I remember the book that started my lifelong study of the Norse myths. I was seven years old, and the book was Thunder of the Gods, by Dorothy Horsford; a library copy, with line-drawings, telling the traditional tales in clear and simple language. I loved it so much that I borrowed it from the library a dozen times, after which a family friend gave me his original copy of HA Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas, first published in 1909 and still in print today.
I loved everything about that book; from the old-fashioned typeface, the spotted pages to the illustrated plates, each one covered with a thin sheet of transparent paper. I read and re-read it a hundred times. It was more detailed than the Horsford book, and contained many more stories and poems. But the myths were not complete; in spite of everything, it seemed that this, too, was a re-telling of an earlier version of the tales.
Later, as my interest grew and I was able to find and read those Eddas and Sagas (at first in translation, and later, very haltingly, in the original) I came to understand that the Norse myths have been told and re-told many hundreds – maybe thousands – of times. It is perhaps this process of telling and re-telling that has kept them so fresh and accessible, even now, nine centuries after they were first transcribed from accounts passed down by word-of-mouth. Certainly, there’s a timeless feel about these stories, which chronicle the rise of the gods of Asgard; their disputes and alliances; their war against the forces of Chaos; their many adventures, quests, loves and betrayals; and details their final destruction at Ragnarók, the titanic battle prophesied long ago, in which the gods, the world and even Mankind itself will one day be destroyed.
It’s a somewhat chilly world picture, quite lacking in such concepts as an omniscient, wholly benevolent god, or even an afterlife (in Norse mythology only a select few warriors get into Valhalla, Odin’s hall, after their death in battle; the rest of humanity is doomed to a kind of cold semi-consciousness in Hel, the Land of the Dead.) Yet in spite of – perhaps even because of – their bleak view of the future, the Norse people – this being the Scandinavians, Danes, Germans, Icelanders of pre-Christian Europe – have a lively sense of humour, which is reflected in many of the stories and poems that make up the bulk of the myths.
The characters of Norse mythology are an entertaining lot: there’s Odin, the wise and mysterious leader; not altogether trustworthy, but terrible in battle; his son Thor, the strong, hammer-wielding protector of mankind; Tyr, the one-handed god of war; Frey, the god of the harvest, and his sister Freyja, the falcon-cloaked goddess of desire; and of course, the trickster, Loki; no god, but the demon-born protégé of Odin, whose mischief features in all the most entertaining of the myths, and whose malice helps to bring about the downfall of the gods. He was always my favourite character, the most intelligent of the group; causing mayhem at every turn; playing tricks on his companions; thwarting their enemies, not through brawn, but through sheer inventiveness. He is the discordant note, the catalyst for action; always on the brink of disaster, and yet, seemingly able to extricate himself from almost any situation. This makes for some marvellous myths; some violent clashes; some epic fights; some wild and irreverent humour.
This is what first attracted me to the Norse myths, rather than the Greek, Roman, or Egyptian. The humour and the vividness of the characters and situations is what makes the Norse myths so engaging, even though the bulk of what has been transcribed is small compared with some other mythologies, and there is no knowing now how much material has been lost.
Indeed, we owe the survival of these myths primarily to two scholars. One is Saxo Grammaticus, an early 12th century history in 16 volumes of Latin entitled Gesta Danorum. The second is Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic historian whose Prose Edda, written in the late 12th century comprises the greater part of surviving Scandinavian mythology. However, both Saxo and Snorri were Christian scholars, writing about traditions and beliefs that were already dying out two centuries previously. Their accounts are therefore not quite the same as the original stories, passed down by word of mouth from people who still worshipped the gods.
Snorri works from the principle that the “gods” of Norse mythology were originally heroes, killed in battle and revered after death, so that with the passing of time, people forgot that their gods – Odin, Thor and Tyr – had once been ordinary human beings. Saxo is even less sympathetic; and both scholars have tried to shape the stories to fit a changing world picture – one in which paganism was being replaced by the new and very different values of Christianity.
In spite of this, however, the myths have endured. Other fragments, mostly of verse, have been added to the collection. And the old beliefs took a long time to die.
There are accounts of Scandinavian pagan traditions enduring right up to the 17th century, and even now, our language, our nursery rhymes, even our days of the week bear testament to the power of their influence. But it is the characters that inhabit the Norse myths that have kept the stories alive for so long. That small community of gods and goddesses, living together in a citadel high above the clouds and accessible only via a bridge made from a rainbow; besieged on all sides by their enemies, the frost-giants; fighting desperately to survive. The magic and the fantasy of the tales are appealing, but it is the depiction of the gods as individuals, with very human emotions and relationships, that keeps the story moving.
Thus it is that over the centuries, many more writers, artists and poets have added to the store of work inspired by these ancient myths. Since Saxo and Snorri, writers from all parts of the world have fallen under the spell of these characters and their stories, and have retold and reshaped them to suit their time. Twelfth-century Christian scholars dwelt heavily on the moral aspect of the myths, trying to draw parallels between the trickster Loki, cast out of Asgard for his crimes, and the fallen angel Lucifer. Later, after the myths had been once more brought to the attention of scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were used as material for stories of valour. The word “Viking”, first introduced in the 18th century, had swashbuckling, romantic overtones, and many took inspiration from this to create fanciful tales of adventure. The poet Tennyson was a great lover of Norse mythology, and wrote a number of pieces based on the Poetic Edda, as did H Rider Haggard. Wagner, too, took direct inspiration from the Eddas in his famous Ring cycle, as did the painter Arthur Rackham, along with many more artists, painters and poets.
Nowadays the myths live on in books, films, games, graphic novels – in fact all areas of popular culture – and the characters have once more shaped themselves to fit the demands of the current age. The flawed and morally ambiguous characters of the original myths have returned, along with a whole series of new situations and challenges to face.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of the recent adaptations has been Marvel’s series of action-hero movies, but Thor, Odin, Loki et al have never been very far from the heart of popular culture. They may not have made a personal appearance in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but the books are set very firmly in a Norse-influenced universe, even to the character names and runes. Several of Alan Garner’s books, including The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, are based on aspects of Norse myth, as is Diana Wynne-Jones’ Eight Days of Luke, and of course, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Countless comics, role-playing games, computer games, rock bands, films and TV shows, from The Mask to The Almighty Johnsons, have borrowed from the Norse myths to create new and more diverse stories. The oral tradition may have died out, but there are fragments of Norse myth in almost every aspect of fantasy fiction, and interest in the subject is still growing. To me, the continued survival of these myths is the ultimate testament to the enduring power of story. Like the gods themselves, these tales have managed to live through the end of the world, not just once, but several times, surviving, like Loki the Trickster, through continuous re-invention.
Times may change, but human nature does not; which is why myths that were already old at the time of the Norman Conquest are still fresh and relevant today.
And to those who have yet to discover them, there are some terrific re-tellings (I particularly admire the vibrancy of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths), although I still have a soft spot for Thunder of the Gods, a copy of which I bought on the internet a few years ago – only to find, when it arrived, my own name written inside the book, along with my cardboard library ticket, still bearing my signature.
Sometimes, real magic happens. And sometimes a coincidence takes on a mythic quality. It took my favourite book 40 years to come back to me, but it did. I passed it onto my daughter, who loved it just as much as I had. And that’s the magic of these myths, passed on over the centuries from generation to generation. Long may they continue.
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris is out now, Gollancz, £14.99. Joanne will be signing copies of the book at Blackwells, South Bridge, Edinburgh at 6:30pm on Tuesday.