Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

Written by A.S. Byatt
Review by James Hawking

The Canongate Myth Series has invited prominent authors to retell myths in modern terms. This entry uses Norse, Icelandic and German myths as its starting point, particularly those involving the death of the gods. As a framing technique, we see the myths through the eyes of “the thin girl” who buries herself in Asgard and the Gods, preferring that to Genesis and Pilgrim’s Progress.

The result sometimes resembles a children’s story, but the language is complex, the subjects are erudite, and the monsters are frightening. Wolves hunt down the gods, and Baldur’s mother can’t save her son from Hel. The most memorable sequence involves Jőrmungandr, a constantly growing snake who moves from the land to the oceans where she leaves “blood and bones staining the seaweed.” Thor breaks her skull and then succumbs to her poison in the final struggles. If the reader fails to connect to the ecological disasters currently threatening the globe, the author makes it all explicit in an epilogue entitled “Thoughts on Myths.” The book captures the splendor of these myths while relating them to modern concerns.