norse mythology was foreboding -- 5/24/17

Today's selection -- from Literary Wonderlands by Editor Laura Miller. Planned as a textbook, The Prose Edda, is a collection of Norse mythology written by Snorri Sturluson around 1220. Here we read a summary of the collection. A note, for those who are curious, explore American Gods and Norse Mythology both by Neil Gaiman:

"Snorri's main purpose in writing The Prose Edda was to provide a guide to poetic diction and allu­sion for future poets. He drew on and quoted older poems, both heroic and mythological, of which many survive as a group called The Poetic Edda.

"Snorri's text describes a variety of interrelated worlds: The gods ( or Æsir) live in Asgard; the giants in Jötunheim; Svartalfaheim is home to the dwarfs; Alfheim is where the 'light-elves' live; and Niflheim is a dark world of pri­meval chaos. The world of humans is a flat disk encircled by ocean, with girdling walls erected by the gods to keep out the giants, called Mithgarthr in Old Norse, usually Anglicized as Midgard. At the center of the cosmos is the great ash-tree Yggdrasil. Its three roots extend to Asgard, to Niflheim, and to the land of the frost-giants. In the ocean around Midgard lives the dreaded Midgard Serpent, also known as Iörmungand.

An illustration of the god Odin with his two ravens

Huginn and Muninn

"Perhaps the most striking thing about this Northern cosmology is its sense of grim threat. The dragon Nidhögg eternally gnaws the root of Yggdrasil. The squirrel Ratatosk runs up and down conveying messages of hate and defiance between Nidhögg at the bottom and an eagle at the top. The sun and moon move across the sky constantly pursued by two great wolves called Sköll and Hati: and one day it is expected that they will catch up. Gods and men are under constant threat from the monster-world, and this will end in Ragnarök, 'the doom of the gods,' when gods and heroes will fight a final battle against the giants and the monsters -- and it is known to all that they will lose, hoping only to lose gallantly and destructively.

Furthermore, the universe of The Prose Edda is one of moral neutral­ity, or even moral indifference. Humans are on the gods' side against the monsters, but no one can trust Odin, the All-Father, who betrays heroes on the battlefield in order to bring them to Valhalla and swell his armies. Thor, the thunder-god, and Frey, a god of fertility, may seem friendlier, but another lurking presence among the Æsir is the god Loki, who continually brings trouble.

"The other side of Norse myth, surprisingly, is its sense of (sometimes cruel) humor. Thor, with his powerful hammer, Mjöllnir, which always returns to his hand, is at once the hero and the butt of several tales. Snorri gives an extended account of the visit made by Thor and Loki to the giant Utgarda-Loki. The giant challenges Thor to an easy test of strength. He is asked to drain a drinking-horn, but fails even after three drafts; to pick a cat off the floor, but can only raise one of its paws; and to wrestle with an old woman called Elli, who forces him to one knee. Thor is humiliated, but the tests were not as they seem. The drinking horn was connected to the ocean, and Thor has just created the tides. The cat was really the Midgard Serpent, and the old woman's name, Elli, means 'Old Age,' which as the Eddie poem Hávamál says, 'gives no-one mercy.'

"Snorri tells some twenty stories of this nature in The Prose Edda. The most influential of them in the modern world is the long tale of the Völsungs and the Nibelungs. The tale centers on a ring belonging to the Nibelungs, which Loki extorts from the dwarf Andvari in order to pay restitution to the giant Hreidmar (Loki having mistakenly killed and flayed Hreidmar's son, Otr, when he was in the form of an otter). The ensuing story of the ring brings in the dragon Fafnir, the hero Sigurd, and eventually the historical kings of the Burgundians, wiped out by the Huns in the year 437. Richard Wagner famously re-created the story in his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876, see page 96), and J. R.R. Tolkien attempted to re-create the lost original poetic version -- on which he thought all others must have been based -- in his posthumously published Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009). ...

"[T]he whole mythology of The Prose Edda has since become a favorite source for authors of fantasy. Tolkien's Middle-earth rep­resents his highly eclectic re-imagining of Midgard, with elves, dwarves, and other creatures, but without the pagan gods. A somewhat similar, but inde­pendent work by the prominent science-fiction author Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword ( 1954), tells the story of a human changeling brought up by the elves and a half-troll reared by humans, both embroiled in human and also elf-troll warfare unscrupulously fomented by Odin. Northern (and other) deities are brought into the contemporary American world in Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2003) and Joanne Harris retells the tale of the ultimate trick­ster in The Gospel of Loki (2014)."






Laura Miller


Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created


Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers


Copyright Elwin Street Productions Limited 2016


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