“It’s the end of the world as we know it” …

Ragnarok by A.S.Byatt

The Myths series of books by Canongate, is a set I’ve been collecting since their inception in 1995 – I’ve read maybe half of them so far though – something I must address! Every year or two, Canongate are adding titles in the series – short novels by esteemed writers. The latest – by Natsuo Kirono based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi was published in January.  Each of the books takes a tale from world myth and re-tells it. You can read some of my other reviews from this series here, here, here and here.

However, to tie in with my reading of Joanne (M) Harris’ new novel The Gospel of Loki, I turned to A.S. Byatt’s more conventional narrative of the Norse myths and the twilight of the Gods – Ragnarök.

ragnarok

Whilst some of the other authors in this series have brought their chosen myths right up to date, Byatt uses a different style – a framing device to tell the old tales in new covers so to speak.

A thin young girl is evacuated during WWII. She is missing her father and struggling to understand her enforced relocation. One day she is given a copy of an old book about the Norse myths, and it transforms her life, allowing her to transport her worries and make sense of everything. All of life is to be found in Asgard and the Gods, or her other favourite book Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian’s burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there and once been people who brought ‘belief’ to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories. Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hydras and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn’t live in her, and she didn’t live in them.

WagnertheAshYggdrasill

Yggdrasil – The World Ash. Engraving by Carl Emil Doepler

The thin child, she is always referred to thus, reads the book and reflects upon it, the idiosyncracies of its author, and the parallels between the stories and her life. At this point, I should add that Asgard and the Gods (adapted by M.W. Macdowall from works by German Wilhelm Wägner) is a real book. It was published in 1886, as a primer in Norse myths for older children. Amazingly, it is still in print – hopefully with its engravings in tact – several of which are reproduced in Ragnarök (see right), and this book was the inspiration for Byatt too. She says in an accompanying essay at the back, “my childhood experience of reading and rereading Asgard and the Gods was the place where I had first experienced the difference between myth and fairy tale.”

So we go through the creation of Asgard, the installation of the gods and godesses led by Odin.  Then we meet Loki whom the thin child likes as ‘alone among all these beings he had humour and wit‘, even though the clever trickster, Odin’s problem-solving adopted brother, often created as many problems by his actions as were resolved.

I felt sad for the thin child when we got to Baldur’s tale. Baldur being a beautiful god who was doomed to die…

Baldur went, but he did not come back. The thin child sorted in her new mind things that went and came back, and things that went and did not come back. Her father with his flaming hair was flying under the hot sun in Africa, and she knew it in her soul that he would not come back.

As Byatt says, “Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting.”  The thin child sees the parallels between the War, the Blitz, her believed loss of her father and the destruction of her normal life and the downfall of the Norse Gods which stems from the death of Baldur, bringing chaos back to the world. Although she comes to believe her father is doomed too, there is a grim satisfaction to be had from the scale of the destruction involving all who touch it, schadenfreude as Wägner would probably say. What the thin child doesn’t know at this point, is that after the battle, the world will be reborn anew.  As REM sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it.“!

The Norse myths are more than just heroics though, the creation of their world was anchored out of chaos by Yggdrasil – The World Ash, and the force of nature is as strong, if not stronger than that of the gods. The myths abound in biological detail, and the thin child notices the flowers and animals surrounding her too, they help her feel alive. At one point Byatt almost goes overboard letting the thin child enjoy the glories of late spring – a list of which takes over two pages, but I’ll forgive this as from daisies to tadpoles, they’re worth it – mother nature in the form of Yggdrasil has it sorted.

I’ve felt rather stifled by Byatt’s full length novels previously and couldn’t even get started on The Children’s Book, but this shorter form being written from a child’s eye view and all about myths was perfect for me.

Ragnarök is both an accomplished novel and a fantastic primer for the Norse Myths, brilliantly retold. (8.5/10)

See also: Desperate Reader and Tales from the Reading Room for other reviews.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
– Ragnarok: the End of the Godsby A.S.Byatt, pub 2011 by Canongate. Paperback, 192 pages including Appendices.
– The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub 2014 by Canongate. Hbk or pbk 320 pages.
– The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris, pub 2014 by Gollancz. Hardback.
– Asgard and the Gods: The Tales and Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors, Forming a Complete Manual of Norse Mythology Work (Classic Reprint) by Wilhelm Wägner.

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A Russian fairytale

The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw

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Leonid Borodin was a writer, Soviet dissident and Christian. He was born in Irkutsk – one of those areas of Russia only familiar to me through the board-game Risk! He was imprisoned twice, the second time after the English publication of his writing in the mid 1980s. He died in 2011. Quartet books have recently republished The Year of Miracle and Grief in a handsome quality paperback, and I was sent a copy.

One summer, a twelve-year-old boy comes to a railway town on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where his parents are to teach at the school. He soon makes friends with the other local children, and spends most of his time outdoors, fishing, swimming, making rafts, building dams, doing boyish things until suppertime.

He is mesmerised by the beauty of the lake and mountains, and keeps finding his eye drawn to a lonely crag with a straggly pine tree on it. The rocky outcrop is known as Dead Man’s Crag – his friends warn him against going up there however the boy, (who is unnamed) feels compelled to try. He scrambles up to the ledge only to discover an wizened old crone sitting there. Once she’s scared him half to death, she introduces herself as Sarma, great grand-daughter of the Great Sibyr. She forces him into a cave, telling to go down to the bottom and return to tell her what was happening.  He goes in, down many stairs before arriving in an immense hall:

On a high-backed throne set on a small rocky platform sat an old man. At least he seemed to me to be very old under the thick white beard which fell to his chest. His clothes, halfway between a smock and a cloak, were navy blue, and against this background the white beard looked like sea foam…  White eyebrows covered his eyes. The face looked sad and austere.
At his left hand, her head leaning on the armrest of the throne, sat a little girl of eleven or twelve. Her dark chestnut hair was hanging down from the armrest and the old man’s hand was resting on the child’s knees. The armchair she was sitting on was somewhat smaller than the throne, but its back was just as high. On the little girl’s left, with his head resting on outstretched paws, lay a small black dog with a brown patch above his eyes.
And all three of them . . . were asleep.

Sarma had flooded the valley to make Lake Baikal in retribution for the Prince who lived there accidentally letting her son die. Ever since she has held the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, unable to forgive, still grieving. The boy, naturally, falls for Ri and begs Sarma to let him come and visit again. After many visits he tries to persuade Sarma to set Ri free, and Sarma bargains – accepting her terms will change his life totally.

Rooted in local myths of the origins of this bleak and beautiful landscape this fairy-tale is, like all the best of its kind, strong on the consequences of dealing with magic. There is a price in suffering to pay for changing the equilibrium. Borodin was a Christian, and so the fairy-tale almost becomes a kind of parable about forgiveness and grief.

Where this book excelled for me though was in the descriptions of the ever-changing moods of the lake and its environs, going from transcendent beauty to stormy waves to icy danger. The translator, Jennifer Bradshaw has done a great job here. For instance, one day:

The water no longer looked like glass. I had the feeling that an immense blue tablecloth had been stretched out between the four points of the compass and that beasts were walking underneath it, unable to reach the shore. The smooth shining waves were not lapping against the bank but flowing on to it in a film of transparent sky blue.

From the start, we know that the boy survives all his trials, as the story is recounted by an older and wiser self. This degree of hindsight and first-person narration gives a totally different slant on what happens, it’s not as immediate as a certain other tale I’ve read recently involving magical sleeping beings in a cave deep under a hill I can think of (Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen that is); they do share the love of landscape though.

If you love Russian landscapes and fairytales this story, at first deceptively simple but then complex underneath, may be one for you. (8/10).

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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, Quartet paperback, 190 pages, republished Nov 2013.