A Review of Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki
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There’s something about vast wilderness of Scandinavia, and the ancient mythology it produced, that captures the imagination of people across the world. We see elements of it all over modern pop culture. On TV we have the hugely successful Vikings series, not to mention Norse elements of cult favourite Game of Thrones; on our cinema screens we have the Thor films of the Marvel juggernaut, and the continued success of adaptations of Tolkien books. Almost a millennia after they were first told and recorded, the stories of Norse mythology still play on our minds. Kevin Crossley-Holland sums up their appeal in the foreword to his newly released book, Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, he says:
The Norse Myths are brilliant, fast-moving, ice-bright stories...we are caught up in the see-sawing battle for power between the gods and the giants, a struggle punctuated by surprising love-matches, riddle-duels, thrilling journeys, thefts and recoveries, running and eating and drinking and wrestling contests, and dazzling magic.
Crossley-Holland has had a long career as an acclaimed author and scholar. He is perhaps best known for his Arthur trilogy of books, retelling the Arthurian myth for children, and more recently for his Young Adult series, The Viking Sagas. At the same time, he is also a highly regarded academic, well known for his translation of medieval texts. His anthology The Anglo-Saxon World, which includes his translation of Beowulf, is a staple for Old English students, as is his Penguin Book of Norse Myths. Now Crossley-Holland, having produced the definitive collection of Norse myths for adults, hopes to bring these stories to children. This is no easy task to set out on. Like most tales from of old, Norse myths are violent, often amoral, and even nihilistic, but if there is anyone with the credentials to take it on it’s Crossley-Holland.
Norse Myths certainly catches the attention right from the off. Following Crossley-Holland’s stirring foreword, which serves as an introduction to the Norse world and mythology, the book begins with several pages devoted to Jeffrey Alan Love’s illustrations. Here Love gives us the cast of characters in the upcoming stories, as well as a stunning depiction of Yggdrasil and the nine worlds.
Having thus equipped the reader, Crossley-Holland plunges straight into the stories. The material for this collection was drawn from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda by Snorri Sturluson; Crossley-Holland takes twenty stories from these texts and arranges them into a roughly linear narrative form. He also retains the framing device from the Prose Edda in which King Gylfi of Sweden seeks to find out all he can find out about the gods and goddess in Asgard. As is suggested by the book’s title, the stories are mainly those that have Odin, Thor and Loki at the centre. There are the better-known stories such as the building of Asgard’s walls, and Thor’s disguise as a bride to the giant Thrym, but there are also many lesser-known stories.
Readers will find a cyclical and perhaps even repetitive nature to these stories. Many of the chapters follow a similar pattern: One of the gods, usually Thor, sets out on a vainglorious pursuit, but finding themselves in trouble they must look to the duplicitous help of Loki to extricate themselves, which leads them further into the debt of Loki’s trickery.
This sense of repetition is one of the hardest nuts to crack in terms of bringing myths to modern readers. While an essential part of the mythic structure, it can be hard to translate into a narrative that readers today will find compelling. Fortunately Crossley-Holland carries this off masterfully. Not only are each of the stories chosen for their unique points of interest, but he also allows the sense of repetition to work in his favour. At the beginning of the book King Gylfi asks ‘Must whatever begins also end?’ This question introduces the theme of inevitability that plays such a strong role in these myths. Shortly after this we are introduced to Loki’s children, the monstrous wolf Fenrir, the snake that encircles the world, Jormungand, and the half dead daughter Hel. Along with these children comes a prophecy that they will bring about the downfall of the gods. Crossley-Holland carefully crafts the sense of foreboding in this collection, and he uses the repetition in the stories to bolster this. Just as the gods cannot seem to resist the lure of Loki’s aid, so too do they seem irresistibly drawn to actions that will bring them closer to their doom.
Throughout the book, Crossley-Holland also demonstrates his knowledge and appreciation of the language of the original myths. This is most evident in his wordplay, which echoes the kind of humour often found in the Eddic texts. An example of this can be found at the end of chapter ‘Thor Regains his Hammer,’ Crossley-Holland writes,
He swung it again and killed Thrym’s elder sister. She had asked Thor for a dowry of gold rings but he gave her ringing iron.
This sentences captures the fierce violence of the stories, as well as the black humour that is frequently found in Old Norse writing. However, Crossley-Holland also blends in more modern elements of levity and humour. Earlier in this story, when the giant Thrym demands that Freyja become his wife, Loki responses with an almost childlike delight,
Mmm! He murmured. “First that giant mason, the one who built our wall. And now Thrym.” Loki giggled. “Freyja, she’s divine!”
This sense of mischievous glee brings a lightness to the stories. It is this combination that makes these stories so appealing, the Norse gods are certainly beings of immense power and importance, but they are also very relatable—they are temperamental, stubborn, playful, and likeable. While their problems and adventures are in this heightened mythic setting, their reactions seem much like our own would be. That Crossley-Holland conveys this in a way that is faithful to the original myths but also accessible to young readers today reflects both his passion and nuance as a scholar and his skill as a storyteller.
Crossley-Holland’s impressive prose is interwoven throughout with Jeffrey Alan Love’s equally impressive illustrations. Love’s illustrations are in his characteristic silhouette style, which is ideal for these stories as it retains the mystery and elusive nature of mythology. In eschewing too much detail it lets the reader fill the space with their own imagination. It also leaves room for the fact that mythology often contains many elements that don’t lend themselves to explicit detail—characters can seem to grow or shrink in size depending on the task in front of them, while others are fantastical beyond clear depiction, as in the chapter ‘Thor Goes Fishing’ which includes a monster with nine hundred heads. Love’s bold, and yet deceptively subtle, silhouettes do a wonderful job of retaining that sense of these characters being in some ways elastic and intangible. Yet, despite this, Love also manages to keep his main characters easily recognisable. He utilises their well-known characteristics: Odin’s single eye, Thor’s hulking frame and iconic hammer, and Loki with long antelope-like horns, carrying shades of influence from Marvel’s depiction of Loki, a useful touchstone for younger readers. This, along with the line-up of characters in the opening pages, help distinguish the various gods, giants and dwarfs throughout the stories.
Beyond the practicalities of representing the stories, Love’s illustrations are also stunning works of art. The silhouettes are given a rough texture that is reminiscent of rock surfaces, evoking the Scandinavian landscape. These are juxtaposed against bold blocks of primary colours. This contrast echoes the mythic depictions on Greek vases, with their black figures moving across a terracotta backdrop.
Even with the powerful simplicity of the art style, Love hints at the deep symbolism and details of the stories. In the description of Odin tying himself to the great tree Yggdrasil to learn the secret wisdom of runes, Love shows Odin as a inversion of the tree, the ties across his body echoing the pattern of the branches. This is just one example of the careful detail that Love uses to build up this mythical world.
The combination of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s text and Jeffrey Alan Love’s art make this a real treasure of a book. It is an excellent rendering of the Norse myths, and one which will certainly draw in children’s interest, but will also be hugely appealing to interested adults. Crossley-Holland works his usual magic in making these stories clear and accessible, while still retaining the sense in the original myths of their subversive danger and elusive attraction. As Neil Gaiman proclaims on the cover of this book ‘Kevin Crossley-Holland is the master.’ Norse Myths is sure to become as much a staple of children’s literature as his previous work, and Love’s artwork makes this truly an object for families to treasure.