I don't want to ramble off on a long post about A.S. Byatt's slim Ragnarok. It is the kind of book that is best met with on its own terms. I hestitate to call it a novel; better to say it is a gloriously sustained act of visual imaginings.
Ragnarok is the fifteenth volume in Canongate's Myths series, wherein established writers recast, retell or rediscover a myth of their choosing. The series is as old as Eve's Alexandria, with the first three books coming out in mid-2006, and we have been avid followers from the beginning. The output has varied wildly, from Victor Pelevin's labyrinth-as-internet-chat-room to David Grossman's treatise on Samson and Delilah to Philip Pullman's controversially titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The focus of Byatt's contribution is the apocolyptic Norse myth of the world's end: the slow, inexorable decline of the Gods in Asgard, their pitched battle against the monstrous children of Loki and the death of the world-tree Yggdrasil.
Previous books in the series have contemporised the myths, or transposed them into the past or future, or told them in new voices from new angles. Byatt simply repaints hers instead. First, she recalls her own discovery of the Norse myths as a child during WWII, recasting herself as the nameless 'thin child'. Evacuated from industrial Sheffield into the countryside, the 'thin child' first reads them in a late 19th century German translation with commentary - Asgard and the Gods - given to her by her mother. The stories take up residence in her: 'things, creatures, stories inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The black [the nothingness left after Ragnarok] was now in the child's head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered.' They filter through her conflicted thoughts about Christianity, and her dread that her pilot father won't return home from the fighting.
Byatt interweaves this story of discovery and child-philosophising with powerful retellings of the originals. These are the reason to read the book. The prose is, in a word, extraordinary. Discovery of it should be all your own. I don't want to pre-empt with extended quotes, tempting as it is to copy out huge pleasurable slabs. No surprises here I suppose. Byatt is a wonderful, wonderful writer. Do you remember that extract from The Children's Book I quoted a couple of years ago, the one describing the vase? Ragnarok is 154 pages of that fluid, gloriously rhythmic writing that I admired then. There is something pecularily Northern about the the Norse aesthetic (and, inevitably now I suppose, Tolkien-esque). Byatt captures the raw, all-consuming power of it in her beautiful nightmare visions: of the Fenris-wolf bound and eternally struggling against the sword thrust down his throat; of the world-snake girdling the earth; of Hel in her ghostly kingdom.
The jury is out on whether the series is successful in doing something new with myths. Of the several that I have read only Victor Pelevin's Helmet of Horror has succeeded in reinvesting the myth with power in my mind. Byatt seems a little unsure about the enterprise herself, appending a short essay at the end of the book about what myths do and struggling to articulate the method of her own retelling. Putting that to one side though, Ragnarok is worth every page simply by virtue of being a new piece of writing by A.S. Byatt.