Recommended Reading: Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

I was raised on opera as a child; I couldn’t identify a New Kids on the Block Song (still can’t), but I could pick Wagner out of a lineup every time. So with his Ring Cycle in mind, I was excited to read A.S. Byatt’s take on Ragnarok, or The End of the Gods, especially because I found Possession to be such a wonderful book (and if you read it, you might remember that Ash wrote a poem called “Ragnarok”).

Sorry, library copy.

Sorry, library copy.

Fans of A.S. Byatt will encounter her erudition and her command of language here, with cascading descriptions and lists reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language is so satisfying, so meaty, that this short book (171 pages) takes quite a while to savor.

What impressed me most, in this telling, is the structure of the work. It’s not exactly a novel, but not exactly D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, either (my favorite book of mythology when I was a child). But there is a narrative flow, and the book opens with “a thin child in wartime” encountering the stories of these irascible, imperfect, impulsive gods and their creations. But these myths, as A.S. Byatt points out in an essay that closes the book, differ greatly from fairy tales; the good do not always prosper, and the bad are not always punished; indeed, Ragnarok is the end of the gods. The world with its gods dies and is not reborn.

The book is not an allegory for the woes of our world, but present in the author’s mind was, she writes, the steady bursts of destruction we inflict on the earth ourselves, without any help from the gods.

14 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

  1. I like that you have such eclectic tastes. I loved mythology growing up and now my 9-year-old is very into it too. I’m assuming this is very much an adult book. Thanks for the link to the book you enjoyed growing up, and maybe I should revisit this old interest as well!

    • Maybe a little young, but I remember kids having NKOTB tapes in grade school. I don’t think I’m missing much.

      I have The Children’s Book on my shelf, but Ragnarok seemed much more manageable, time-wise. Her command of language is overwhelming!

  2. Anything compared to Paradise Lost is probably going on my TBR pile. Maybe my favorite piece of literature ever. If it were a little shorter I might have considered Ragnarok for Novellas in November. But it sounds like something I wouldn’t want to really rush through. Maybe at the end of the month if I find myself with some extra time 🙂

  3. Carolyn,
    Byatt is one of my top 5 literary idols — I’ve read everything she’s written, and it was Possession that hooked me first. I loved Ragnarok for its dark underbelly — the Norse gods, at least as she portrays them, are so unlike the “sunny” Greeks and Romans — set against the loss of innocence caused by the horror of a real war. It is truly a different world view — Isengard isn’t the Mediterranean. Your notice of her detailed descriptions is a good one to point out — she is always long on vivid detail and “meaty” is a good word to use to describe her prose. I adore her and am so glad you’ve posted about this her newest and called attention to her work. She is hugely under-read this side of the pond, in my humble opinion. That said, she isn’t for every one. But I absolutely ADORE her work. Thanks so much for this! 🙂

    • I feel like a dope because it took me so long to find her! I picked up Angels& Insects at a library sale a couple weeks ago, and I think that may be my next Byatt read, before The Children’s Book.

      So happy to see you in the blogosphere again!

      • Angels and Insects is wonderful, but a bit thick. I love it because its so very Victorian. 😉

        The woman has amazing brain capacity — she does so much reading and research and somehow weaves it into these odd little stories. The Children’s Book is one of her best, but is very long and multi-layered, more so than Possession. But I like how is moves beyond Possession to something truly epic. It demands — and rewards — time and a clear brain. Read it when you are able to truly escape into the world she creates.

        So glad you’ve found her and I look forward to hearing more of what you think. Of them all, I don’t really recommend The Biographer’s Tale, but you may like it.

        I’m not really “back” per se. . . just had to leave a comment on this one NOW. Can’t let Byatt go by unacknowledged.

        Hope you’re having a lovely trip — will write soon. 🙂

  4. I’m starting to feel like maybe mythology isn’t my thing, but A.S. Byatt? Gotta be good! I’ve never heard of this book before. I’l try to find a copy! Sometimes I feel like Byatt is writing way over my head, but I loved Possession.

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