Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

Could there be an end more final, more absolute than the end of not just the world, but of the gods themselves? In Norse myth, Ragnarök is the cataclysmic battle in which the Gods themselves die. In A. S. Byatt’s contribution to the Canongate myths series, this event is shown to have captured Byatt’s own imagination when she was a young girl who immersed herself in Asgard and the Gods during her stay in the English countryside as an evacuee from London during World War II. In this novella, Byatt revisits both these myths and her childhood self who clung to them.

In the afterword to the book, Byatt says that the gods of myths are not like characters in novels; they are not people with psychologies. They have attributes, and in this book, Byatt is content to let them remain so, although she comes close to giving a personality to the contradictory and complex Loki, the one god who earned her sympathies as a child. This is not a book about the gods as people but a book about the myths and stories that capture and transform us.

Byatt interweaves her retelling of the Norse myths with recollections of herself, the “thin child,” reading and reflecting on these stories. The thin child finds Odin and his compatriots far more exciting to read about than the Christian God she learns of in church. That story makes no sense to her, and she cannot bring herself to believe it. She doesn’t believe the Norse myths either, but she’s caught up in them; they become “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive.” What reader hasn’t had a story get under her skin in this way? Who can explain how and why this happens? Why this story and not that one?

For me, that question of being captured by stories is at the heart of this book. As a Christian myself, I find the very story that the thin girl rejected to be the one that hums in my own skull. And as I read of her distaste for it, I wanted to leap in and tell her all the things she missed about it. Not that I wanted to point out theological errors, but I wanted her to see the images and ideas that hold as much drama and mystery for me as the image of Yggdrasil, the world-tree, held for her. This reaction kept me at a distance from the book for a while. I wanted to argue with the thin girl, rather than to ask why she felt this way. What was it about the Norse myths, which could be just as brutal as any biblical story, that gave her comfort?

The answer to that question is never given explicitly; I’m not sure it’s a question that can be clearly answered. Byatt writes that myths “are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The black was now in the thin child’s head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered.”

The thin girl had no use for the version of the Ragnarök story in which the world starts anew. When she read that some believed this vision of a new life was a later Christian addition, that notion was enough to allow her to set the more hopeful ending aside and dwell on the black ending she needed. Ragnarök was the story she felt she needed, and the story ending up transforming her. This is what stories do for us all.

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17 Responses to Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m very interested to read this book. I’ve just started to read about Norse mythology, and while some elements are already familiar, so much of it is completely new to me.

    So did the sense of distance fade as you read on?

    • Teresa says:

      Norse myth is pretty new to me as well. I knew Thor and Loki and Freya, but that’s about it.

      I don’t know that the distance faded so much as my annoyance at the distance did. I stopped arguing and started asking questions, and the experience improved. (There’s probably a life lesson in that!)

  2. litlove says:

    I’m very curious about this book and will read it when it comes into paperback. Most of the Canongate retellings have been fictional stories in their own right, but I’m not sure if that’s how you could describe Byatt’s book. When I read reviews of it, it seems more like non-fiction. Is that true, Teresa?

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a more difficult question that it seems like it should be, Litlove, because it’s sort of neither and both. Of course, the myths themselves are fiction, but even setting those aside the framing story about Byatt herself isn’t easy to categorize. It’s not clear in the novella itself that the thin girl is Byatt–she’s never named at all. But in the afterword she says that the thin girl is her, so you could call it autobiography. I’ve only read one other book in the myths series (The Penelopiad), but from what I’ve heard about the others, this one is very different.

  3. amymckie says:

    I’m super interested in this book, and the whole Canongate retelling series to be honest. I think we all find our own favorite stories that just hum perfectly and no amount of explaining can ever make other stories do that for us. Whether fiction or non-fiction, religious or not, we’ll always have our favorites.

  4. Great review — the religious aspects of this passed me by but your comments really gave me some ‘ooh!’ moments and I think I might need a reread using your lens (so to speak). For me, the experience of bad Germans vs good Germans, the coming end of the world (via WWII), etc caught me initially but as with all Byatt’s works, closer rereads usually bring more exciting themes.

    • Teresa says:

      I love it when books allow for so many different readings. If there’s a religious theme, it almost always colors my reading in some way because that lens is next to impossible for me to put down.

  5. Jenny says:

    This sounds wonderful, partly because the Norse myths are very resonant for me, and partly because of the way she pictures herself as engaged with them. Thanks for the great review.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’d like this, especially if you’re into Norse myths. (They’re not one of my particular fascinations, but that has as much to do with lack of exposure to them as anything else.)

  6. Jenny says:

    Still sad I don’t love Norse myths better. I feel like this was a story failing on my parents’ part THAT’S RIGHT I’M BLAMING THEM, and I shall make a point to ensure my own putative children’s early exposure to the Norse mythology stories. I can never love Norse mythology now. It’s not structured in to my childhood.

    • Teresa says:

      It wasn’t structured into my childhood, either, but I’m pretty sure I could love it, if I put my mind to it. But it’s true I probably can’t enjoy it in the same way I would if I’d read them as a child.

  7. Iris says:

    I am not a Christian, but I did want to argue with some of the assumptions of the child (and sometimes Byatt later on in the book) about Christianity. BUt I think, much of it also depends on how you were raised with/without Christianity (and what form it took) yourself.

    Like you, I particularly loved how this book showed how specific stories can shape us, and become meaningful to us.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, some of her characterizations seemed unfair, but I imagine a lot of it had to do with the form of Christianity she observed and how it fit (or didn’t) with what she was seeing in the world.

  8. I’m fascinated by the thin girl’s response to the stories—I think I’ll definitely have to pick this one up. Thanks for letting me know it exists!

  9. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: The Long Ships, Ragnarok — The End of the Gods « The Literary Omnivore

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