Canongate, £14.99, 177pp £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by AS Byatt

The gods knew, Odin knew, that the time of the wolf would come." AS Byatt's statement goes to the heart of what makes Norse myth so compelling. Its gods, are not immortals, but have precisely specifiable beginnings and a prescribed, and unavoidable, ending. For all the terrors they wreak and inspire, their power is ultimately finite.

Odin, "the ruler of the gods", who knows everything, thanks to his attendant ravens Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory), will perish in the jaws of Fenris, after that wolf has swallowed the sun and savaged the moon. Fenris is the monster-child of Odin's one-time blood-brother, the trickster god, Loki, father of two other death-dealers: the venomous Midgard Serpent who lies coiled round the roots of the world-tree, the ash Yggdrasil, and Hel, goddess of the Underworld.

Loki himself, for all his cunning, will not survive either. "No one," observes Byatt, "had any doubt that Ragnarök [literally the end, or destiny, of the gods] was coming, neither the gods, nor the wolves, nor the snakes, nor the shapeshifting trickster." For since its mightiest must go under in one last showdown ("the gods were judged and found wanting"), it follows that all other life supported by Yggdrasil will also face destruction. Two quite unanswerable questions arise: "Who judged? What brought Ragnarök about?"

"When Canongate invited me to write a myth," relates Byatt, in an epilogue as fascinating as the preceding narrative, "I knew immediately which myth I wanted to write... the myth to end all myths." A principal source for our knowledge of Norse cosmogony is Snorri Snorluson's Prose Edda, written in Icelandic in the 13th century. But Snorri does give us a section "After Ragnarök", heralding the dawn of a new, preferable world. Later commentators, among them the influential Danish bishop NFS Grundtvig, have seen this as an importation from the Christianity to which Snorri and his audience subscribed. The real Ragnarök had appalling finality, and it was with this that Byatt wished to grapple.

How best to present a vision of existence so widely reverberant and yet so at variance with the most dominant western Weltanschauungen: Judaeo-Christian, Freudian, Marxist? Byatt remembered her own first reception of it, as a little girl, through the medium of Asgard and the Gods by W Wägner (1880). So the sequence of mythic events here have passed through a double crucible: an objective 19th-century scholar's intellect; an insightful but innocent girl's sensibility. Her use of the second device, of "the thin child", is brilliantly effective.

Born 1936, Byatt was three at the outset of a war feared likely to end in total world devastation and the assertion of Chaos. Her father was fighting in North Africa; she never expected to see him again. The notion of Ragnarök thus had more authenticity for her than Christian eschatology as purveyed in church and schoolroom. In fact, her father did return; there was life after the war, though its menacing shadow could never be wholly dispelled. Her pages evoking this period of the thin child's life are surely among the most beautiful and incisive Byatt has ever written.

She is mindful, however, that for the 21st century Ragnarök suggests possibilities for our civilisation, indeed our planet, as terrifying as all-out war: the demise of multifarious life-forms through human inability to control mind and energies. The Norse gods were too vainglorious, too much the victims of their own appetites, to ensure their own continuation. Might not the same apply to ourselves?

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game