary of the plot, but I’ll do my best to give you an idea of what the book is about.

In The Children’s Book, Byatt tells the story of the Wellwood family and their friends and neighbours in the context of the larger social changes taking place in the world around them. As you can probably tell, despite the title, this is not a book for children. However, many of the characters are children at the beginning of the book and we watch them grow up over the years and begin to follow their own paths in life. As the children become adults they make some surprising discoveries and find that nothing is quite as it seems.

The book begins in the late Victorian period and ends just after World War I, so all kinds of important historical moments and events are covered, from the Exposition Universelle de Paris to the death of Queen Victoria and the Boer War. Some of the characters become involved with groups and movements such as the Fabians, anarchists and Suffragettes. There are also lots of descriptions of the Arts and Crafts movement, pottery and ceramics, puppet shows, summer crafts camps, making lanterns etc. And from the world of literature there are references to authors including Oscar Wilde, the Brothers Grimm, J.M. Barrie and Kenneth Grahame.

One of the main characters, Olive Wellwood, is a famous writer of fairy tales and she creates a special book for each of her children, Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda and Florian. Inside each child’s book is a personalised story Olive has written for them. We are given the chance to read extracts from some of these stories and this was one of my favourite aspects of the novel. I know not everyone will be as enthusiastic about the fairy tales as I was, but I did really enjoy them.

In addition to the Wellwood family, there are literally dozens of other characters, each of them with an interesting story of his or her own. As the book progresses the relationships between the various characters become very complex and intricately linked. Considering the length and scope of the book, I think having a character list to refer to would have been very useful! Of all the characters in the novel, I think Dorothy Wellwood was my favourite. I was interested in her attempts to study medicine and become a doctor, something very rare and difficult for a woman at the beginning of the 20th century. In Dorothy and a couple of the other young female characters who also consider going to university, we see how women often felt that they had to make a choice between marriage and a career and couldn’t have both.

Something I probably haven’t made clear yet is how dark and moving this book is at times with its portrayal of the loss of childhood innocence and with the number of devastating family secrets that are revealed. A.S. Byatt has said that she wanted to explore the effects of writing children’s books on an author’s real children, and one of the saddest parts of the novel for me was the storyline involving Olive Wellwood’s eldest son, Tom. I won’t tell you what happens to him but I thought it was heartbreaking.

The only thing that disappointed me slightly was that towards the end it seemed as if Byatt was trying to squeeze as much as possible into the final pages of the novel. After the slow, steady pace of the rest of the book, I thought the ending was very rushed and the story seemed to disappear under an overwhelming amount of historical facts and dates. Apart from that, I loved this book.

Have you read The Children’s Book? What did you think of it?

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a literary mystery which follows two academics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who are studying the lives of two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte respectively. When they discover new evidence that suggests the two poets knew each other and may even have been lovers, Roland and Maud begin working together to uncover the truth. Woven into the story are letters, poems, fairy tales and journal entries, all of which feel like authentic Victorian documents. The significance of these is not always immediately obvious but as Maud and Roland continue to find new clues regarding Ash and LaMotte, things slowly begin to make sense.

Possession is one of those books I feel I should have read long before now but never have, partly because I was afraid it might be too clever and intellectual for me. Now that I’ve finally read it I’m glad I got over my fear of it and decided to give it a try, because it wasn’t quite as difficult to read as I thought it would be and in fact was a very rewarding and enjoyable read. I did find it hard to get into at first and almost gave up a few times throughout the first 200 pages, but somewhere in the middle of the book I found myself becoming completely absorbed in the story and didn’t want to put it down.

I’m not a lover of poetry and was tempted to skip some of the longer poems, but although I did try to read them all I know I didn’t pick up on all the little references and metaphors they contained. I would need to read the whole book again to pick up on everything I missed the first time, but I found it such a challenge to read once I don’t think I’ll want to read it again, at least not in the near future.

I enjoyed following Maud and Roland on their physical journey, first around the North Yorkshire coast and then to Brittany, retracing the steps of Ash and LaMotte. This book made me wish I was also on the trail of an important literary mystery – I think it would be fascinating. It’s intriguing to think that an important part of someone’s life can become lost in the mists of time, and when rediscovered can completely change the way we think about them and their work.

As the book progressed, I had a better understanding of what the title ‘possession’ could mean and the various ways in which it could be interpreted. There’s the obvious interpretation of two people in love, but there’s also an intellectual possession – the possession of information, secrets and ideas. Then there are the physical possessions of the letters and writings, and the dispute over who should actually ‘possess’ them. There’s possession in a spiritual, ghostly sense. And the way we become possessed with the desire for knowledge and the wish to ‘possess’ our subject.

There are so many layers to this book that I would need to write a post twice as long as this one to be able to mention everything. There’s feminist symbolism, natural history, legends and mythology, the Victorian fascination with seances and spiritualists. And in addition to all this, Byatt creates an entire history for both Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, to the extent where they feel as if they could really have existed, as if they were real Victorian poets. I can’t imagine how much work must go into writing a novel like this; it’s very, very impressive and I can understand why it won the Booker Prize in 1990.