As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, the Norse gods lead me down a winding path.
Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. Norton. Feb. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780393609097. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393609103. LIT
After long making use of ancient stories in his novels, Gaiman (American Gods) here calls on the spirit of Edith Hamilton (Mythology) and Thomas Bulfinch (Bulfinch’s Mythology) to offer his own edition of myths, the tales of the great Norse gods. He covers the legends of the Scandinavian realm from its founding through to its destruction, with tales of deceit, ego, and magic. First presenting a list of the main characters—Odin, the wisest and highest ranking god; Thor, the strongest; clever trickster Loki, full of hate; and many more—he then details the creation of the nine worlds, with giant trees, special cows, and sacred serpents. One story describes how the gods received their most wonderful treasures, including Thor’s hammer. Another depicts a wise giant who deceives the deities to save his own kingdom, making it vanish from their sight. Yet another illustrates the seeds of the gods’ own destruction as they in turn fool a being they fear. Gaiman further relates how poetry came to be, a blood-soaked tale of murder. These slow-burning selections, adventuresome and mournful, full of high jinks and tricks, always point to the end the gods know is coming. Harper releases the audiobook in February, which, given Gaiman’s stellar capacities as a narrator, will transport listeners back in time to a smoky fire in the icy cold where a skald gathers his audience.
al-Shaykh, Hanan. One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling. Pantheon. 2013. 328p. ISBN 9780307958860. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780307958877. LIT
Another example of a modern rendition of ancient stories is al-Shaykh’s collection of 19 from the storehouse of Arabic, Persian, and Indian tales. Unlike Gaiman, who offers a straightforward take on some of the most iconic of myths, al-Shaykh abandons Aladdin, Ali Baba, and magic carpets to their fates and instead focuses on subversive pieces about women. There are stories of how some men view women and punish them and how some women outwit their oppressors and survive. A few tales are nostalgic, even old-fashioned, but most underscore the very premise of the anthology—that a woman is telling these stories to save her life. Much like Gaiman’s tales, however, are narratives that gain power as they are layered one on top of another. The two volumes also exhibit a similar languid pace, a brilliance of arrangement, and joy in language.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2013. 496p. ISBN 9780316223331. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780316032162. LIT
First published in the 1940s, Hamilton’s guide to Greek and Roman mythology has been a cornerstone of student assignments for years, as well as a model of how myths are retold. While not a significant part of her collection, the Norse myths are addressed, the lives of the gods framed as a noble exercise in doom. They know that they will fall to darkness and that they can die, yet they live and fight for the cause of the light nonetheless. Neither Gaiman nor Joanne Harris (see review below) focuses on the Norse gods’ defense of goodness, but Hamilton stresses their somber and stoic duties of heroic sacrifice through several stories, including one Gaiman details more fully. Beyond the pure pleasure of reading Hamilton’s selections, placing her work in conjunction with Gaiman’s allows readers to see how his influences were not only the tales themselves but also the compelling mix of intimacy and remove by which Hamilton approaches her popular retellings.
Harris, Joanne M. The Gospel of Loki. Saga. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781481449472. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481449489. FANTASY
The author of Chocolat offers her take on the Norse myths in this clever novel that also traces the creation of the worlds through Ragnarök, a series of future events that mark the end of the world. Narrator Loki tells the stories from his own biased perspective and with a modern sensibility (at one point talking about pixie haircuts and golden hair extensions). Harris pulls it all off with verve, evidenced in the opening list of protagonists, in which Loki says of Idun (keeper of the special apples he steals), “Likes fruit” and describes Hoder (whom Loki tricks into murder) as “a better shot than you might think.” That mix of snarky wit flavors the story that follows and should please fans of Gaiman’s novels American Gods and Sandman. Add in Harris’s deft characterization and her equally fine storytelling and the result is an excellent next read.
Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Smithsonian. 2000. 432p. ed. by William W. Fitzhugh & Elizabeth Ward. illus. ISBN 9781560989950. $34.95. HIST
Based on an exhibition held in 2000 to mark the 1,000-year anniversary of Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson’s landing in North America, this blend of exhibition catalog and cultural, social, and literary history is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about the culture of the Norsemen. As the title implies, some sections focus on the reach of the Vikings from Scandinavian countries to North America, but the book also offers an engrossing account of many other aspects of Viking culture and history, including special boxed sections on their myths and sagas. Fitzhugh and Ward, two experts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, edit this richly illustrated and full-color work written in engaging chapters by a range of scholars and specialists.
Larrington, Carolyne. The Norse Myths: A Guide to Viking and Scandinavian Gods and Heroes. Thames & Hudson. Feb. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9780500251966. $24.95. LIT
Oxford University medieval literature professor and well-regarded scholar Larrington translated from Icelandic the Oxford World Classic edition of The Poetic Edda (one of the founding sources for the Norse tales), bringing her expertise to bear in this new guide to Norse mythology. In easily digestible chapters, she addresses the central characters of the stories, the gods and goddesses of the myths, before offering a lineup to those they battle—the giants who roam the world. Then come the stories of Viking legend, those of the Valkyrie, Sigmundr, and Ragnarr. Finally, Larrington writes about Ragnarök. Her approach is an accessible blend of scholarship and story, nicely arranged and full of intriguing asides.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. color. 179 mins. Peter Jackson, New Line. 2013. Blu-ray UPC 794043167614. $17.99. DRAMA FANTASY
Norse mythology is hard to miss when it comes to screen adaptations. The Marvel Comics films have made Thor and his cohort household names, while the critical bomb yet somewhat cult hit The 13th Warrior offers an action remake of Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead. Particularly notable for making wise men, special rings, and Middle-earth a part of our common language, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series, especially this second book, creates particularly clear allusions as it depicts the culture of the Rohirrim, or Horse-lords, as well as reintroduces the all-knowing Gandalf (Ian McKellen), come back from the dead. The action and heroic sacrifice called for during the Battle of Helm’s Deep are acutely Norse as well, in the ways Edith Hamilton frames the culture in her summary. The third film (The Return of the King) continues to accentuate the mythological aspects of the novels, including an army of the dead.
Vikings: Season 1. color. 398 mins. Michael Hirst et al., MGM/History Channel. 2013. Blu-ray UPC 883904299790. $27.99. HISTORICAL DRAMA
Perhaps the most popular and certainly the most recent screen take on the Vikings and their culture is this History Channel series, now in its fourth season, with a fifth in the works. The show is based on the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a Norseman who figures out how better to navigate the seas and uses his knowledge to attack and pillage England. In the process, he gains great rewards and amasses power, changing from a farmer to a man with such ambitions that he eventually battles and plots his way to the highest levels and becomes king. As the series has developed, others, including his family members, have also plotted and planned, and now Ragnar faces the passions of a widespread group in this historical mix of action, politics, and power plays. A strong suggestion for those who want to explore the Norse sagas beyond the myths.
Byatt, A.S. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. 4 CDs. 4hrs. Brilliance. 2012. ISBN 9781455852437. $54.97. LIT
After listening to Gaiman read the Norse stories, turn next to Byatt’s astounding take on Ragnarök, the tale of the end of the world. As part of the “Canongate Myth” series, this book places the myth alongside the story of a young girl forced to leave home for the safety of the countryside during World War II. Faced with her own world seemingly at an end, and trying to cope with fear and separation, she turns to a fabled story of the end of it all, this one full of reckless and careless gods rather than insane men. Narrator Harriet Walter is a marvel, creating a performance that rewards repeated listening as she whispers and calls to her audience, spinning a tale that transports all those who hear it back in time while bringing the world of the skald into the modern age.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. 14 CDs. 17 hrs. Naxos. 2012. ISBN 9781843796312. $80.98. POETRY
Like Hamilton’s Mythology, another famous collection of myths is this long Latin poem (originally published in 8 AD) that starts with the founding of the world out of chaos and goes on to detail hundreds of the Greek and Roman tales before ending with the death of Rome’s Julius Caesar. Here are the stories of Hercules, Midas, Aeneas, Jupiter, and Europa. All of these and many more are tales, as Ovid announces in his opening, that address change and new transformation—an often violent, disruptive, and aggressive undertaking as illustrated in stories such as the encounter of Diana and Actaeon. This complete Naxos production is read by David Horovitch with a deep, rumbly voice that nicely conveys the cadence of the poetry along with its fierce action and lyrical details.