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A S Byatt

I saw on the TV news last night that the author A S Byatt has died.

She won the Booker Prize in 1990 for her novel Possession: A Romance, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Children’s Book in 2009, but the only work of hers I have read is Ragnarok: the end of the Gods.

I really ought to have got round to at least those two award winners.

So many books, and only 365 days a year to read them in.

Antonia Susan Duffy (A S Byatt;) 24/8/1936 – 16/11/2023. So it goes.

Ragnarok: the end of the Gods by A S Byatt

Canongate, 2012, 179 p – including bibliography and 15 p on Thoughts on Myths.

 Ragnarok cover

This is Byatt’s retelling of the myths of the Norse/Germanic Gods, an interest in which she had indulged during her childhood and rekindled often in the time since. As an author so many years later her entry into the tale is via “the thin child in wartime,” a child who may be a barely disguised version of the young Byatt, a child who reflects on the copies of Asgard and the Gods and Pilgrim’s Progress she had available to read.

That these myths should have resonated with the young Byatt is not too surprising. A child growing up during the Second World War (and who was convinced her father would never return from it) may well have thought the end times were upon her. Adults may have thought so. The contrast with Christian mythology – so milk and water in comparison – perhaps presented the greatest interest. As the child reflects, “It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.”

It is in the nature of the beast that a myth has to be told. Hence we are not shown anything here except, perhaps, in the sentences relating to the thin child. As Byatt says in her “Thoughts on Myths” afterword, Gods do not have psychology, they have – at most – attributes. Hence in the main body of the book incident is piled on incident. Things happen; but they have a driving force. “Stories are ineluctable. At this stage of every story, something must go wrong, be awry, whatever the ending to come. It is not given, even to gods, to take foolproof, perfect precautions.”

Ragnarök (the word is always spelled this way in the text but in the title has no umlaut) means judgement of the gods; judgement as in trial, not sagacity. For her notional thin child and for Byatt herself the bleak end to the Norse tales is more satisfactory than a return to, or a resurrection of, what had gone before (with which some cleaned up versions end.) “This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain.” In this they may be the opposite of novels, which by and large do.

Some new words to me were eft, gage – as in a gage of honesty – and chaunting as a (not very opaque) variant of chanting but for Pedant’s Corner we had a shrunk count of 1, plus iceflo without its terminal e, stove in (staved in,) and beseeched (besought.)

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