Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt
(Canongate, 2011, 192 pages)
Byatt has written many modern fairytales. In Ragnarok she offers a modern retelling of the classic stories of Norse mythology. The Yggdrasil, the ash tree that holds the world of these myths together, is described in evocative detail. The mischief of Loki, the shape shifter, is central to the story. Loki and his children torment the gods Odin and Thor, leading eventually to the battle of Ragnarok and the destruction of Yggdrasil. These stories are recounted in a sweeping manner, but Byatt focuses in at points to give beautiful descriptions of the gods and the world they inhabit.
We enter these myths through the character of the “thin girl.” She is a child, living during World War II, trying to make sense of the world in which she lives. She reads about these Norse gods and is captivated by the violent and tumultuous nature of their stories – captivated in a way that she is not by the Christian myths that are presented to her in school. Byatt weaves the telling of these stories together with the perceptions of the “thin girl” in a way that demonstrates the power that myths have to structure the way we perceive the world.
Byatt is a descriptive writer with few equals. She describes specific colors and objects with loving attention and precision. This creates an atmosphere that lingers even after the book is put down. The final chapter is a theoretical discussion of the role of mythology in literature. This chapter alone is worth reading, but it is all the more substantial after Byatt has demonstrated just how powerful these stories can be.