This book is a poetic and lyrical retelling of the greatest of Norse myths, Ragnarök, the end of the world and the destruction of the gods. It is powerfully told by Byatt, interwoven with the reaction of a young child evacuated to the countryside during the second world war. This ‘thin child’ is undoubtedly Byatt herself, and the child’s interpretations are the author’s voice leading the reader through the narrative, inviting comparisons to our own world, past and present. The fascination the child has for the brutal world of Norse myth is understandable, given the constancy of the war in which she lived, but there is also an underlying rationality for the draw of Norse myth – as Byatt points out, the brutality is more normal than the carefully depicted stories she is taught at Sunday school, with gentle rabbits crowding around a benevolent Christ. The behaviour of the Norse gods is inherently human: short-sighted, self-centred, uncontrollable.
Byatt is arguing that the Norse myth can be compared to a Christian myth, and her anger at the rebirth myth of life beyond Ragnarök is clearly explained as due to contamination by Christian thought. Many lovers of Norse myth might think otherwise, however – it is difficult to accept that the players of these stories come unavoidably to a final end. The ‘thin child’ is also surprised to discover her father returning from the war, when she had been convinced that he would not return – and although she is happy that he has returned, the conviction that he would not seems to indicate her total absorption in the Norse myth, and an obsession with the end of all things. Conversely her thoughts on the wild plants of the countryside seem to indicate an awareness of life beyond her own death. However, the beautiful description of England’s countryside and the meadow across which the thin child walks serves as a stark warning to the modern-day reader, because green spaces are now being destroyed, just as the beautiful eco-systems of Yggdrasil and Randrasill were destroyed by the wrath of Jörmungandr and the harshness of the Fimbulwinter.
While the re-setting of the tale through the mind of the ‘thin child’ does undoubtedly add something to the narrative and roots the retelling in our world, making it relevant, even important, The enchantment of Byatt’s Ragnarök lies in the language. In particular the description of Jörmungandr’s exploration of the world’s seas is astoundingly vivid, rich and atmospheric. Overall this book is a valuable interpretation of the Norse myth, wonderfully crafted but also with interesting insights – such as the cunning and clever god Loki’s fascination with all things chaotic, a point towards to modern Chaos Theory. Even with chaos in the Norse myth, the inevitability of Ragnarök is unchallenged in the minds of Loki and his tormentors. The losses endured by the powerful gods are unavoidable. Loss in our own world is also unavoidable, as humanity seems destined to create tragedy after tragedy through short-sightedness. Looking beyond the myth, Ragnarök could serve as a warning to us all to treat all things with respect, to look at things in the long-term, and to conserve what beauty we have in the world, before it is irrevocably lost.