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A More Subtle Ragnarok

This weekend, I finished reading Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, a retelling of the the ancient Norse tale of the Aesir and the destruction of the world, by British author A.S. Byatt.

Released in 2011, this version of Ragnarok is easy to find online at a fair price, but it’s not the sort of book you’ll come across walking through a Barnes and Noble. It’s not even found on Byatt’s own online list of her works.

book coverThe strength of this retelling of the material taken from the Icelandic sagas is that it’s written from an outside, non-believing perspective, as the Icelandic sagas were themselves (though they lack Byatt’s open critical distance). Byatt tells the story as she read it as a young child, which isn’t so much more distant than the telling we received from the Icelandic Christians 200 years after they abandoned their pre-Christian ways. Who’s to say what the original story was? Who’s to care? It’s what it means to us now, what it can do for us now, that matters.

Part of Byatt’s use of Ragnarok is as an ecological warning of the human destruction of life on Earth. That’s all well and good, but this ecological interpretation seems itself to be a metaphor for a deeper, more honest mourning of the open fields of childhood, and its relevance to the eventual devolution of the pure and beautiful into a black inky nothingness. This is a story of inner ecology, more to feel the honesty of than to think one’s way through.

In this childhood world, adults are like gods, and those who go off to war, and then complain of its destruction, well, did they not bring that destruction upon themselves, through their arrogance? Byatt’s realization of the superficiality of gods is a recurring theme. Loki, of them all, seems most interesting, and most powerful in the end because he is not as much of a god as the Aesir, those horn-helmed great pillars.

As Byatt has some elegant turns of phrase (“Any point on a ball is the centre and the tree was at the centre.”), but the strength of her writing is that its writerly qualities are subdued, allowing the power of the mildly cooked content to come through.

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