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An Enjoyable Re-Telling
on 9 January 2013
I had been looking forward to reading Ragnarok: The End of the Gods for quite some time. Not only because of my love for ancient myths, but also because of the Norse links to my own debut YA novel, The Black Petal. It was also my first A.S. Byatt novel, and after winning the Booker Prize and writing the critically acclaimed `The Children's Book' I was rather looking forward to reading some of this acclaimed writer's work.
For those of you that don't know, Ragnarok is the name of the coming destruction of the Norse gods. They know the end will come in the form of a final battle upon where the world will cleanse itself and all of the known world will perish.
This novel however, doesn't really put the end into a brand new story; this book is really a re-telling of the myths and stories of the Norse world. Byatt takes well known gods such as Odin and Thor and tells a little of their story. She begins with the creation myth and unravels the world to us until the aforementioned end comes. Mixed in with these myths is the story of the `thin child', a young girl who is evacuated from her home city to the English countryside in the time of World War II. She is given a book by her mother; `Asgard and the Gods' fascinates the thin child and she begins to relate the myths of Old Norse to her own reality.
For those of the readers who are unaware of the myths will learn vastly from this novella of sorts. It gives a new, unique way of looking at the stories and with the personal semi-autobiographical account of the `thin child'; it adds a new human dimension. Byatt's writing is almost exotic, plain at times forming lists of flowers and names, but also elegant and highly elevated too. It is literary writing and you quickly understand why she is a recipient of the esteemed Booker Prize.
But to be honest, it is formulaic writing that quickly becomes a bit dull. Paragraphs seem to go on for an age, full of endless lists and when you are trying to get into the heart of the myths, the writing simply halts the flow. Norse nomenclature isn't easy at the best of times and when it is thrown in to Byatt's own wording, it can easily confuse.
I also found the `thin child's' personal story, well a little impersonal. You get a wonderful construction of her mind, trying effortlessly to rationalise why her family doesn't think her father will return and why the religion of today is seemingly tedious compared to these Norse myths. But, you never really get a sense of who this thin child is, at heart. Some more of her personal story would add plenty into this. I assume Byatt didn't want to take anything away from the actual myths, making sure that they remain at the forefront, but at times this results in the thin child chapters seeming rather redundant.
And also like a work of non-fiction, Byatt adds her own thoughts on to the myths at the end of the book. These are actually quite insightful and she makes excellent points.
On the whole though, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is a short novel that actually gives the reader some pleasure into reliving the Norse myths if you haven't read them for a while, or, if you are new to them, a short introduction on the traits and characteristics of some of the most childish, argumentative and cunning gods of ancient mythology. If you can get past the language, it is an enjoyable read, just not as encapsulating as I had originally hoped.