Friday, May 27, 2011

The Penguin Book of Norse Myths - Gods of the Vikings Kevin Crossley-Holland

I took this book with me to Shetland for holiday reading, I thought it might be vaguely appropriate and in between reading ‘The Hurricane Party’ and A. S, Byatt’s retelling ‘Ragnarok: The End of the Gods’ (coming later this year, really quite excited) I wanted to reacquire some knowledge of the myths beyond what I gleaned from the recent ‘Thor’ and what I remember from a book I read when I was 13.

The Penguin book of Norse Myths’ has sat on my shelf looking worthy for a number of years and in all honesty I didn’t have very high expectations for it (sorry Kevin Crossley-Holland I did you a grave injustice) assuming it would be a bit dry and possibly a bit of a chore to read through. As it turned out once I started I couldn’t put it down. There’s an introduction that I haven’t properly read yet though I did spend quite a bit of time studying the diagram of the world tree with attendant worlds. This is followed by the myths themselves which have been engagingly reconstructed from surviving sources. There are also excellent notes almost all of which I read; they detail what sources were used as well as some of the speculation and theory surrounding the myths, and finally a very useful glossary.

I couldn’t have wished for a better put together book which was a pleasant discovery but the real bonus was the humour and poetry that Kevin Crossley-Holland brings to his telling which is surely very much in the approved tradition. I slogged through a good chunk of ‘The Orkneyinga Saga’ (which I’ve just noticed has had a very attractive facelift since I bought my copy) when I first met the Scottish one we talked about it over a cup of tea and I liked him so much that I went home, dug it out, and made a really valiant effort over it, but available as the saga’s are they aren’t always as entertaining as I feel they should be. This is still a primarily scholarly retelling but it has a real feeling of life to it as well. So much so that myth number 30 ‘Loki’s Flyting’ is almost indistinguishable from the retelling in ‘The Hurricane party’ (which was the best part of that book for me) it’s Kevin Crossley – Holland’s version I’ll read again.

I like a myth cycle as much and quite possibly more than the next person but even so my knowledge is still very superficial so I may be quite wrong in my opinion that the Norse myths have something quite unique about them. I’m don’t remember reading any other cycle that talks specifically about the end of the gods. The end of the world certainly but not a world that’s turned inside out and is then reborn without the gods...

The telling of Ragnarok is a fitting climax for any book (and a brilliant starting point for a book too, especially set against the second world war – can’t wait for that new A. S. Byatt) Crossley-Holland starts it like this “AN AXE-AGE, A SWORD-AGE, shields will be gashed: there will be a wind-age and a wolf-age before the world is wrecked.” But at the end “There will be life and new life, life everywhere on earth. That was the end; and this is the beginning.” Terrifying and hopeful at the same time – a theme that runs all the way through the cycle along with a whole host of very human failings; no wonder so many writers have dipped in and borrowed over the years.


  1. I love this stuff. I absorbed a lot of it as a kid, although I am not sure how - reading kid's versions of the myths, I guess.

    How wide has your Icelandic saga reading been? You can do better than The Orkneyinga Saga! Egil's Saga, for example, is completely insane.

  2. Amatuer Reader - My saga reading hasn't been extensive. The other reason I tried the Orkneyinga saga was a love of George Mackay Brown who reworks quite a bit from it. It turned out not to be the best way in but I'll give Egil's Saga a go now I've caught the bug again.