Ragnarok – The End of the Gods

A.S. Byatt

ISBN 978 1 84767 064 9

I first read about this book in a wonderful article tucked away in the Guardian newspaper and knew immediately that I had to read it. I waited for it with anticipation, hoping that it would offer as much as the article suggested but concerned it would be as disappointing as much of the modern writing on Heathenry and it’s related mythology that I have read recently.

When it arrived it was as a beautifully presented little hardback. From the first page I was utterly enchanted by the deceptively naïve and simple story. It is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl who becomes immersed in her mother’s copy of ‘Asgard and the Gods’ at the time of the Second World War and her evacuation to the countryside. Consequently, Byatt takes the myths of the northern Europeans and places them firmly in the English landscape. I found a deeply personal reason for loving this book; the author knows and writes of what it is like to be a child who sees gods, giants and spirits in the natural world around her and is left cold by the teachings of the church. This story will appeal to any natural pagan who felt the call of the gods, of the wild, as a young child.

The myths are wrapped in the most beautiful poetic prose, describing nature in all of her darkness and majesty. It is at times uncomfortable and gruesome but always, delicious. In particular the descriptions of Yggdrasil and Randrasill are quite extraordinary. There is no sterile, tired re-telling of the myths here, these are the gods of fire, and sea, wind, frost and human nature brought vividly to life.

The book follows the thread of story from the Eddas that takes us from creation to Ragnarok and all of the events that lead to it in a vivid re-imagining. As the author herself writes,  ‘if you write about Ragnarok in the 21st century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we are born into.’ As with all of the best mythology we see ourselves as the gods, in all their struggles to halt the end of the world, but those struggles only compounding the inevitability.  Within the pages we find a new relevance to the tale, to our lives in the here and now.

This book could so easily have been solemn, a warning of the downfall of humanity, in war, destruction and environmental crisis. But actually it’s beauty and simplicity ensures this is not the case. More, it is the story of the small things we lose and never find again as well as the huge world altering events that change lives forever. The inevitability of this though, is as comforting to us, the reader, as it is to the little girl in the story.

I highly recommend this little gem for its vision, originality and for being one of those stories that in the reading of it, one finds the world is not quite the same as it was before.