Heather's Reviews > Ragnarök: The End of the Gods

Ragnarök by A.S. Byatt
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Apr 25, 2012

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bookshelves: fiction, library-books
Read from April 25 to May 06, 2012

In a section at the end of this book called "Thoughts on Myths," A.S. Byatt quotes Nietzsche, who wrote about myths as "presiding over the growth of the child's mind" (158). Byatt writes about Ragnarök, the end of the gods and the end of the world, as presiding over the growth of her own mind, after she discovered a copy of Asgard and the Gods as a child. I liked Byatt's telling of the myth and the way she juxtaposes it with the telling of the story of a wartime childhood, of a family evacuated to the countryside in WWII and of the "ordinary paradise of the English countryside," even in wartime (3). Myths are often creation myths, about the world came to be as it is, and the Norse creation myth is part of Byatt's story. I like how full of lists the book is, how lists of living things are part of what unite the frame of an English wartime childhood (with "meadows covered with cowslips, buttercups, daisies, vetch, rimmed by hedges full of blossom and then berries, blackthorn, hawthorn, dog-roses, the odd ash tree with its sooty buds" (3)) and the world as it is told in the myths, with the World-Ash, Yggdrasil, and all the creatures of land and air living in it, and the bull-kelp, Rándrasill, and all the sea-creatures living in it (crabs and sharks and seaweeds: bladderwrack, sea-girdle, devil's aprons, tangleweed). I love passages like this:
The branches and the sky were inhabited by birds. The skylark went up and up out of the bare earth into the blue sky, singing. Thrushes banged snails against stones and left a crackling carpet of empty shells. Rooks strode and cawed and gathered in glossy parliaments in the tree-tops. Huge clouds of starlings went overhead wheeling like one black wing, coiling like smoke. Plovers called. (35)

There are other things I like about Byatt's style and tone: how in the telling of the myth she often makes use of sentences in iambic pentameter, how the story flows because of that. And I like her concern with stories, with reading, with acts of reading and how to read and the shapes that stories can take. There is the charm of a bookish child, who is "given to reading books from cover to cover," and so reads the scholarly introduction to Asgard and the Gods, not just the myths themselves (8). There is the recollection of staying up past bedtime reading, with the added frisson that in the book the child doing this is doing it during the wartime nighttime blackout. There are the engravings from Asgard and the Gods, some of which, like this one, are reproduced in the book. (Of the rocks in that picture, Byatt writes that "The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended" (10). Reading Asgard and the Gods, and looking at the images it contains, is a lesson in learning to read the world in a mythic way, as a creator of myths not just a consumer of them: "This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from" (ibid.).) But the myth has its own power: Byatt writes, elsewhere in the book, about stories as being "ineluctable," as having a shape, of running their course: even the gods and goddesses, in Norse myth, are ultimately powerless to reshape the story (89, 97)

And then there are the myths themselves. I haven't read any other tellings of Norse myth, and know only bits and pieces, but oh, I loved the bits about Loki in this book, trickster shapeshifting Loki. Byatt describes him as "inordinate" (51) which I like a lot. Merriam-Webster defines inordinate not just as "immoderate" but also "disorderly" or "unregulated," though those last two are marked as archaic: Byatt is clearly using the word in all those senses. Elsewhere, she says that Loki "liked things to get more and more furious, more wild, more ungraspable, he was at home in turbulence." (115). There is something about that phrasing that sticks with me, that makes me think about how being "at home in turbulence" might feel.
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