A.S. Byatt's Ragnarok may spark night terrors

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Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
By A.S. Byatt. Knopf Canada, 177 pp, hardcover

A.S. Byatt is known for sprawling, multistranded, and often multigenerational novels such as Possession, Babel Tower, and The Children’s Book, in which she explores family dynamics, the nature of attraction, and the life of the mind with infinite care and great psychological depth.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is something else again. A retelling of the Norse creation myth, it has few human characters and only one of any consequence: “the thin girl”, a largely autobiographical construct who, evacuated to the English countryside during the Blitz, discovers a strange consolation in the world of Odin, Loki, Baldur, and Frigg.

Though a much slimmer book than the typical Byatt novel, Ragnarok is no less multifaceted, and its first impact is poetic. Lyrical descriptions of English flora—“vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells.…celadines, campions, and ragged robin”—give way to the stranger-sounding but no less incantatory names of the gods. In its original, oral state, the Ragnarok saga was a kind of enchantment, and Byatt echoes its spellbinding power.

And like the original, Byatt’s retelling is also an investigation of the nature of evil. For the thin girl, no mild Anglican Christ is capable of explaining the swastika-emblazoned bombers overhead, the distant explosions and smoke, or her aviator father’s terrifying absence. The beasts of Asgard can.

“The movement of light and dark, the order of day and night and the seasons, was thus, the thin child understood, a product of fright, of the wolves in the mind,” Byatt writes. War, too, is a product of the fanged monsters of the brain: how else to explain the suicidal impulses behind the bombing of Pearl Harbor or a winter march on Moscow?

In her postscript, Byatt cites another explorer of darkness, Friedrich Nietzsche, who “sees myths as dreamlike shapes and tales constructed by the Apollonian principle of order and form to protect humans against the apprehension of the Dionysian states of formlessness, chaos and gleeful destruction”.

How much protection Ragnarok offers is debatable. This dense and compelling book is more likely to spark night terrors than provide existential reassurance—but that, too, is another sign of its author’s provocative mind.

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