Byatt chose to not retell the myth as its narrative story as so many others have done like Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad and Victor Pelevin's Helmet of Horror. Instead we have "the thin child," evacuated from London to the countryside during WWII with her mother, her father gone off in the Air Force flying over Africa. The thin child reads Pilgrim's Progress and another book she found, Asgard and the Gods. Byatt relates several different stories of the gods in order to set the stage for Ragnarok, the ultimate destruction. The stories are interspersed with the thoughts and worries of the thin child who finds the story of the Norse gods, and Ragnarok especially, much more satisfying than the story of the Christian god in whom she is supposed to believe.
The story of Ragnarok and the complete destruction of the gods and all life mirrors the darkness and destruction of the ongoing war, the war that seems like it will never end, the war the thin child is certain her father will not return from. Leading up to Ragnarok we learn of Loki's monstrous children. The gods manage to contain them for a time and life goes on. But when Frigg tries to guarantee that her son, Baldur the Beautiful, will never be harmed, she unknowingly sets up the beginning of the end. Frigg gets promises from every living creature to not harm her son but of course, she misses one: the mistletoe (the story is very much like Achilles and his mother Thetis dipping him in the river Styx except for his heel where she was holding onto him). Loki discovers the mistletoe and fashions a spear from it and gives it to Baldur's brother who, along with all the gods was playing at throwing things at Baldur and watching them turn aside harmlessly. Baldur dies, the gods and all the world are devastated by grief. Loki continues to stir up trouble and his children escape their bonds and so begins the war between the gods in which mutual destruction is assured. After all the gods die, nothing is left but darkness.
Yet while the thin child reads of destruction and the real world seems to be heading for its own Ragnarok, she is also in a sort of paradise. The thin child has asthma but out in the countryside and away for the dirty city air she is able to breathe again. She walks to and from school everyday through a beautiful meadow full of flowers and butterflies. She experiences a kind of freedom that she did not have in the city.
Unlike the gods, humanity does not destroy itself, this time, it feels as though there is a this time in the story as though next time we might not be so lucky. The thin child's father returns unharmed and they all go back to their London home. But for the thin child, it is as though she has lost paradise. The dirty city air makes breathing difficult again. She has lost her meadow, and even though her father takes on the project of creating a garden, it is not the same especially after he cuts down a tree the thin child liked. "Dailiness" defeats both the thin girl and her mother. During the war the mother worked as a teacher and now in peacetime she is not to work, she becomes bored and lonely:
The thin child came to identify the word 'housewife' with the word 'prisoner'. Fear of imprisonment haunted the thin child, although she did not quite acknowledge this.
A gate closes in the thin child's mind and on the other side of the gate is Asgard and the gods and "the bright black world into which she had walked in the time of her evacuation," and the end of things.
Ragnarok is short and a fairly fast read but it is also a book to savor. I very much enjoyed it and was left feeling a bit sad at the end for the thin girl and for the gods of Asgard. Byatt was also kind enough to include a short bibliography for further reading which I hope to try a few books from sometime.
Cross posted at So Many Books