Saturday, April 6, 2013

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


I must say, this was a great start to Once Upon a Time VII. Join the challenge here.


When I saw this at the book store, I immediately bought myself a copy, even though I knew nothing about Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) and very little about Norse mythology in general. Why? Well, firstly, it's part of a series of books on mythology, of which I've read the first introductory book; The Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Secondly, well, it's written by A.S. Byatt, who has grown to be one of my favourite authors, and not without reason. Byatt is a brilliant writer, a wordsmith. Her prose is rather poetic; a combination of apt imagery and beautiful sounds, which together with the strong emotions that her stories invoke in you, leaves you enraptured.

If you're a mythology fanatic or an expert, you might find this book a little too basic, as some of the Goodreads reviews seem to suggest. But if all you want is a general glimpse into the Norse myths, without having to struggle through a reference journal, the book is perfect. It is far from scholarly, and that, somehow is the magic of it. Throughout the book, Byatt maintains these careful inconsistencies, even with the names; because, she says, myths are always changing, there is no right or wrong, no accurate version. Where you'd have footnotes and in depth analyses of the different allegories, you have a thin young girl, who has had to move to the English countryside with a war raging around them, reading and shaping her world according to a book she loves called "Asgard and the Gods". It draws parallels to our world, at every step, through the mind of that little girl, who likens her father being away bombing the enemy's planes to Odin's Wild Hunt. 

At the same time, it's just a story, of how the world was fashioned by the gods from the Giant Ymir's corpse, of the creation of Ask and Embla, the stories of Odin or Wodun, Thor and Baldur the beautiful God, who was killed by his blind brother. We also read about Loki or Loptr, the playful shape-shifting fire God and his spawn; Jormungandr, the giant sea serpent, Hel, ruler of Niflheim, where the dead go and Fenris, the monstrous wolf. We experience, finally, the eponymous end of the gods, the terrible Ragnarok. With her writing, Byatt brings the myths alive, to the point where we don't only find Loki interesting, but want to read further to find out what happened of him. It's not informative, as an academic book about myths would be, instead, it's engaging.

All of Byatt's writing is heavily influenced by mythology, I've read enough of her books to recognize its hold on her. The thin child is based, after all, on Byatt herself, as a young girl, first finding her way to these myths. In her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession, one of the main characters is a poet called Randolph Henry Ash. These lines are from the epic he writes about Ragnarok. 

And these three Ases were the sons of Bor
Who slew the Giant Ymir in his rage
And made of him the elements of earth,
Body and sweat and bones and curly hair,
Made soil and sea and hills and waving trees,
And his grey brains wandered the heavens as clouds.
These three were Odin, Father of the Gods,
Honir, his brother, also called the Bright,
The Wise and Thoughtful, and that third, the hot
Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire
First warmed the world, then grown beyond the bounds
Of home and hearth-stone, flamed in boundless greed
To turn the world, and Heav'n, to sifting ash.

(Chapter 13, Possession by A.S. Byatt)

4 comments:

Divers and Sundry said...

this sounds fascinating. i've liked byatt's work but hadn't heard of this one. thx!

Priya said...

It is! Hope you get around to reading it. Glad you stopped by.

marveloustales said...

Very interesting! I love Greek myths but know very little about Norse...which might make this a good introduction. :)

Coreena McBurnie said...

This sounds great. I love Byatt, but haven't read one of her books for awhile. Also, I know a lot about Greek myth, too, but not Norse. I'm definitely adding this to my list. Thanks.

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