Ragnarok: The End Of The Gods by A.S. ByattRagnarok: The End Of The Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End Of The Gods

byA.S. Byatt

Hardcover | September 6, 2011

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Ragnarok retells the finale of Norse mythology. A story of the destruction of life on this planet and the end of the gods themselves: what more relevant myth could any modern writer choose? Just as Wagner used this dramatic and catastrophic struggle for the climax of his Ring Cycle, so A.S. Byatt now reinvents it in all its intensity and glory.

As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new wartime life. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods - a book of ancient Norse myths - and her inner and outer worlds are transformed.

How could this child know that fifty years on many of the birds and flowers she took for granted on her walks to school would become extinct? War, natural disaster, reckless gods and the recognition of impermanence in the world are just some of the threads that A.S. Byatt weaves into this most timely of books. Linguistically stunning and imaginatively abundant, this is a landmark work of fiction from one of the world's truly great writers.
A. S. BYATT is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Her books include Possession, The Children's Book and the quartet of The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman. She was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1999.
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Title:Ragnarok: The End Of The GodsFormat:HardcoverProduct dimensions:192 pages, 8.55 × 5.93 × 0.84 inShipping dimensions:8.55 × 5.93 × 0.84 inPublished:September 6, 2011Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676978509

ISBN - 13:9780676978506

Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from The End of the World as We Know It This is not exactly a novel. Not exactly fiction, not exactly autobiography, not exactly allegory. Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt’s reweaving of the Norse cycle of myths is, for such a short book, epic. Ragnarök loosely tells the story of the thin child, an otherwise unnamed waif who is a loose representation of Byatt in her childhood, sent to the English countryside during World War II. She finds a book about the Norse gods that opens up her imaginative playground and, indeed, her world view. We follow her as she traipses, book-bag in one hand and gas-mask in the other, through fields of flowers and dreamscapes of great Norse battles, puzzling out what she believes to be true about the world around her. We are given a younger avatar of the author, are seeing the world through that younger self’s eyes, and yet are being given analysis in a very adult voice. What linear narration there is belongs to the retelling of the myths, beginning with the creation of the gods’ world to the creation of this world to the inexorable destruction of it all. Byatt adopts a slightly archaic tone that is perfect for the subject matter: she sounds like she is telling myths and legends without ever sounding pretentious. This artifice is the most natural way of telling stories of one-eyed Odin and the trickster Loki, Loki’s monstrous children and dead warriors fighting forever in Valhalla and the beautiful, doomed Baldur who must fall at the hands of his fellow gods. Throughout we have the thin child’s narrative—not framing the myths so much as interweaving with them—comparing these Norse myths to the Christian myths she taught in school and church, deciding that both are stories and that she doesn’t “believe” with faith in either story cycle. Loveliness abounds in this book. Byatt’s love of words, love of shaping the story, gets full play here. As the gods create their world by naming things so too does Byatt. The thin child “liked seeing, learning, and naming things. Daisies. Day’s eyes, she learned with a frisson of pleasure…vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bitter-cress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celan-dines, campions and ragged robin.” I can get happily lost in this ocean of lovely language. Byatt creates and recreates worlds for the thin child and for her readers to dive into. Byatt uses the myths to discuss obliquely problems of the modern world. For example, she considers the fact that our world was built from the skull—in the mind, as it were—of Ymir, and that the sun and moon are pursued across the sky each day by howling, snapping wolves. A cosmological tale to explain the movement of the heavenly bodies across the sky, certainly, but Byatt also draws upon the idea of wolves in the mind, forever causing anxiety, unrelenting in their vicious, violent pursuit. Likewise, the World-Tree, Ygdrassil, and the Sea-Tree, Rándrasill, described in such loving, interconnected detail, make for beautiful metaphors of our own planet’s ecology; their destruction speaks to the ecological havoc being wrought by us upon our world. And in the end, the gods’ own nature brings about their doom. Their inability to stop being destructive, their inability to break free of the story they have shaped for themselves, means that the always inevitable (ineluctable, as Byatt says) ending, the Ragnarök they all knew was coming, cannot but come. Byatt is not directly pointing and saying “See, humans? You are in the same position!” She is not smug or knowing, and yet there are parallels to be drawn from these stories that are apt for our times. ~*~ Like this excerpt? Read the full review, plus other book reviews, at http://editorialeyes.wordpress.com
Date published: 2011-11-07

Read from the Book

There was a thin child, who was three years old when the world war began. She could remember, though barely, the time before wartime when, as her mother frequently told her, there was honey and cream and eggs in plenty. She was a thin, sickly, bony child, like an eft, with fine hair like sunlit smoke. Her elders told her not to do this, to avoid that, because there was ‘a war on’. Life was a state in which a war was on. Nevertheless, by a paradoxical fate, the child may only have lived because her people left the sulphurous air of a steel city, full of smoking chimneys, for a country town, of no interest to enemy bombers. She grew up in the ordinary paradise of the English countryside. When she was five she walked to school, two miles, across meadows covered with cowslips, buttercups, daisies, vetch, rimmed by hedges full of blossom and then berries, blackthorn, hawthorn, dog-roses, the odd ash tree with its sooty buds. Her mother, when they appeared, always said ‘black as ash-buds in the front of March’. Her mother’s fate too was paradoxical. Because there was a war on, it was legally possible for her to live in the mind, to teach bright boys, which before the war had been forbidden to married women. The thin child learned to read very early. Her mother was more real, and kinder, when it was a question of grouped letters on the page. Her father was away. He was in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only existed in books. She remembered him. He had red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god. The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lived in provisional fear of imminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew. The English country world did not end, as many others did, was not overrun, nor battered into mud by armies. But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it. In her soul she knew her bright father would not come back. At the end of every year the family sipped cider and toasted his safe return. The thin child felt a despair she did not know she felt. THE END OF THE WORLDThe Beginning The thin child thought less (or so it now seems) of where she herself came from, and more about that old question, why is there something rather than nothing? She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark. She told her own tales as she walked through the fields, tales of wild riders and deep meres, of kindly creatures and evil hags. At some point, when she was a little older, she discovered Asgard and the Gods. This was a solid volume, bound in green, with an intriguing, rushing image on the cover, of Odin’s Wild Hunt on horseback tearing through a clouded sky amid jagged bolts of lightning, watched, from the entrance to a dark underground cavern, by a dwarf in a cap, looking alarmed. The book was full of immensely detailed, mysterious steel engravings of wolves and wild waters, apparitions and floating women. It was an academic book, and had in fact been used by her mother as a crib for exams in Old Icelandic and Ancient Norse. It was, however, German. It was adapted from the work of Dr W. Wägner. The thin child was given to reading books from cover to cover. She read the introduction, about the retrieval of ‘the old Germanic world, with its secrets and wonders . . .’ She was puzzled by the idea of the Germans. She had dreams that there were Germans under her bed, who, having cast her parents into a green pit in a dark wood, were sawing down the legs of her bed to reach her and destroy her. Who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky? The book also said that these stories belonged to ‘Nordic’ peoples, Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders. The thin child was, in England, a northerner. The family came from land invaded and settled by Vikings. These were her stories. The book became a passion. Much of her reading was done late at night, with a concealed torch under the bedclothes, or with the volume pushed past a slit-opening of the bedroom door into a pool of bleak light on the blacked-out landing. The other book she read and reread, repeatedly, was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. She felt in her bones the crippling burden born by the Man mired in the Slough of Despond, she followed his travels through wilderness and the Valley of the Shadow, his encounters with Giant Despair and the fiend Apollyon. Bunyan’s tale had a clear message and meaning. Not so, Asgard and the Gods. That book was an account of a mystery, of how a world came together, was filled with magical and powerful beings, and then came to an end. A real End. The end. One of the illustrations showed Rocks in the Riesengebirge. A river ran through a cleft, above which towered tall lumps of rock with featureless almost-heads, and stumps of almost-arms, standing amongst thrusting columns with no resemblance to any living form. Grey spiked forest tips clothed one slope. Tiny, ant-like, almost invisible humans stared upwards from the near shore. Wraiths of cloud-veils hung between the forms and the reading child. She read: The legends of the giants and dragons were developed gradually, like all myths. At first natural objects were looked upon as identical with these strange beings, then the rocks and chasms became their dwelling-places, and finally they were regarded as distinct personalities and had their own kingdom of Jotunheim. The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log, seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing branch could be a snake, complete with shining eyes and flickering forked tongue. This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from. The stone giants made her want to write. They filled the world with alarming energy and power. She saw their unformed faces, peering at herself from behind the snout of her gas-mask, during air-raid drill. Every Wednesday the elementary-school children went to the local church for scripture lessons. The vicar was kindly: light came through a coloured window above his head. There were pictures and songs of gentle Jesus meek and mild. In one of them he preached in a clearing to a congregation of attentive cuddly animals, rabbits, a fawn, a squirrel, a magpie. The animals were more real than the divine-human figure. The thin child tried to respond to the picture, and failed. They were taught to say prayers. The thin child had an intuition of wickedness as she felt what she spoke sucked into a cotton-wool cloud of nothingness. She was a logical child, as children go. She did not understand how such a nice, kind, good God as the one they prayed to, could condemn the whole earth for sinfulness and flood it, or condemn his only Son to a disgusting death on behalf of everyone. This death did not seem to have done much good. There was a war on. Possibly there would always be a war on. The fighters on the other side were bad and not saved, or possibly were human and hurt. The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesenge birge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked. But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.

Editorial Reviews

A Globe and Mail Best Book“What she has made in this case—thanks to a rare fusion of imagination and intellect, sensual poetry and cerebral prose, youthful joy and elderly wisdom—is an entire world, compressed but energetically alive in all its details. When we have artists like this, who needs gods?” —The Observer  “Byatt’s prose is majestic, the lush descriptive passages––jewelled one minute, gory the next––a pleasure to get lost in.” —The Telegraph “The stern beauty of the writing makes the slender book frighteningly compelling.” —National Post “The pleasures afforded by this treatment of the myth are numerous. Byatt paints beautiful and fantastic word-pictures, glittering verbal special effects.” —The Scotsman “Brilliantly effective. . . . Surely among the most beautiful and incisive [pages] Byatt has ever written.” —The Independent