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

 Ragnarok cover art, artist unknown

 

This book is a visceral delight that vividly combined the world of the Norse Myths with the world of a thin child evacuated in wartime. It is about endings, and how those endings come about.

A.S. Byatt writes with utter precision; it seems that every single word is doing exactly what she wants it to without creating a sense of artifice. Lush imagery inhabits it from start to finish. From the first pages the story is driven by the knowledge of its own ending, and of all the endings that must occur; the adults in the thin child’s life are always in fear of destruction. The gods build Asgard as a fortress with walls and barriers. The sun and moon are driven across the sky, which is the skull of a giant, in fear of the wolves that pursue them.

Worlds are woven beautifully, shimmering into existence throughout the prose while the Norse Myths are told to us through the reflection of the thin child’s thoughts, and a slender light shone on her own life within her relation to the myths. One particularly outstanding instance of this for me was a description of her nights spent in her room with blacked out windows, hearing the drone of planes overhead and thinking of the Norse men cowering when they heard Odin’s wild hunt pass above them.

The thin child’s countryside paradise is rich with life, and easily comparable to Yggdrasil the world tree and Rándrasill the sea tree. They burst with living things, with life and death and richness. Yggdrasil and Rándrasill, from the moment they are described, are doomed. Although the thin child herself believes that the vast countryside will last long after she is gone, it is hard not to see the line drawn between the three, the warning against our own destruction of the natural world.

Unlike the other book I reviewed that was based upon Norse mythology (Runemarks by Joanne Harris), the gods here are not characters. They remain mythical and aloof, capable only of playing their part in the story. They are archetypal, and trapped by it. Odin can be nothing except what he is; powerful, wise and doomed. Thor can only be a bully and a fighter, Frigg a mother, Baldur beautiful and Hödur his shadow. Surtr is a ruler of fire, Idunn the giver of youth, Fenris is a wild rage, Hel unbendable and Jormundgandr a passionate destructive force. Hyrrokkin is terrifying. Only Loki sits on the outside, but he does not avert the end though he perhaps could.

The few human characters who make their way onto the pages through the thin child’s life are similarly represented but on a lesser scale; her father, absent and (she believes) never returning, her mother freed by the war to teach and exercise her mind but trapped again when it ends. More real are the dreams that the thin child has, dreams where the Germans lie under her bed sawing through its legs and her parents are helpless. The effect is that the entire book is absolutely a myth rather than a story or a fairy tale.

It is an utterly submersing read paced steadily throughout and building up to the climax without a falter. All of the beautiful worlds seem to have been brought into existence for the sole purpose of being relentlessly, gloriously destroyed. A.S. Byatt shows us how it is the gods’ foolishness, cruelty and greed combined with the undeniable natures of certain beings that brings about the destruction they always feared. She hands us not only a majestic piece of fantasy that should be read purely for its excellence as a myth, but a twisted mirror in which we can see our own greed and foolishness, our ravaging of the planet, reflected in the gods who know of the end they are approaching but cannot turn it aside.

Out of step with much of the “apocalyptic” fiction that is currently circulating, and which I do enjoy, the apocalypse of this novel is complete. Nothing is spared. There is no second coming, no more chances, no survivors. It ends absolutely, the only way it can.

I do not think I can adequately describe how much I loved reading this book; it has branded images across my mind’s eye that will not leave. When I finished reading it I felt as though I had emerged from a burning house, and I sat in the café where I had been reading blowing my nose, wiping tears off my face and trying to catch my breath.

Ragnarok is an exhilarating, luscious read that I cannot recommend strongly enough.

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