Sunday, September 23, 2012

On the Coffee Table: D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths

Title: D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths
Authors: Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire
Image via my favorite book

This book has sat unread on my parents' bookshelves for literally decades now.  Back when they first bought it, the title was slightly different: Norse Gods and Giants.  As a child, I was fascinated by Greek myths and spent hours poring over the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths.  For whatever reason, this book never piqued my interest in quite the same way.  My daughter now has copies of both books and once again, while the Greek one has gotten loads of attention, the Norse book has not.
Thor Image via Adventures into Mystery Collectibles

My comic book explorations led me finally to read about the Norse myths.  Marvel first launched stories about the Mighty Thor in August of 1962.  While I found the early Thor comics to be just as formulaic as most Silver Age fare, the direct connection to an ancient mythology offered the possibility of something deeper.  I was curious about the accuracy of the Marvel interpretation.  Accuracy's a flimsy concept when it comes to mythology, of course.  Any oral tradition is subject to endless variety.  Even the D'Aulaires book, well-researched as it was, is a tertiary source at best.  Nonetheless, it's the most extensive book on the subject in our current home library.

There are a lot of interesting differences between the Norse and Greek myths, no doubt reflecting on some level the cultural differences of northern and southern Europe.  I think it's fair to say that the Norse stories are several shades darker.  The Norse gods are mortal.  They are in constant battle - among themselves and with the rival jotun giants.  There is less interaction with humans, too.  The Greek gods were seemingly always impregnating mortals or punishing them for their pride.  The Norse gods are busy enough just keeping the enigmatic Loki from making a mess of things.  Their main role in the human world, it seems, is determining victors in battle.

Loki Image via Jung Currents

While the Norse mythology does not pervade western culture to the same extent the Greek stories do, there are some interesting influences.  I knew about Thursday (Thor's Day) and Wednesday (Odin's Day) but apparently Tuesday and Friday are named for Norse gods, too.  Tuesday is for Tyr, another of Odin's sons and god of the sword.  Friday is for Freya, goddess of beauty and love.  Our English word for the underworld is taken from Hel, the Norse ruler of the dead who had not fallen in battle.
Hello Kitty as Loki via Mousebreath

As for the Marvel Universe, there are definitely some inconsistencies with D'Aulaires.  In the early comics, Thor and Loki are the most prominent characters with occasional appearances by Odin.  Loki has always been cast by Marvel as Thor's stepbrother.  In D'Aulaires, he is Odin's blood brother.  I didn't know until I read D'Aulaires that Odin only has one eye.  He is not always portrayed that way by Marvel.  In my very limited exposure to the more recent Thor stories, the comics spend more time in Asgard than did the early books.  I would imagine that over the past 50 years, there have been eras when the Thor comics delved more deeply into the original mythology but I can't say I really know much about that.

I have to admit that this book was rough going for me at times.  Having finished, I can't say I feel much of an emotional attachment to any of the characters as I did so quickly with the Greek characters when I was a child.  Perhaps I would feel differently if I had read these stories when I was younger.  Maybe I just read the wrong book.  That said, I'm glad to have read it.  I imagine it's the sort of book I may refer to again as I find other cultural connections to Norse mythology. 

6 comments:

  1. I was never really exposed to the Nordic myths as a student, mostly just the Greek and Roman stuff (even though my family is Swedish and my high school mascot was the Norsemen!!). But I do see the Nordic legends and myths getting more attention from writers lately looking for something "fresh" to capitalize on for the paranormal market.

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    1. I'd say my experience is much the same. Generally speaking, though, quite a lot of our folklore comes from northern Europe: Grimm's from Germany, Hans Christian Andersen from Denmark, etc. Tolkien drew heavily from northern legend, though a lot of his source material was Finnish - very different from the rest of northern Europe. I'd say Celtic legend has been a more powerful force in fantasy literature than Nordic.

      I like the idea of writers tapping into the Nordic stories for something new.

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  2. When I was a teenager I found a series of books that took Norse mythology and put them in a readable format. I can't remember what they were called and barely remember any of the mythology, but I do remember enjoying the books. If I could find them, I'd read them again. The mythology was unique.

    I have a writer friend who does utilize the Nordic for inspiration, and enjoys the Nordic culture. He is one of the more creative people I know, and his stories capture the feel of those myths I read so very long ago!

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    1. Please let me know if you remember the titles.

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  3. 'Perhaps I would feel differently if I had read these stories when I was younger.'

    This seems likely as you would have brought to the reading the kind of emotional charge that only exists when ties to first exposure in youth are present. Still, maybe another execution might have stimulated your imagination more.

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    1. I hate to blame the book, even though I know I've implied as much in my post. It's quality work - amazing illustrations. Somehow, the stories themselves lack a sense of magic. It feels like one big brawl after another.

      What first hooked me into the Greek myths was the Twelve Tasks of Hercules. In fact, I learned the hero stories (Perseus, Theseus, Jason...) before I learned the god stories. None of the Norse stories drew me to the protagonist as effectively.

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