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Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt (thoughts)

February 3, 2012

Regular readers already know of my deep and abiding love for A.S. Byatt. So you can imagine my squealing when I got my hands on a copy of Ragnarok, her contribution to the Canongate Myths Series, via Netgalley. I began it right away and was entranced from the first page to the last. That being said, this is in no way a ‘traditional’ novel, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to those read primarily for plot or characters. No, this is the kind of richly wrought novel that rewards readers who love language and writer’s style, as well as those who read for ideas and intellectual stimulation. For those, it will be a veritable feast. Based on my past experience with Canongate Myth titles, I can’t say this surprised me: many of the participants seem to take the goal of retelling myths as a license to play with form and language. Byatt’s retelling is far more straightforward than, say, Baba Yaga Lived an Egg: most of the novel is taken up with envision Ragnarok, which is essentially the Norse apocalypse. Byatt captures the fearsome strength of the various gods and their offspring and brings their roiling world to startling life. I was completely convinced as I read all of these parts; the writing almost put me in a trance-like state. It was delicious. Framing the book is the story of a girl evacuated to the countryside in wartime England, who is reading these tales for the first time; Byatt uses this to sketch a few parallels between how the environment has fared in modern society and the Norse visions of destruction. But really, this is a book devoted to the myth itself; it could almost be a nonfiction re-telling, except it’s far more vivid than anything you’d find Edith Hamilton writing. If my ramblings have in any way intrigued you, definitely pick it up. But if you’re new to Byatt and prefer more traditional fiction, it’d probably be better to start elsewhere.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman (You can’t talk about Norse mythology and end-of-the-world plotlines without mentioning this epic, modern-classic novel! And now there’s a recently released ‘ten year anniversary’ edition just begging for a reread.)
  • The Hurricane Party by Klas Östergren (I haven’t read this one-yet-but it’s another Canongate offering that focuses on Norse mythology. Also, it’s translated by one of my favourite translators, Tiina Nunnally! So I have now put in an interlibrary loan request…with any luck, it’ll appear in a library loot vlog soon.)
  • The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (I cannot resist the opportunity to mention one of my favourite reads of last year that features a hero steeped in traditional Viking mythology! It’s far more cheerful and upbeat, so it might be a good one to have waiting in the wings. ;) )
13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 6:50 am

    I really must read more of the Cannongate Myth series as I really loved Baba Yaga, which is the only one I’ve read so far. This one sounds fantastic.

  2. February 3, 2012 9:38 am

    I just finished the first in this series, Karen Armstrong’s, and am now debating whether to allow myself to completely obsess-y and work through the series, which would mean re-reading Atwood’s and Winterson’s contributions first (your “richly wrought” would describe the way that I felt about those, too), but would also mean having to wait a good chunk before reading Byatt’s. But it’s hard to resist being obsess-y, isn’t it.

  3. February 3, 2012 10:36 am

    Oooh, thank you for listing the companion reads! I just read Ragnarok as well and really loved it, and I am wanting to sink my teeth into more Norse mythology. :)

  4. February 3, 2012 11:01 am

    I squealed when I saw you reviewed Byatt’s Ragnarok! I too love Byatt, and I’ve got Ragnarok at the very top of my wish list. I’m so glad to hear you liked it. I’ve got to say that The Children’s Book wasn’t my favorite of hers, as I found it to have kind of a rambling structure that didn’t appeal to me at the time, but I am ALWAYS so intellectually stimulated by her. I think she must be the most interesting person to have dinner with because of her wide variety of interests. I’m really looking forward to reading this.

  5. February 3, 2012 1:14 pm

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed this one so much. Your love for this book really shines through and reminds me why I love to read so much! Thanks for giving me a good dose of reading inspiration on a frantic Friday!

  6. Ben C permalink
    February 3, 2012 5:53 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts as always, Eva; I may pick this one up. It would be my first Byatt, but it sounds like it could be my kind of thing.

    I’ve only read one Canongate, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. I wasn’t blown away the first time, so I was surprised to find myself picking it up again when I was reading the actual New Testament again, impressed just to see how Pullman had made his version work.

    I had no idea until just now how many of these there are; I’d like to hear if there are any other recommendations.

  7. February 3, 2012 9:07 pm

    Welcome back!

  8. Hélène permalink
    February 4, 2012 12:21 pm

    Thanks for your review, Eva. I didn’t even know of the Canongate Myth Series as it isn’t translated in French as such. I’m a great lover of myths so… I added the whole series to my TBR pile!

  9. February 4, 2012 4:29 pm

    I’ve been meaning to try Byatt for awhile now. I really want to read The Children’s Book by her as I’ve heard lots of good things. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed this one so much!

  10. February 6, 2012 9:07 am

    I have heard only good things about the Canongate Myth series, but have yet to actually read any of the books included in the series. While Norse mythology has always fascinated me, I suspect that I should first read one of Byatt’s other novels before diving into this one (particularly since Possession is one of those books I’ve been putting off for years…), if only to better appreciate the stylistic matters…

  11. February 7, 2012 10:04 am

    “this is a book devoted to the myth itself; it could almost be a nonfiction re-telling, except it’s far more vivid than anything you’d find Edith Hamilton writing.”

    This is what I loved about it. I am VERY familiar with Greek gods. I love that tradition! But I was completely unfamiliar with the Norse traditions and I loved this. The ideas, the language… It was fantastic, I agree.

  12. February 17, 2012 4:06 pm

    This is where we differ a little, at the moment it could change after all, Eva. I am not sure about Byatt though I am sure I should read this to give her a second, or is it third, chance. I love the series and I like the idea of Byatt doing this in theory so maybe it could be the book that converts me? Any other Antonia suggestions if not?

    • February 20, 2012 8:59 pm

      Hmmm, I’d steer you towards The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. :)

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