Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

My first thought when seeing that A.S. Byatt had written a novel exploring the Norse mythology of Ragnarok, was “weird.” My second thought was, “In a way, Byatt has only written about the end times.” Ragnarok however isn't so much a retelling of the Norse end times, as it is the story of a young girl trying to understand the madness of the world around her, which included the chaos of WWII, through the Norse myths. Evacuated to the countryside while her father flew in the RAF, the book Asgard and the Fall of the Gods became the structure that allowed the young girl to organize her life in war times.

However, this use of the myths in the novel is both overt and indirect. Most of the novel is almost a translation or transliteration or retelling of the Norse myths with the brief passages of the skinny young girl providing real world context. Because of this Byatt adds very little to the general understanding of how mythology works in human consciousness in general or in our modern incarnation in particular. The classics by Joseph Campbell and Lewis Hyde, other works in the Cannogate Myths series, particularly Victor Pelevin's cyber-minotaur novel, and the works Byatt sites in her afterword, all dig deeper into those ideas. But for Byatt, I don't think this is as much about understanding myths in general, as it is about exploring the role of these particular myths in her particular life. One could describe Ragnarok as a love poem to a way of explaining the world.

Fans of Byatt will enjoy and appreciate her impeccable prose style, whether she is frolicking in the names of things or shuffling through the politics and agonies of gods and monsters. Furthermore, she takes an infectious delight in the names of those gods and monsters. And, as she says, “The thin child was quite a bit older when she understood the beauty of words, Nether Edge, as opposed to just saying them quickly and thinking of the place where the butcher had his shop.” (p158) In the same way this could be a love poem, it could also be an incantation, a spell to raise and old monsters from their oblivion.

However, the most compelling part of the novel might be the “Thoughts on Myth” afterword. It is an insightful introduction to thinking about myths and a great starting point for anyone looking to explore more deeply how we relate to myths, and how that differs from our relationship with fairy tales and novels. And she says this, “We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.” Whatever else Byatt accomplishes, or doesn't in this book, that insight alone is worth the price of admission.

Ultimately, Ragnarok is a good introduction to the Norse myths even if it doesn't go very far, at least in my opinion, in exploring those myths and the relevance or lack there of in today's society. If you're unfamiliar with them, Byatt is as good a guide as any. Furthermore, though not a “translation” or even a “compilation” Ragnarok achieves some aspects of both. Finally, Byatt's prose is as good here as in her other work. For many of her fans, that will be enough, even if they're not particularly interested in the subject. Byatt's love of words is shown to be even stronger than her love of the gods and ultimately, all we ever read are words.

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