Friday, December 6, 2013

The Northern Thing and Me

   My first contact with the myths of my Scandinavian heritage was my maternal grandmother telling me a story about seeing a tomtegubbe on her father's farm in Närpes, Finland. She was a Swede Finn who spent several of her teenage years in Finland and my maternal grandfather was Norwegian and Danish and grew up in Sweden.
   The D'aulaires' Book of Norse Myths (originally called The Book of Gods and Giants) was the next, and still most effecting, exposure to the stories my ancestors. (True story - A few hours after I wrote the preceding sentence I went to a bookstore in Kutztown, PA and my wife pointed out a hardcover copy of the book and said Do you want to get it?". She didn't know I'd been writing about it and is pretty discouraging of me buying anymore physical books. I kind of had to buy it at that point.)

   The first, and still most appealing, part of the book are the illustrations. The D'aulaires' vivid lithographs are the bedrock of my mental images of the Norse myths. I read this book before I read a Thor comic. Let me tell you, when I did my disappointment was intense. I'm a huge Jack Kirby fan, but, c'mon, do I really have to tell you which is cooler?

     They have a great simplicity that sends a shot straight to my Norse monkey brain. The majesty of Odin, the fury of Thor, and the canniness of Loki are shown to perfection in this book. I can smell the ozone from the lightning crackling off Mjolnir and I can hear Tanngrisnir's and Tanngnjóstr's hooves cracking the stones under their hooves in the picture of Thor. A northern chill runs through even the loveliest pictures in the book.
   The book's stories, adapted from the Snorri Sturluson's Prose Eddahave the right mix of fairy tale magic and mythic power to sweep away any kid susceptible to the power of Story and I was definitely (still am) one of those. The tales range from the gigantic-in-scope creation and destruction of the world to the smaller events like Skaði's unfortunate marriage to Njörðr. Thor and Loki's escapades are still funny.  The death of Balder and refusal of Thokk (Loki in disguise) to weep for him continues to move me.  Awe, epic courage and horror are all present in the Norse legends and they filled me with wonder.
   As an adult I've tried to fix on what it is that still draws me to the Norse myths instead of the Greek or any others, say, Egyptian or Babylonian. Once I read the D'aulaires' book I was always bummed out that the books my English teachers gave me with myths in them always skewed to the Greek stories. Something in the Norse stories grabs me a way no other culture's myths have.

 The first part, is the simple "coolness" of the stories. Odin kills a giant big enough to build the world out of, gives up his eye and later hangs himself to gain knowledge, and rides across the sky on an eight-legged horse. That's just pure awesome smothered in more awesome. Even though Zeus fought the Titans he just seems like a cheap Lothario in a dress flinging around lightning bolts.  Add world-circumferencing serpents, scheming Jotuns and ships made from dead mens' nails and it just awesome slathered in AWESOME!  I'm still a fanboy and these things sing (often in very loud heavy metal stylings) to me.
   The second part is the deeper nature of the myths; the world is a dark and
inimical place and no one gets out the other side, and yet, the heroes and gods
stand tall. I was a nerdy kid and I'm still a fairly nerdy guy. My opportunities for acts of heroism were and are pretty limited. Heroic refusal to submit to despair is even more appealing than just facing monsters (though they do that too).
   I'm also drawn to the mist hidden fjords and dark pine forests of the sagas. Sunlight rarely pierces these myths and the unceasing chill that blankets the North never lifts. I find myself moved by this world. Perhaps because it matches so many of my grandparents' recollections of their homelands, it calls me.
   A few years ago I travelled through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. If you don't know, let me tell you, it's filled with Scandinavians. One town had fifteen different Lutheran churches. The only Scandinavians I grew up with were my immediate family. Most of Staten Island's Swedes and many of its Norwegians had left for New Jersey by the time I was growing up. And in the middle of Bemidji, Minnesota I felt like I was home. It was a very strange sensation. My point is, if being surrounded by people I have only some distant geographic connection with evoked that reaction in me, why shouldn't my ancestors' myths have a similar reaction?

   So that's my long-winded, rambling take on the Norse myths and why I like them. I'd love to hear other folk's take on these stories or what myths capture their imagination. If anybody's a writer, do they have any noticeable influence on what your write?  Let me know.


  1. Great post. I'm sure I read this book as a kid, but none of the illustrations are familiar. I know I read the D'aulaires' book on Greek myths that the school library had so many times my parents eventually told me I needed to read something else.

    I do remember reading some Norse myths as a kid, but I don't know them like I know the Greek myths. In spite of that, I think in many ways I like them better than the Greek stories. The darkness has a lot to do with it, as well as the chill you pointed out. Living in Texas, I'm a fan of cold weather, mainly because we get so little of it, tonight's expected record lows not withstanding. Those things appeal to me more and more as I get older.

    Maybe that's one of the reasons I've become more interested in the Celtic legends as well. There's a dark strain there, too.

    I hope to carve out some time later this year and get more familiar with the Norse stories. I think there's a lot of potential for fiction there. I've been drawing on the Greek myths some for a sword and sorcery series I've been working on, but I'd like to add some Norse elements to it.

    Finally, have you read M. D. Lachlan's novels about Loki? Here's info on the first one:

    1. Thanks. Writing about King Arthur and the Matter of Britain a few weeks back got me to thinking about this other part of my ancestry.

      I know I read the Greek book but only have the barest memories of it. I suspect you, like me and a million other fantasy readers, read whatever books of myths we could get our hands on.

      The Celtic myths are pretty dark as well, though there they have a slightly sunnier shine to them. They definitely have the whole heroic barbarian warrior down - see the death of Cu Chulainn.
      I'm hoping to get deeper into the Icelandic sagas this coming year. Most appear to be less fantastic but deeply informative of the day in, day out lives of the Norse. I also want to find a good translation of the Prose Edda. I actually found a site on learning Old Norse ( and gave that up pretty quickly.

      E. R. Eddison, William Morris and H. Rider Haggard and Tolkien were all enamored of these myths. It's clear the roots of modern fantasy are deeply planted in the North and continue to this day. Sometimes it's only because people like dragons and Valkyries, other times because of the darkness and heroism. Lachlan's books look like the latter. Thanks for telling me about them, they look interesting.

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  3. I have a similar relationship to the (for lack of a better term...) "North-Eastern Thing"--I still have the book of Polish legends/fairy tales that introduced me to Slavic folklore back when I was a kid, which also has incredibly evocative illustrations. Unfortunately, the problem with uncovering Slavic myth is that, unlike Norse and Celtic cycles, no one bothered to record them in writing, leaving just a patchwork of half-remembered stories. But what stories they are!

  4. Interesting. My only contact with Polish stories comes from Polish Fairy Tales by Zoe Zajdler, a book my dad bought me when I was little. Two of its stories, "The Pitch Princess" and "Matthew's Bed" still send shivers up and down my spine. I've always meant to read the Kievan having a photo-illustrated book of The Sword and the Dragon (the American version of Ilya Muromets) when I was little.

  5. I've always loved mythology and the Norse myths are some of my favorites. Of course I'm also a big fan of Jack Kirby, and I think Thor, particularly the Tales of Asgard backup feature is some of his best work.
    Writing-wise I've been more influenced by the Norsemen themselves than their myths. Harald the Ruthless was practically a real life Conan and his history has always fascinated me.

    1. I need to check out the Tales of Asgard then. I love Kirby but I always got a twitch at his liberties with the Norse myth. That said, I couldn't care less what he did with the Greek myths, in fact I loved it.

      I've always been amused by the seeming contradiction of my ancestors' adventurous (and often brutal, bloodthirsty) ways and how their modern descendants are among the most peaceful folks in the world. Maybe it's like Niven's Kziniti and all the wildest ones got themselves killed off.