The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths

Originally, I had been going to combine this post with my earlier one about the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. But when that post got to be about 600 words and I hadn’t even started on the world of Norse myth — a world that I can only describe as balls-to-the-wall insane — I thought I’d better save this book for a separate review.

All the charms of the book on Greek myth are present in this volume, published in 1967. The endpapers show a beautiful map of the worlds of Norse myth, which clearly shaped Tolkien’s conception: Midgard, where people live, is the equivalent of Middle Earth, and there are separate worlds for gnomes (=dwarves) and jotuns (=trolls or orcs) and elves. The illustrations are full of strange beasts and birds and oddments, curlicues with tiny, mischievous faces. And it uses the same, calm, straightforward prose to describe the impossibly weird stories, even when Thor is bested in wrestling by a tiny old lady who turns out to be Old Age herself.

But the real attraction, of course, are the stories themselves. I’m not nearly so familiar with Norse myth as I am with Greek myth, so things kept taking me by surprise, and I wasn’t able to explain it to myself so easily. One of the biggest, toughest, most macho gods of all travels in a cart drawn by two billy-goats? (Badass billy-goats, to be sure, but still.) And Freya has a carriage drawn by grey cats? Cats? Really?

There are some startling similarities between the Greek stories and the Norse ones — things that would get someone like Mr. Casaubon all excited. For instance, both systems have three sisters who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life, and even the gods have no say in their decisions. However, the similarities are few and far between. The biggest difference is perhaps how few people show up in Norse myth. These gods are forever fighting and brawling amongst themselves, or with the jotuns, but the only people who ever show up are the warriors who are whisked away from death on the battlefield to come stay at Odin’s guesthouse, Valhalla. So much of Greek myth depends on the interaction between gods and human beings that this felt strange.

Another enormous difference is that in Norse myth, the gods are mortal. Let that sink in for a moment. Mortal gods. Their actions are no worse than the Greek gods’s actions, but they can be undone by them. The story of gentle, beautiful Balder, killed by the treachery of Loki and the weakness of the mistletoe, is so strange I could hardly take it in. Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, to be able to read the runes of wisdom; how near death does he come to become the All-Father? And of course, there is the end of days, Ragnarok, when Loki (ambiguous, good and evil, male and female, laughing and weeping), the great wolf Fenris (hello, Narnia fans), and other gods and monsters will attack the Aesir in a ship made of dead men’s nails. Did I mention this stuff was insane?

This edition of the book has a wonderful introduction by Michael Chabon. He emphasizes that Norse myth, unlike many others, begins and ends in darkness, and it is gleams of light that are precious: gold, fire at the hearth, a woman’s hair. He points out that in times of darkness, like ours, we need myths that are built in darkness, that show the gods’ frailty, and point towards the light. As usual, he gets it exactly right.

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16 Responses to The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths

  1. bibliolathas says:

    “balls-to-the-wall insane” – that may be the best review description I’ve read. Love it.

  2. DKS says:

    I loved the Norse myths deeply when I was little, for the torture, I think — Loki subjected to the dripping snake, and the deaths of everyone at the end, the terrible conflagration, and the sense that everything in the world was at stake, almost always — I liked the Greeks and Romans too, but they seemed less intense, too inclined to fool around, or feel melancholy, and so their characters did not seem as sharply delineated, to me, as the characters of the Norse. A man with a pair of pet ravens was comprehensible. A man who went around throwing himself into the laps of strangers disguised as a shower of gold was a nuisance. I like Chabon’s point about the “gleams of light” but his conclusion sounds off to me, wilfully optimistic, though I know I’m reading about it secondhand. What the Norse myths “point towards”, after all, is a terrifying apocalypse in which all of us die except for two, and Tyr gets eaten by a wolf.

    • Jenny says:

      I think Loki is the strangest and most frightening character I’ve read in any myth, because so unpredictable. Sometimes he’s so helpful, running off and getting golden ships and boars and new hair for Sif, and sometimes he’s utterly wicked, and how can you tell? I loved these stories when I was a child, but they are as strange to me now as they were then.

      You may be right about Chabon’s conclusion — the d’Aulaires present Ragnarok as already having happened, so things are more peaceful. Chabon doesn’t shy away from the apocalyptic nature of the myths, however. He even says the two survivors of Ragnarok are a “transparently tacked-on post-Christian epilogue.” So I might have made him sound too cheerful.

      I do, too, think Zeus is a nuisance, if only because he sets off Hera every ten minutes.

      • DKS says:

        They’re strange, they’re very strange, and that sense of strangeness stays with me, along with a sense of absolute, rigorous logic — because there are laws in these myths, and bargains, and rules, and great strictness, and lines that can be crossed or not crossed, and so the balls-to-the-wall insanity (I decide, considering it) is not merely a violent random whimsy, but a policed madness, with a powerful skeleton of commonsense thought behind it (or: what was once common sense but now is no longer; it’s become alien rather than common, although Thor’s goats stood forth as an epitome of brilliant intelligence once I remembered that he ate them — well, he’s a hungry man, of course, transportable food, the Norse equivalent of the car cupholder). I can see the skeleton but I don’t understand it. It’s as fabulous as trilobites.

        Reading your review again: I’d forgotten that old woman.

      • Jenny says:

        Yes! Oh, how well put. The logic inside the madness, exactly like (well, quite unlike, but in this way exactly like) Lewis Carroll.

  3. Lisa says:

    The endpapers gave me such a thrill of recognition. I too thought immediately of Tolkien. And I had that feeling of recognition throughout the book, of names and stories that I knew but had never really understood or connected. We never studied Norse mythology – or much Scandinavian history either – in school, like we did the Greeks and Romans.

    • Jenny says:

      I had the same feeling. I think this is such rich territory — terrifying and dark and odd, and ready to be mined. Fairy tales from this area seem to me the most wonderful of all. I might have to read the Eddas one of these days.

  4. Jenny says:

    Oh, I guess you do indeed know about the Norse myths book. I feel silly for commenting on your other post to be all like “Oh did you know?” I got my sister both of them for Christmas last year! And I think she was very pleased!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I didn’t have a chance to answer your comment before this one posted! I got them both out of the library at the same time even though I am only doing Greek and Roman (and not Scandinavian) classics this summer, because they were sitting almost next to each other on the shelf and I thought, why not. They were both perfectly lovely. If I were your sister I would have been thrilled.

  5. I too have just re read the Norse Myths (Kevin Crossley-Hollands version) and realised all over again how good though barking mad they are. I think it’s the god’s mortality that makes it all so appealing – they really have something to lose. I liked the way objects are named too, and the stories told round the fire feel – all of it really.

    • Jenny says:

      They were so different in tone and even content from the Greek myths. I kept thinking, but who would make this up?? Enjoyable in every way, even the apocalyptic and awful bits.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I am not at all familiar with the Norse myths but they sound fascinating. I’m not sure how I feel about the gods being mortal, that is an interesting twist!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s completely heartbreaking. When you read about the death of Balder the beautiful, Balder the gentle, whom everything in creation loves — oh, it’s enough to make you cry even if you have absolutely no attachment to these myths.

  7. rebeccareid says:

    I love the Greek myths. This sounds so fascinatingly great. I love the descriptions you have here.

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