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Norse Mythology: Review and Thoughts

Book Reviews

Author’s Note: Life threw an unexpected curve-ball at me recently, which has eaten up some of my productive time. As such, I’m giving myself a little leeway and making a sliiiiight modification to my original #nonficbingo2018 challenge. Where I had initially chosen Dewey Decimal 201 for the fifth category, I am expanding that to 200-299. I was enticed to read Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (although, to be fair, it doesn’t really take a lot of enticing to get me to read Neil Gaiman), and I realized that reading the world myths themselves is perhaps just as worthwhile as reading commentaries about them. So… for anyone following along at home… be free! You have more options for the original “Religious Mythology and Social Theology” category.

Norse Mythology

For those who have read Gaiman’s original works, Norse Mythology will be a bit less thrilling of an experience. (This reminds me of the relative flatness of Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman: Warbringer, as compared to the sheer brilliance of her Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows Duology.)

That being said, I do appreciate the wit and turn of phrase Gaiman brings into the work. While I knew the names of some of the Norse gods, I had never really heard any of their stories, outside of snippets from the pop culture movie franchise (and I must confess — while reading these myths, Loki was played by Tom Hiddleston in my head), and it was intriguing to read their adventures.

Alright… past this point, THAR BE SPOILERS!! You’ve been warned.

Here are a couple stories that caught my attention…

MIMIR’S HEAD AND ODIN’S EYE

One of my favorite facets of the character Odin is that he traded a physical eye for wisdom. I love the metaphor of it, and I love how Gaiman describes the trade:

“After he had done what was needful, he placed his eye carefully in the pool. It stared up at him through the water. Odin filled the Gjallerhorn with water from Mimir’s pool, and he lifted it to his lips. The water was cold. He drained it down. Wisdom flooded into him. He saw farther and more clearly with his one eye than he ever had with two. (P46, emphasis mine)

It is too true that our greatest wisdom comes from our deepest sufferings. That Odin understood this so well as to cut out his own eye (without ado) for the exchange, even before he had received any additional wisdom for it, shows how much wisdom he already had.

THE TREASURES OF THE GODS

This story just felt so wonderfully ridiculous to me… Loki gets drunk and does something crazy, which causes harm to Thor, so Thor bullies him into fixing it. But rather than just… you know… FIXING it… Loki has to turn it into another game, trying to pit two groups against each other to gain a bunch of free stuff while saving his own hide from Thor. His plan fails, however, despite his wacky efforts at interference, and the outcome of all of this nonsense and shenanigans is that Thor gets a really awesome hammer (yes, that one), and Loki almost gets beheaded.

And you just kind of have to throw your hands up and jovially wonder, are these gods? Or toddlers?

THE CHILDREN OF LOKI

An aspect of the Norse lore I really like is the concept of Ragnarok — that they foretold an end to everything, even their powerful gods, who could seemingly do (or survive) anything. And I like it all the more in that there would also be a new beginning, after the end.

There is an element missing, I feel, in the (United States of) American culture, in that we don’t address death as well as many other cultures do. We ignore it, postpone it, and do everything we can to outrun it… but we do not embrace it as an inherent part of the life cycle. In an American Religious Diversity class in college, I learned about how beautifully the Native American tribes explain the cycle of life in their mythologies, and what respect they gave to elders and the wisdom that comes with age. There was not the feeling of a beginning and an end, but more of an ongoing cycle, larger than ourselves, that we are a part of. I remember feeling a sense of wonder at how inclusive they were of death, as a natural part of life.

In this story, the gods are acting out of concern for what may happen during Ragnarok, and I find it interesting how it addressed a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. Because there was concern that Loki’s wolf son could bring them destruction in the end times, the gods endeavor to bind him from doing them harm. Yet, once they’ve accomplished it, he says:

“”Treacherous Odin!” called the wolf. “If you had not lied to me, I would have been a friend to the gods. But your fear has betrayed you. I will kill you, Father of the Gods. I will wait until the end of all things, and I will eat the sun and I will eat the moon. But I will take the most pleasure in killing you.”” (P106)

Would the wolf have ever destroyed them, had they not first bound him, in their fear of said destruction?

FREYA’S UNUSUAL WEDDING

This was probably one of the most enjoyable tales to read, and it provided one of my favorite quotes:

“There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to ask Loki for advice.” (P110)

I do love the duality of a character who is both most likely to have caused your problems, and most likely to help you find a solution to them.

HYMIR AND THOR’S FISHING EXPEDITION

My favorite quote from this book may not come across well in writing, and without all the context that makes me love it so.

But, I’ll preface it by saying that it came at just the perfect time for me, and I think it is expertly and accurately phrased, in a way that strikes me as amusing. It depicts something we all feel from time to time, but are so rarely willing to admit. It comes when a giantess wife is trying to coax her newly-arrived-home husband to be kind to their unexpected guests. He answers:

“I am grim of mind and wrathful of spirit and I have no desire to be nice to anyone…” (p126)

And then he smashes some shit up. You know, because he feels like it.

And the image of this giant acting like a petulant child because he just isn’t in the mood is laughable and somehow comforting. Because, come on… who among us hasn’t wanted, on a bad day, instead of putting on a fake, polite smile, to just honestly say… “Look – I am grim of mind and wrathful of spirit and I have no desire to be nice to anyone. Now please go away and leave me alone. Thank you.

It’s the perfect mixture of melodramatic, honest, and ridiculous. I think Gaiman totally nailed that particular slice of human experience, and I love it.

RAGNAROK: THE FINAL DESTINY OF THE GODS

As mentioned before, I love the idea of Ragnarok, and I love how Gaiman describes it:

“Nothing will remain of the armies of the living and of the dead, of the dreams of the gods and the bravery of their warriors, nothing but ash. Soon after, the swollen ocean will swallow the ashes as it washes across all the land, and everything living will be forgotten under the sunless sky. That is how the worlds will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice. That is the final destiny of the gods. That is the end. But there is also what will come after the end.” (P279)

I think there’s something beautifully real in creating these amazing, powerful, stunning gods and also foretelling their complete destruction. And while it may be the end of these gods, and all that they knew, there is also something that will exist, afterwards.

That the impermanence of our lives is woven into the fabric of the Norse mythologies is impressive to me… not even their gods get a pass for true immortality. But there is yet something new to look towards, around the corner, beyond the inevitable destruction. A new beginning.

I feel like this is what myth is supposed to do. To teach us about the grand scope and macrocosm (how species come and go over eons), as well as the microcosm within us (how these themes will play out in our own lives). As we survive our own personal Ragnoroks — those times in life where everything we knew is razed to ash and it feels as if our world has ended — although that part of our story (and the gods that starred in it) may be over, there is always “what will come after the end“, as Gaiman puts it.

Beautiful.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

With this book (the ninth), we’ve hit the quarter-mark on #nonficbingo2018! 🙂

nonfiction bingo 2018 norse mythology

 

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