The first book I read by AS Byatt was 'Possession'. That was back in high school, and I never really finished it. I found it too verbose and obscure in its depiction of 'relations between living and dead minds'. It just added to my bias against Booker winning novels. So when I got a copy of her latest book I wasn't so sure. I gave it a shot nonetheless. For one, I love magic and mythology. For another, I hoped I'd evolved as a reader to comprehend the 'ponderous obfuscation' in Byatt's works. As it turns out, it was a delightful read.
'Ragnarok' is the retelling of Norse myth intertwined with the life of a thin child with hair like sunlit smoke living in the ordinary paradise of an English country home, caught in a war. She felt a despair she did not know she felt. She felt wicked for not believing the stories of gentle Jesus. She let her imagination run wild in the book of Asgard and the Gods.
She read about Odin, the unpredictable god and Loki, the shape shifter. She read about dark-elves and dwarf-lords - Dain, whose name meant dead, and Thrain, whose name meant stiff. She read about resolute, absurd goddesses - Frigg who set out to make every thing swear not to harm her son, Baldur the beautiful, but forgot the little mistletoe. Baldur was killed. 'There is no record of Frigg having asked humans not to harm her son. Maybe they were always helpless when faced with the gods. Maybe they did not count or were in some other story.'
But soon the myths crept up in the life of the thin child and overtook it. She imagined shapes and creatures in the meadows on the way to school. She dreamed of Germans under her bed, who, having cast her parents into a green pit in a dark wood, were sawing down the legs of her bed to reach her and destroy her.
The gods were reckless, scheming, boorish and nasty. Some killed for the sheer fun of it. They were single-minded beings. They concentrated on battles and food, or in the case of goddesses on beauty, jealousy, rings and necklaces. Until they decided who was their enemy, the enemy. And then began the end.
Like I said, it's a wonderful read. The author seems to revel in gore, giant squids and menacing serpents, and the green matter that ate light. The vivid description of Yggdrasil and Randrasill is brilliant. You can imagine the shapes sprouting and the colours splashing as the author takes you into the fantastic world of the massive trees. But at times she overwhelms you with the sheer variety, the giants and gods that cram Ginnungagap - the gulf.
'Ragnarok' is the latest addition to the Canongate myth series. Its beautiful because its simple and witty. 'The world may be destroyed by too much attention or too little care.' Perhaps the same holds true for storytelling.
Book: Ragnarok; Author: AS Byatt; 192 pages; Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd