“This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories.”
During World War II, in the lush English countryside, a young girl discovers Norse mythology. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt uses a child’s perspective to explore how stories, even ones from a place very different to our own, can give us somewhere to escape to during difficult times.
Whether you feel this book succeeds or fails at recapturing the magic of ancient myths may depend entirely on which section you’re reading at that moment. While the writing is often beautiful, for example, the prose gets so purple at times Violet from Charlie and the Chocolate factory would be proud. I like over-the-top, expressive language but in a book this short, which tries to cover a lot of myths with a very small page count, I was left wondering why so much focus was being given to the types of flowers blooming back in England. Equally, some sections exploring Norse mythology are far more interesting than others.
The rhetoric of many Goodreads accounts and book-blogs circle around likeability and relatability; in other words, current day readers valuem the degree to which you can empathize with characters. Because they are so different, a novel about the Norse myths solely would be a hard sell. I think this is why Byatt uses the third-person perspective of a thin child in rural England. She wanted to give us someone to connect with while still exploring the strange and twisted stories of Odin, Thor, and many other less recognizable figures. Unfortunately, the child is, while more grounded, flat as a character.
It’s often said that the superhero genre could be seen as a modern version of mythical storytelling. There are a number of similarities: super-powered protagonists, varying interpretations from multiple authors across generations often about world-ending events. The thing that really separates them, though, is that superheroes have human concerns. Deities? Not so much. Superman is relatable to a modern audience; he wants to date Lois Lane; he has a nine-to-five job which he struggles to balance with his private life; he looks dorky in glasses. Thor, as presented here, like to hit things and drink. That’s really all there is too him. Odin is… stern? Sort of? Angry, too, I suppose.
Gods’ concerns are higher than nine-to-five jobs: they have Ragnarok looming in the distance, and ice giants skulking, and mead to dine on. The children of Loki, however — a snake and wolf which are growing to unstoppable size — but are utterly fascinating. Byatt’s does a great job drawing you into the minds of these strange creatures and making you understand their motivations and very inhuman instincts. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about any of the Gods except Loki, as they never leave the page as anything more than inexplicably angry cardboard cut-outs. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been developed more. Byatt never feels the need to show us what makes them act the way they do the way she did with Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungandr the snake.
This whole book ends up feeling shallow, which is shame, because the potential was there for something truly engaging. Instead we were left with a short introduction to Norse mythology that isn’t as interesting as the real book the main character is reading sounds.