Ragnarok

Dark magic, myth, metaphor — I hoped for some of each when I picked up A. S. Byatt's Ragnarök: The End of the Gods from the Chevy Chase public library's new fiction shelf, after watching it molder there for many months. Alas, there wasn't much magic, at least not on a level that spoke to me. Byatt is a Booker-Prize-winning writer, but her retelling of the old Norse tale of the world's end oddly plods for such a tiny tome. M. John Harrison's review in The Guardian last year nails it nicely:

Ragnarok is a clever, lucid, lovely book. But it isn't a novel, or even a story in the usual sense. It's a discourse on myth, woven in and around a polemic about pollution and loss of species diversity: Yggdrasil the World Tree reinscribed as a doomed ecosystem. Byatt's ideas lie close to the surface; moreover, the author herself is waiting patiently at the end of everything, to make sure we take her point.

In the afterword "Thoughts on Myths" Byatt steps out from behind the curtain and seizes the microphone:

... We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically-built-in short-sightedness. ...

and after a litany of extinctions and pollutions, finally returns to the story — only to veer again into lecture-mode:

... But there is a sense in which the Norse Gods are peculiarly human in a different way. They are human because they are limited and stupid. They are greedy and enjoy fighting and playing games. They are cruel and enjoy hunting and jokes. They know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world. ...

If only Byatt had managed to step back from hammering home her arguments, and let the myths speak for themselves. They might have made her point far more convincingly.

(cf. KenningConstructionKit (1999-11-17), 2009-01-19 - PHT Valkyrie, ...) - ^z - 2012-08-08