Wednesday, February 1, 2012

RAGNAROK by A.S. Byatt

I chose to review Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt because I loved her novel Possession, and I really liked some of her other novels and novellas that I have read.  For other fans of Byatt’s work, be warned that Ragnarok is not a novel, it’s a retelling of the Norse myth of the end of the world. 

My previous experience with Norse myths is minimal.  I’ve watched some of the operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but it was many years ago.  I’ve come across some Norse stuff tangentially in my reading as an English and Spanish major in college.  My lack of background in Norse mythology is not a real hindrance in this case because Byatt’s writing is so clear.  Furthermore, the more I read of Ragnarok, the more I realized that I have heard these tales retold in other guises, or, at least, I’ve read books that are heavily influenced by Norse mythology, including the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings books.

The framing device for Ragnarok is the story of the thin child, a stand-in for Byatt herself, who is evacuated from London to the country during World War II.  The thin child’s mother gives her a copy of Asgard and the Gods, which is a German retelling of Norse myths.  In the author’s note, Byatt acknowledges that she wrote her version of Ragnarok as a child discovering the myths, which explains the straightforward style she uses.  The framing device also works in a way that allows Byatt to talk about how she, as a child, developed her worldview.  She’s not into the Christian, redemptive ending:  she always expects a dark end, much as the dark end of the gods destroying each other in Ragnarok.

This is a slim volume that I could have read in an afternoon, but I spread it out over a couple days.  Because it is so slim, it’s hard to write a longer review.  This piece is a collection of stories of the end of the Norse gods written in an accessible style.  It also contains interesting discussions about the nature of myths versus the nature of fairy tales.  It’s about the stories as well as about the nature of storytelling.

Ragnarok:  The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt
Grove Press
Publication Date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley


  1. Sounds like a good book and yours is the first review that I've read. It's definitely on my to read list.

  2. I read this book fairly recently - the UK cover is different, sort of old gold, rather striking. I have to say I did not take to it - I thought the writing was good in itself, but the story of the thin child did not somehow ring true to me, and the Norse myth sections seemed unfocused. I was rather disappointed, actually, given the author's reputation and my interest in Scandinavia in general.

    1. I wasn't sure what to expect for a retelling of a myth I'd never read before. Have you read any of the others in the series?

  3. No I haven't, though I was tempted by The Penelopeiad. I don't much like the other Margaret Atwood books I've read so I've resisted so far even though the subject looks interesting (I obsessively read all the Greek myths when I was young).