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.