Ragnarok, the latest in the Canongate Myths series, is A.S. Byatt’s fresh rendition of one of the most dramatic legends of all, the great final battle of the Norse gods.
This bold approach incorporates Byatt’s own childhood in 1940s northern England during the Second World War, while simultaneously evoking the war between the gods of Asgard, by introducing the reader to the “thin child”.
This semi-autobiographical character starts to read Asgard and the Gods, which tells the story of this terrible conflict. It instantly reminds me of the opera that Richard Wagner derived from the myth, Gotterdammerung. While breathing the "sulphurous air of a steel city", she frets with anxiety over the activities of the Germans, correlating with the anxieties that trouble the mythical gods.
It's an effective device, yet the lack of character development in Ragnarok means that focus is easily lost on the mythological gods. The sheer detachment from their world means that the reader has to stay focused or perhaps read more than twice to follow the actions of Loki, Hel or Baldur.
Ragnarok is certainly no novel in the conventional sense. It is, despite Byatt’s effective, pastoral descriptions and the narrative of the "thin child", intended to theorise myth. Therefore, as the conclusion is complete annihilation within the mythological world, destruction of not only the gods but their inhabiting surroundings, it is perhaps appropriate the Byatt decides not to add layers to these mythological creatures—her allegory neatly underlines the damage that war creates for this, our own, planet.