39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
How does something come out of nothing? A thin girl in England during World War II compares creation myths as she ponders the question. Her church teaches her of a "grandfatherly figure" who created everything from the sun to the peacock in six days. Her reading of Asgard and the Gods introduces her to a more appealing explanation. In the empty gulf between the cold mists of the north and the hot flames of the south known as Ginnungagap, a giant named Ymir is formed in the steam of melting icebergs. Ymir becomes the father of "the frost-giants, who budded from his bulk" before he is slaughtered by the first gods: Odin, Wili, and We. The gods make the world from the flesh, blood, and bones of the dismembered giant. Yet nothing lasts forever; even gods must die. Ragnorök refers to the Norse end-times, the judgment of the gods, the twilight of their reign. The gods do not go down gently; as befits a myth, their battle to survive is epic.
The thin girl does not want to consider the possibility that the creation myths are related -- that, for instance, a flood in Asgard might be "an echo of the story of Noah and the Flood" -- because she likes to believe the Asgard stories have an independent foundation. She nonetheless sees similarities between biblical stories and those of Asgard, comparisons that are insightful yet plausibly within the ken of a bright child. The thin girl enjoys but does not believe the stories of Asgard, any more than she believes Greek myths, fairy tales, or the stories told by the vicar at her church. Reading the stories gives her reason to ponder the nature of belief and to ask herself not just why she doesn't believe, but why she doesn't want to believe.
Using the thin girl as a focal point, A.S. Byatt selectively retells the tale of the gods of Asgard from their beginning to their end. Unlike some other entries in the Cannongate/Grove series of books in which contemporary writers reimagine a myth, Byatt does not modernize the myth but uses the character of the thin girl to suggest the ancient tale's relevance to the modern world. The child, familiar with the news of the war that is killing and maiming her countrymen, finds it easy to relate to the brutality of the Norse gods. As the thin girl listens at night to "doom droning in the sky," she imagines Odin's warriors and hunters charging through the heavens. Byatt also analyzes the nature of storytelling as the thin girl anticipates events that are demanded by the conventions of fiction. For instance, a promise that a god will never be harmed assures the opposite: "the shape of the story means that he must be harmed."
The Norse myth of Yggdrasil -- an immense ash tree that is "a world in itself" -- will be familiar to dedicated science fiction fans as the inspiration for various worlds and vessels that share its name. Other familiar figures from the myth include the shapeshifter Loki ("a being who was neither this nor that"), and, of course, the thunder god Thor, complete with hammer. Less familiar (to me) are the goddess Frigg and her not-so-invulnerable son Baldur, whose story illustrates the mischief that gods can make.
Byatt's prismatic prose, sparkling and colorful, transforms the mundane -- mushrooms sprouting near a tree, fish carried by ocean currents -- into something glorious. As lovely as the prose is, however, a few lengthy descriptive sections of the text (particularly those concerning Jörmungandr the snake) are a bit too ponderous. And while Ragnorök: The End of the Gods is a solid and enjoyable retelling of the Norse myth, it is just that: as a retelling rather than a modernization, it offers little that is new, despite the thin girl's apt comparisons of the mythical warriors to the war that rages around her. (In a lengthy essay appended as an afterword, Byatt explains in greater detail than necessary why she wrote the story as she did.)
A final, post-war chapter addressing the thin girl's adjustment to peacetime seems uncomfortably out of place. Still, the retold Norse myths are enough. Norse gods, like nearly all gods, are petty and vengeful, qualities that lend themselves to entertaining drama, as well as lessons about how mere mortals might live richer lives than gods.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
If you enjoy taking a ride into the ancient myths and into the worlds of fantasy, you will surely enjoy this book.
Byatt, one of the great masters of the English language, tries with a certain amount of success, to reinvent here for us the Norse myths, while at the same time drawing parallels with the modern day world. What she's most interested in, as it seems, is not to retell a story that's been told so many times before, but rather explore whether we've learned something from humanity's past mistakes, if we somehow became a little wiser. Besides, as she points out: "...They (the gods) are human, because they are limited and stupid."
The narration drives the reader back and forth in time, talking to him/her about the wars of the gods and those of men. It all begins with a thin girl, who's trying to survive the war, hiding in a shelter. At the start she feels kind of bored -"The thin girl, despite the war that was raging, was more afraid of eternal boredom," as we read- until a book full of wonder and awe falls into her hands; a book that talks about Asgard and the gods, and which for her becomes a passion. Through that book, she comes to discover an amazing world, where magic exists, and where the gods are full of weaknesses and prone to mistakes, who sometimes look kindhearted, but most of the time are just petty and vengeful; they somehow remind her of the gods of the Old Testament.
The thin girl is encouraged by these stories to look deep inside her own being, to discover herself, and to ask questions about the what's and the why's of modern day reality. It all comes tumbling down, day after day the world heads straight towards total destruction, she seems to think, and no one can or maybe wants to do anything to stop it from happening. Even when the war comes to an end, the thin girl cannot feel happy, because she thinks that she saw the future, and she already misses the illuminatingly dark world of the book.
Byatt, using the myths as her stepping stone, sets off to create a parable about today: about the world of plenty, where more and more people starve to death, where the powerful still play their dirty games at the expense of the weak and the poor, where one catastrophe follows the next as the earth seems to takes its revenge on people, and where, as usual, the ones who have the less to lose, are the ones called upon to pay the price.
She tells a story in exquisite prose and she gives the reader food for thought in an almost poetic way. I'd recommend this book not only to just every fan of good literary fiction, but also to every thinking person out there. The gods blew it, the author seems to think, so now it's up to us to make things right; we'll either correct their mistakes or we'll just be drawn into the abyss, which they have created (with our helping hands, of course) for us.
25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I have to admit that this slender volume was my introduction to A.S. Byatt, and I was a little intimidated. I know her reputation for challenging, complex, beautiful work. Well, her language was beautiful, but this work was a limited success for me. And if I'm being entirely honest, my favorite part was the author's essay at the end of the book.
Now, my personal knowledge of Norse mythology doesn't go much beyond naming the major players, but Wikipedia tells me:
"In Norse mythology, Ragnarök (typically spelt Ragnar'k in the handwritten scripts) is a series of future events, including a great battle foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and reborn gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in the Norse canon, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse and theory."
And Ms. Byatt is diligent in relating the myth faithfully--with one exception. She's added a framing device to the tale, in the form of a "thin child in wartime," who is reading the Norse myths. Most readers won't be surprised by the revelation in the author's afterword, "Thoughts on Myths," that "I was writing for my childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods."
So, I mentioned that Ms. Byatt took the source material seriously, but perhaps a little too serious for my liking. To be honest, much of this felt like I was reading an academic text, or perhaps Genesis. There were A LOT of sequences along the lines of:
"In spring the field was thick with cowslips, and in the hedgerows, in the tangled bank, under the hawthorn hedge and the ash tree, there were pale primroses and violets of many colours, from rich purple to a white touched with mauve. Dandelion, dent-de-lion, lionstooth, her mother told her. Her mother liked words. There were vetches and lady's bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper's bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bittercress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celandines, campions and ragged robin. She watched each one, as they came out, in clumps sprinkled across the grass, or singletons hidden in ditches or attached to stones."
But don't get me wrong, there were plenty of passages that were far more substantive, beautifully written, and list-free. Parts of the tale were compelling, most notably the story of Jörmungandr the sea serpent. This is epic myth, and you'd better believe these stories have power. What they don't have is real characters or character development.
I don't regret reading this book, but ultimately the experience was more intellectual than enjoyable. Furthermore, I don't feel that I got any kind of representative sample of Ms. Byatt's work, but that is easily remedied. For now, I'd recommend this volume to readers with a greater interest in mythology than in contemporary literature.