A.S. Byatt has always been one of those authors I’ve avoided out of intimidation. When I saw she would be writing the 17th addition in the Canongate Myths series, I thought I’d overcome my fear and give her writing a go. The Canongate series is a collection of books based on myths written by different authors such as Margaret Atwood and David Grossman. While I don’t have any particular affinity for mythology, Ragnarok seemed interesting and comfortably short.
Unlike many of the other novels in this series, Ragnarok is not a retooling or a modernization of an ancient story. Byatt stays true to the purity of this Norse end-of-days myth. We follow a ‘Thin Child’ as her family evacuates London during the 1940s against the bombing raids and warning sirens of WWII. They take up residence in the English countryside where the young girl (we’re never told her name) spends her days wondering through fields of flowers, trees, and insects or immersed in a book she’s discovered called Asgard and the Gods. Asgard tells the story of the Twilight of the Gods – the Norse myth that ends with complete annihilation of every last God, and obviously, the world as a whole.
By far, the ‘Thin Child’s’ present day observations outside of the myth were my favorite parts. She spends her time in green gardens alive with the noise of nature which stands in direct contrast to the dying world of Ragnarok. Her religious searching and spiritual questions are fascinating and belie a maturity far beyond what her age might suggest. She finds the ‘myth’ of Jesus boring and despises the idea of his Resurrection. She’s much more taken with the brutality and finality of the destruction of the Gods in Ragnarok. You understand her emotions when you consider that there’s ‘a war on’ and that her own father is caught in the middle, flying high above the earth sending bombs down to destroy the lesser creatures. She fiercely believes her father will never return home and that his death is inevitable. Ragnarok becomes a way to process her father’s absence and to immortalize him in the pages of a book.
Ragnarok is short and lives mostly in the telling of this myth. In that way, this doesn’t read like a typical novel. Most novel readers will probably be turned off by the no nonsense of Odin, Loki, Thor and their tales – unless you just love mythology. I was somewhere in the middle of the likability scale. I suspect most of the Canongate novels offer a wonderful way to learn about mythology without having to pick up something extremely educational, but Byatt’s contribution thrives to stay among the purely academic. You’ll learn a lot, but won’t necessarily be entertained while doing so.
Source: Publisher via NetGalley