“More subtle than Kingsolver.”

ragnarokBooks on Tap read Ragnarok (other editions available) by A.S. Byatt at Champion Brewery on April 5. The book is part of the Canongate Myth Series, in which noted authors reinterpret myths in book-length format. Last fall the group read and enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s contribution, The Penelopiad, so we decided to try another one. A.S. Byatt chose Ragnarok, the Norse myth of a battle of the gods leading to the end of the world. She frames the story with that of the thin girl evacuated to the British countryside during World War II who comforts herself by reading and re-reading 19th century German collection of Norse myths. The destruction of the mythic world and  20th century Europe are compared in the final section, “Thoughts on Myths” with environmental degradation in the 21st century.

Unlike The Penelopiad which was a witty transformation of The Odyssey focusing on a minor character, Byatt’s Ragnarok is a straight-forward retelling within the frame story. Some of our readers found the writing, naming all plants and animals, lush, similar to The Ten Thousand Things. Others found it off-putting and hard to track.

Byatt questions the difference between myth and fairy tale but does not provide a clear answer. Our group was also unable to come up with a definitive answer, but did find this myth useful. Are we not as vainglorious as the gods? Is Loki’s chaos as natural state destined to bring about cyclical cataclysm, either war or environmental? Unlike modern interpretations of fairy tales, Byatt chose the pre-Christian ending, in which the world is destroyed but not re-born. However, there are glimpses of hope in her final section and in the fact that the thin girl’s father unexpectedly returns from war.

While this wasn’t the success that The Penelopiad was, the readers who joined us found it a worthwhile struggle and the first (and probably only) book by Byatt that we’ll read.

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author about the book
Other works

Books on Tap Information:

Have a suggestion for future titles? Add them to this list.

Previous titles