There was a thin child, who was three years old when the world war began. She could remember, though barely, the time before wartime when, as her mother frequently told her there was honey and cream and effs in plenty. She was a thin, sickly, boney child, like an eft, with fine hair like sunlit smoke. Her elders told her not to do this, to avoid that, because there was ‘a war on’. Life was a state in which a war was on. (pg. 3)
The thin child thought less (or so it now seems) of where she herself came from, and more about that old question, why is there something rather than nothing? She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark. She told her own tales as she walked through the fields, tales of wild riders and deep meres, kindly creatures and evil hags. (pg. 7)
A.S Byatt uses the structure of the thin girl in wartime as a basis for retelling a Norse myth of the end of the world in her latest novel Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. We never know the thin girl’s name and only have a bare sketch of her circumstances as Byatt focuses much of the attention in this slim novel on the myth itself, retelling it in expressive and lyrical language. The thin girl has been evacuated from the city to the country with her mother. The father is fighting in the war and the girl is convinced that the father will never return. The turmoil of the end of the Gods matches the turmoil of the world in which the girl lives with the rumbling of the planes overhead matching the rumbling of thunder in Asgard, the world of the Gods.
Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Of of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings.Odin’s horse, Sleipner, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past. She had seen and heard the crash and conflagration when the airfield near her grandparents’ home was bombed. She cowered in an understairs cupboard as men were taught to cower, flat on the ground, when the Hunt passed by. Odin was the god of death and battle. (pgs. 40-41)
The girl, like many of us, is trying to make sense of a senseless time and finding comfort and structure in myth. In this short novel there is much about bonds and the breaking of bonds, of noise and confusion, of order and disorder. Byatt is an excellent writer yet I had difficultly getting into this book. The chaos of the beginning of the Gods was so discordant that I found it jarring. I also had difficulty at times discerning between the author’s voice and the voice of the little girl and I would have to read the passage again.. But then I would run across a phrase like “fall into the quotidian” or “dailiness defeated her” which would also make me pause for the opposite reason to savor the simple prose that was so evocative.
I am one of the few readers I know who did not like Byatt’s Possession and I was surprised when I loved The Children’s Book which also explores myth and story. Ragnarok was hit and miss with me. I admired Byatt’s skill; I liked the subtle examination of the importance of myth; the chaos of the beginning and ending of the Gods was hard for me to push through. I also wanted more of the little girl and less myth. Even so, I feel the novel is worth reading.