Book Review: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt

ragnarokRagnarok: The End of the Gods
by A. S. Byatt
171 pages
Published 2011

This was an interesting little read. It’s short – I finished it in a little over an hour – but unique. It details the birth, life, and death of Scandinavian mythology, as seen through the eyes of a young girl reading the book “Asgard and the Gods” during World War 2. With her father away fighting the war, and her life turned upside down by a move to the country to avoid The Blitz, she finds comfort in the myths and stories she reads. It’s a very good summary and retelling of the myths, fueled by gorgeous descriptions and deeply personal connections to them. The “thin child” reading the myths is the author herself, so in a way it’s autobiographical. (Other reviewers have called it “a love letter to Asgard and the Gods.”)

If you know the Scandinavian myths very well, the book might not hold much interest for you, but if you have only a basic understanding of them, as I did, this book is absolutely spellbinding. There are parts that felt like they were talking about my childhood, too:

“She was a logical child, as children go. She did not understand how such a nice, kind, good God as the one they prayed to, could condemn the whole earth for sinfulness and flood it, or condemn his only Son to a disgusting death on behalf of everyone. This death did not seem to have done much good. There was a war on. Possibly there would always be war on. The fighters on the other side were bad and not saved, or possibly were human and hurt. The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked. But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.”

Ragnarok is part of a series retelling old fairytales and legends called The Canongate Myths. Each one is by a different author – The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith, Weight┬áby Jeanette Winterson. Ragnarok is listed as #17 in the series on Goodreads! I’m not going to list them all here, but you can find the full list on Goodreads. I may have to pick up a few more of them, if they’re all of the same quality as Ragnarok.

From the back of Ragnarok: The End of the Gods:

As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new life, whose dark, war-ravaged days feel very removed from the peace and love being preached in church and at school. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods – a book of ancient Norse myths – and her inner and outer worlds are transformed. She feels an instant kinship with these vivid, beautiful, terrifying tales of the end of the gods – they seem far more real, far more familiar during these precarious days.

Book Review: The Goddess Companion

goddesscompThe Goddess Companion: Daily Meditations on the Feminine Spirit
by Patricia Monaghan
400 pages
Published 1999

This is one of the first pagan books I bought myself, and I absolutely love it. It has an entry for every day of the year, so you can read it daily as a meditation, or open it when you feel you need guidance.

An example of a day:

February 16

The flood receded, leaving swamps
where life emerged anew like seeds
sprouting in a mother’s womb.
It was just like spring, when peasants
overturn the soil to find a world
of creatures there, as though the earth
itself crept and wriggled and was alive.
Life begins in heat and water,
those apparent opposites that stir
creation. Thus the sun, rising on
the flooded earth, brought forth new life.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses
In the myths of many cultures, the earth is destroyed – often by a flood – and then reborn, re-made. So it was in Greek and Roman mythology, which told of a great flood that only the woman Pyrrha and her mate Deucalion survived. Told by an oracle that she would bear children from “the bones of her mother,” Pyrrha figured out that her mother being the earth, the bones would mean the rock skeleton of the planet. Throwing stones behind herself, Pyrrha produced an entire new race of humans to repopulate the earth.

After the destructive flood, the earth replenished itself anew. Such myths capture the special freshness of spring, when all seems reborn. In our own lives, too, we will find times when an order is overturned – a job or love lost, a home transformed – but new order emerges from the ruin. Trusting in such rebirth is difficult, but every spring reminds us that renewal is an inevitable part of life.

Each day in the book brings a quote from ancient poetry or song or religious text about some aspect of the goddess. Some days it’s Horace or Homer, some days it’s a Lithuanian Folk song, or an Indian prayer to Kali. I love how it draws from such widely different traditions to show different faces of the goddess.

It’s quite seasonal; it doesn’t have days of the week, but it does go by dates, so you’ll find things about spring in February, March, and April; entries about depression and the dark of winter in December and January; entries about death and ancestors in October.

I highly recommend this book; it is well-written, insightful, and well-researched. This is a book I crack open not-quite-daily, but at least once a week, and whenever I need a goddess fix. I used to have quotes from this book written out on paper and posted all over my house. I did not realize the author had written so many other books – she has about 20 listed on her Wikipedia page! I only own The Goddess Companion and The Goddess Path, but I think I’ll be looking up more of her work. Sadly, she died about a year ago, but she left behind a wonderful body of work. If you’re interested in reading about the divine feminine, this book is a great place to start.