This tiny, tiny book packs a wallop. It looks so slim and small — maybe 7 inches high by 4 inches wide and just over 150 pages — almost like one of those novelty books one gives as gifts. Don’t be fooled. This thing gave me nightmares like only A.S. Byatt can.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods tells the story of the end of the world through Norse myth, and World War II, and the current ecological mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. The language and characters (the main character, if you could call her that, is simply named “the thin girl”) are simple and distancing. It made me feel incredibly anxious. I guess that’s a compliment when a story is about the end of the world(s). Oh, the story is about wolves, too. Wolves that are gods, wolves on earth, and wolves of the mind.
I don’t think I’ve gotten much past the terrified stage. I immediately started rereading passages and I saw beauty, and very dark humor, and commentary about stories and their telling and knowledge and its power, but then I got scared again. I’ll have to give it a complete rereading after I read a few much, much lighter books.
There is an essay by Byatt at the end called Thoughts on Myths. I hung on every word. It’s a little frightening, too, to get into A.S. Byatt’s head. Reading her reasons for telling the story the way she did, the things that inspired her, and the connections she made between Norse mythology, Romantic poetry, classic literature (she references Prince Myshkin! The Idiot is haunting me! I must read it as soon as I recover!), and the inner state of the Reader is pretty heady stuff. It was jarring to read right after the myth-world, though, and next time I will save it for the day after.
There is also a bibliography. Let me give you the subtitles of the collections of books for further reading:
Even her bibliography inspires anxiety! Nothing like chaos followed by three ellipses to give you nightmares for a week.
In case you can’t tell, I thought it was fantastic, thought provoking, masterful, and completely unique. And scary as hell. Wolves of the mind indeed.
(image: Battle of the Doomed Gods by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1882)