I have been wanting to read Byatt for a long time now and somehow have never got around to it. Shame on me. So when I saw this little book for sale for about $6 in a dinky little newsagent in a dinky little town – SNAP. MINE.
It’s part of the Canongate Myths series, which I had heard of and thought I had read a few… but if you click on that link (don’t do it, Tansy, it’s a rabbit hole!) you’ll see there’s HEAPS and most of them I hadn’t heard of! Although I was right, and it is the same series as The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood, swooooon – I love that book so much; it’s Penelope’s side of The Odyssey… thus the Greek version of Ursula le Guin’s Lavinia, I guess) and Jeanette Winterson’s Weight (about Hercules and Atlas, and also excellent). Thing with these books – those I’ve read – is that they’re retellings of myths. So when I saw that this was Ragnarok, the Norse myth of The End of Days, and that it involved WW2 – well, I assumed that the two were going to be mashed in a glorious Armageddon. That is, however, not what happened.
There are two parallel stories in this volume. One is a rough outline of Norse mythology from creation to the end of times, mostly following the antics of Loki, which is fair enough since he may have been around from the start and was largely responsible for the end. It’s a pretty straight retelling, as far as I can tell; Byatt has added in motivation and dialogue and the sorts of things that modern readers expect, but there’s no wild deviation into really exploring Loki or giving Loki and Baldur a steamy romance that explains the mistletoe episode. So while I enjoyed that, because they’re good stories and there were some details (like Loki’s parenting of the monsters) that had never clicked in my head before, it wasn’t really what I was expecting.
The second story is that of the thin child – as she is always referenced – as she is evacuated to the countryside during WW2, and is given a book of Norse mythology. It’s the thin child’s experiences of life during wartime, and of discovering mythology and literature – there’s a strong suggestion I think that this is heavily autobiographical. There’s certainly a sense that it is the thin child telling the Norse stories to the reader. This aspect was also quite enjoyable, although frustrating because it felt to me like it lacked depth. I think mostly I was disappointed that the connections between the war and Ragnarok were not made explicit. Byatt goes to the point of saying that the thin child’s father, a pilot away at war, has “red-gold hair” and is “like a god”… but makes no further connection to the idea that he, or the airforce, could be connected to Thor or some other aspect of mythology.
It’s definitely a good read, and I am definitely going to just down more Byatt. If you know nothing about Norse mythology this is a very good, and entertaining, place to start. If you’re looking for a Norse equivalent of The Penelopiad, this is not it.