This novel has been sadly overlooked. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods has been out since 2011, but does not appear to have gotten much attention compared to other recent books that have taken on the subject of heathen mythology. It’s only gotten 53 Amazon reviews, versus over 2000 for Gaiman’s recent book Norse Mythology. This could be tragedy or opportunity; I choose to see opportunity because it means you, the reader, can now read this book for the first time.
The first chapter introduces the human main character, a young child living in the rural paradise of the English countryside, but also in a world of constant dread. She has been evacuated from the city because of World War II. This is our Dante in the inferno of Ragnarok: the precise type of person who went through the wardrobe into Narnia.
The human character is not given a name. That makes her an Everychild, the child version of an Everyman. She is just called “the thin child.”
The mythology begins in the third chapter. It opens “In the beginning was the Tree.” It’s a nice beginning, but it’s not precisely where the actual heathen mythology places the beginning. It’s several steps along the road. The actual heathen mythology starts with the void, the potential that was not yet a universe. Still, the World-Tree appeared near the beginning of the universe, and it is a good enough place to begin a story about the end.
The author describes the life of a tree in the forest, within an environment of light and mushrooms and worms. There is a series of poetic descriptions of other natural tree-like beings and processes. Byatt’s writing style is the opposite of the script-like, dialogue-heavy adventure story one might expect, if one goes into this expecting saga.
The author circles back to “the thin child.” The child learns about heathen mythology from a book while living a life full of wildflowers and gas masks. The beauty of nature, which is the gods’ creation, contrasts with the ugliness of humanity’s warfare. Yet we, the readers, know the gods made war too. We know the child has just not discovered that part yet, as she wonders how the culture that produced the book she is reading could have also produced the terrifying Germans she hears about from war propaganda, whom she fears will get her at night like a monster under the bed.
The child reads about Odin and his warriors. She has no emotional response to this revelation. The author does not do the obvious or the easy thing with this character; she does not have her rage against war when she encounters it while reading an escapist book. Nor does she fear, nor come to have an understanding of war, nor an accommodation to it. Her reaction is minimalist and yet, she does have emotions about other things she reads about. For example, she takes a liking to the shape-shifting Loki and his wit, although she doesn’t really understand him.
Byatt’s description of Hel feels visionary. Are we reading the product of a great author’s highly visual imagination, or a prophetess’s personal gnosis? The reader is invited to ask: what is truth?
Each subsequent story is as visionary as the last, lingering on details of nature poetically described. The stories are like lucid dreams. They are not the plot-advancing, fast-paced stories that one might expect from a novel drawn from the same source material as a recent superhero movie. There are no heroes or villains here, no white hats and black hats, only the gray gods and powers of heathenry. There is no driving plot pushing characters from scene to scene, but a slow enveloping in a sea of beautiful details, of life and death, languorous as a well-fed snake.
There is something essentially feminine in the way this book is written, all the more surprising because the subject is usually presented in an unquestioned masculine way. For example, the version of the heathen mythology in David Brin’s “Thor Meets Captain America,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1986, presents the confrontation between Loki’s forces and those of the Aesir, which the Eddas prophecy to happen during Ragnarok (the end of the world) as a war story set on a submarine, an all-male environment. There are no female characters in the story. Plot is important and it hinges on war strategy, told in action and dialogue. That is the usual way this material has been handled by modern writers.
Byatt’s Ragnarok is the utter opposite. That is not to say the book has no violence; it has plenty. For every delightful life there is an equally delightful death — delightful for some other, bigger creature with jaws and a stomach. This is not the violence of war but of nature, motivated by hunger, by pain, by things a thin child can understand.
Most retellings of heathen literature translate the kennings, the poetic nicknames that make the Eddas and skaldic poetry into a dense code as difficult for a beginner to unlock as an alien language. Academic works footnote the translations; if the original poetic line was, say, “his arms open,” the translation would be “welcome” and only the footnote would tell what was actually said. Works of contemporary fiction usually obliterate the kennings. Byatt does the opposite. Instead of dumping the poetry for a clear plot, she has dumped the swords and the cutting banter and kept the lyrical descriptive style. She even invented some kennings of her own. For example, she calls bears “winter-sleepers,” without explanation. Like the original texts of court poetry, one either understands or does not.
Unlike other novelizations of the material of heathen mythology, this is not a fantasy novel. It’s a literary work, and it demands a different form of engagement from the reader. It demands we slow down and notice the beauty of the world. We must let go of excitement to find out what happens next, let go of attachment to characters, let go of all emotion as we are carried on the cool and serene flow of Byatt’s lyrical prose. In reading this, we meditate, and time becomes the lapping of tides where small creatures eat and are eaten. We must let go of our expectation of swords, and pay attention to cowslips. When we let go of expectation, we too can be enchanted by mythos, by that which is said, as distinct from that which is done.
I highly recommend this beautiful work of literature for the advanced reader. One does not have to be a fan of contemporary literary novels to enjoy this book. It deserves a wider readership. Anyone who likes poetry might like Byatt’s prose. Anyone who enjoys reading visionary works such as those of Jung will find a new world to inhabit in this book. Any heathen or pagan who enjoys reading mythology will identify with the main character and be transported along with her into realms high and deep.
[Reviewed by Erin Lale.]