October 26, 2012
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
GENRE: Literary - Mythology
I should state up front that A.S. Byatt is one of my favorite authors. Her short story collections are full of small jewels, perfect little things that leave you questioning or haunted or content. Her novels are odd and thoughtful, woven through with references to other authors and other works - not so much that the references swamp the story, but enough to weave a sort of socio-cultural fabric around the story. Done well, it's shockingly effective. Possession: A Romance, for which Byatt won the Booker Prize, is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, Byatt's most recent offering, Ragnarok, is not.
Ragnarok refers to the mythical battle that ends the reign of the Norse gods. It's a immensely fertile ground and more than one writer has plumbed its depths - Wagner's Ring Cycle and Tolkein's Fellowship both contain aspects of the myth. What makes these appropriations (adaptation is too strong a word) work, is that Wagner and Tolkein took aspects of the source material and gave them new life in completely separate works, a trick Byatt has pulled off more than once in many of her novels. It is a trick she failed to pull off here. Ragnarok is essentially a straightforward retelling of Ragnarok from Asgard and the Gods. The only nod to a context beyond that of the myth is the fragile frame story about "the thin child" who reads the book, Asgard and the Gods, while her family is evacuated to the countryside during WWII. It's a lovely connection - the fall of the gods set as the backdrop of world war - but Byatt declines to take it further. In fact, she rather declines to take it anywhere at all. The "thin child" reads the book, her father comes home from the war, they all move back to London. Of course, there is more to it than that, but that's what it ultimately comes down to. As a reader, one is left wondering why Byatt bothered with the frame story at all - why not simply publish her own translation of the myth?
In the end, it's a matter of preference. Ragnarok is a beautiful book in that way that all of Byatt's books are beautiful. Her command of language and detail are unparalleled in in their lovely precision, and from that point of view, Ragnarok is a gorgeous success. But I tend to want and expect a chewier narrative from Ms. Byatt and so, unfortunately, Ragnarok left me hungry, not so much for more, but for different. I know many will disagree, but I think that's a fair expectation when something as meaty as a Norse myth is on the menu.