`The child who approaches the Norse myths is entering a complete world that contains all creation: love and hate, hope and fear, every shade of good and evil.’
THE NORTHERN MYTHS
Kevin Crossley-Holland invites us to share our own inheritance.
Eleven years ago a Stone Age tribe, the wide-eyed and gentle Tasaday, were `discovered’ in the dense rain forests of the Philippines. Before long, they were assaulted by the usual battery – anthropologists, tape recorders, cameras, a helicopter. When one of the Tasaday (there were only twenty-five of them) was asked what he thought of the helicopter, he spoke of it as `a flying thing’ and then as manuk dakel, the ‘big bird’. Another man referred to it as the `huge insect’.
Of course. When confronted with the unknown, primitive man tries to explain it in terms of the known. When faced by the apparently inexplicable, the turning of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, thunder, or why people have different characteristics, primitive man devises potent stories to justify it. For the Tasaday, thunder is the Big Word, and when it speaks humans are afraid and wise to take shelter; for the Norseman, thunder was the wheels of Thor’s chariot rolling across the sky. These explanations are ways of taming and coming to terms with the world around us.
It is not long since people everywhere were disposed to believe in these stories and explanations as being literally true. One culture came to the conclusion that life on earth broke out of an egg; another subscribed to the idea that the earth itself was shaped by some supernatural potter; and in the Christian west, we knew that God created the earth, and life on earth, over a period of six days. Since Darwin, we have had to revise our ideas. But this does not mean that these creation stories have lost all their power. On the contrary, we recognise their quite extraordinary and enduring metaphorical strength.
Like the primitive myth-maker, a child sees the world as a strange and mysterious place that invites the question `Why?’ Children want explanations, definitions, tamings of the wild beyond, and this is precisely why, for as long as they are born innocent and unversed and do not spring fully armed from their mother’s wombs, they will respond to myth. Hearing about a mythical (as opposed to historical) time, and meeting supernatural beings (with many human attributes, strengths and weaknesses) who created men and whose actions provide paradigms for men, is a magical experience that helps to define relationships – the relationships between one person and another, and between man and the natural world.
During the past decade, the book trade has displayed considerable interest and inventive energy over the presentation of legends – stories, that is to say, in which the hero has supernatural qualities (like Siegfried or Superman) but is not divine – and folktales. Not only are there literally dozens of editions and versions of Grimm and Perrault and Andersen, ranging from the single story which is a vehicle for the star illustrator to the complete bumper edition; we can also expect to find volumes, and indeed series, that represent an extremely wide range of collectors and countries.
The same cannot be said of myth. Although there have been a few exceptions (none better than Chatto & Windus with the strikingly good Beginnings: Creation Myths of the World edited by Penelope Farmer), the nearest that most publishers come to engaging with myth is to volunteer a new, or new-old telling of the classical myths or, at a pinch, the Hebraic myths of the Old Testament. On occasion such retellings can be very fine. One thinks immediately of Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen’s two volumes of Greek myths, with their muscular illustrations by Charles Keeping (the crucifixion of Ixion on a wheel of fire is branded on my mind) and Peter Dickinson’s Carnegie-winning City of Gold. Now it is true that our first instinct is to look to the Mediterranean: the Bible and the classical myths have furnished much of the iconography of western thought and art since the Renaissance. But for all this one cannot help but be struck by how unadventurous publishers are. There are several superb bodies of material – wonderful, imaginatively rich, interlinking stories – that to all intents and purposes remain untouched.
What I find particularly surprising is that so little attention has been paid to the myths of the northern world, the Celtic and the Norse. These are the stories that were formed under our own skies, they are lit by the aurora borealis – the northern lights. Universal in its dealing with fundamentals and therefore universal in its application, myth is nevertheless specific in its clothing. Time may pass and attitudes change, but the fact is that these myths are our own inheritance. They cannot but have a special meaning for us.
During the past five years I have given a lot of attention to the Norse mythology. These stories call for no special pleading. They are literary artefacts of the very highest order, terse and vivid, humorous and astute. I recognise in them a magnificent attempt to wrestle with complexities, and incidentally learn from them a great deal about the early Germanic peoples, the people who lived in this corner of the world. Let me try to outline them in a few paragraphs.
The Norsemen – by which I mean the Vikings – believed that the universe existed on three levels (like plates suspended one above the other) and consisted of three worlds. The top and middle levels were called Asgard and Midgard – the world of the gods and middle-earth – and were linked by a flaming threestrand bridge, Bifrost. It was nine days’ gallop northwards and downwards from middle-earth to the bottom level, Nifheim, a realm of freezing mist and darkness inhabited by monsters and by the dead. The three levels were also linked by the mighty ash tree, Yggdrasill, that grew up through the three levels like an axis – a timeless tree that nourished all creation (its dew was fed to pregnant women to ensure safe childbirth) and suffered from the depredations of the countless animals, birds and squirrels and deer and dragons, living on it and living off it.
The nine worlds were inhabited by gods, light and dark elves, men, giants, dwarfs, and the dead. Of the twelve leading gods and goddesses, the most important of all were Odin (the rather terrifying god of inspiration -of battle and poetry), Thor (god of the sky and thunder, but also associated with the maintenance of law and order) and Freyr (god of fertility – human increase and fruitfulness of the earth). Any society gets the gods it deserves, and the Norse pantheon is packed out with gods and goddesses that reflect the strengths and weaknesses of Viking society: spirit and confidence, boundless curiosity, extreme bravery, clannish loyalty, generosity, arrogance, lack of compassion and cruelty.
Quite the most extraordinary figure in the Norse myths is the character who embodies all these qualities – the attractive, ambivalent, mischief-making Loki. To begin with, Loki is little more than a thorn in the side of the gods. As part of a bargain, for example, Loki kidnaps the goddess Idun and her apples of youth and delivers them to the giant Thiazi. The gods grow anxious and old:
They soon began to crumble inside their clothes and to seem smaller than they were before. Their skin hung over their bone-houses, bunched or puffy or wrinkled, or stretched so tight that it looked as though the bone would break through. The eyes of one became bloodshot and the eyes of another misty; one god’s hands began to tremble, one lost all his hair, and one could not control his bowels. Their joints creaked and ached and they felt utterly limb-weary. The gods felt the spring in their step and the strength in their bodies ebbing from them hour by hour.
Nevertheless, the gods corner Loki and oblige him to make amends. He borrows the falcon-skin of the goddess Freyja, travels to the world of the giants and, after a thrilling chase, brings Idun and her apples back to Asgard. This, indeed, is characteristic of Loki in the early myths; while he frequently gets the gods into a fix, he invariably gets them out of it again.
As the myths progress, however, the figure of Loki darkens from mischief-maker to demon. It is he who is responsible for the death of Balder, the god of innocence and beauty, in what I take to be one of the world’s great tragic stories. And by subsequently standing in the way of Balder’s return from the dead, Loki prepares the way for the end of the world itself – an all consuming conflict between gods and men on one side, and giants, dwarfs and monsters on the other.
This animosity between gods and giants is – with the changing colour of Loki – the principal theme of the myths. To begin with, one has the sense that the existing order is not going to change. One giant may masquerade as a mason with the intention of overthrowing Asgard, another may steal Thor’s hammer and bury it eight miles deep in the earth, but the gods soon reassert their control. Nor are gods entirely white and giants black. Some gods have weaknesses, and some giants are well-disposed to the gods. There are friendships, unexpected love matches. But in time this fundamental stability becomes unsettled; the opposition of gods and giants becomes more naked and violent; the gods represent the forces of order, the giants the forces of chaos.
So when the gods fight the giants at Ragnarok, the apocalyptic final battle in which all creation is destroyed and the nine worlds are submerged, we are witnessing the expected – the last trumpet-blast in a long and dramatic symphony. I emphasise the word symphony. Although the myths survive in a number of sources, and the business of retelling them can be like piecing together a huge jigsaw, what we have is a complete cycle of stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Several themes are stated and then heard in variation; new protagonists appear in every story but key characters reappear over and over again. The child who approaches the Norse myths is entering a complete, self-referring world that contains all creation; he/she meets characters who love and hate, hope and fear, characters active and passive, generous and grasping, every shade of good and evil.
So what are the snags? The Norse myths, you may object, are cruel and fatalistic. They are indeed both these things. One does not have to study the Vikings for long before detecting the streak of ruthlessness in their make-up. This characteristic is not unique to the Vikings; it is common to many societies used to much greater physical hardship than are we. The fatalism is something shared by many pre-Christian societies – it was no less true of the Anglo-Saxons. But to write or read about these qualities is of course not to condone them, and it is absurd to argue that their presence renders a book ineligible for children. They are daily subjected to far worse on television; there is a strong and attractive moral code in the myths: and it is not beyond the writer or reteller to furnish a comparative (compassionate and perhaps Christian) context. It may be some consolation that, in a kind of epilogue to the symphony, two humans, who have survived Ragnarok, and several gods set in motion a new cycle of time and life in the nine worlds:
The earth will rise again out of the water, fair and green. The eagle will fly over cataracts, swoop into the thunder and catch fish under crags. Corn will ripen in fields that were never sown … The two humans who hid themselves deep within Yggdrasill will be called Lif and Lifthrasir. Lif and Lifthrasir will have children. Their children will bear children. There will be life and new life, life everywhere on earth. That was the end; and this is the beginning.
All right, you say, but what about the tongue-twisting names? Yes, we are left with those. They are the only real obstacle to immediate enjoyment of this magnificent body of myths, but of course, like most strange things, they soon become familiar. As do the myths themselves; indeed they soon become stimulating friends. In their rich soil responsive minds can grow and learn that greatest of joys – imaginative understanding.
Kevin Crossley-Holland is a poet, translator and writer for children. His particular area of interest and expertise is Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, and he has many publications in the adult lists. For children his books include retellings and collections of English folktales, Anglo-Saxon stories and norse myths and legends. (For details of some of these, see the booklist on page 6.)
This autumn sees three new Crossley-Holland books for children. Already out is The Dead Moon, beautiful and powerful retellings of eleven tales from East Anglia and the Fens with illustrations by Shirley Felts (Deutsch, 0 233 97478 4, £5.95). Next month comes a new version of Beowulf, with illustrations by Charles Keeping (Oxford University Press, 0 19 279770 0, £4.50) and also in October, from Macmillan, The Riddle Book, an anthology of riddles ancient and modern in every conceivable form (0 333 33008 0, £3.95).
Kevin Crossley-Holland is at present working on a series of programmes for BBC2 on folk tales. The first of these was filmed during the summer. Next year Andre Deutsch hope to publish a children’s version of his The Norse Myths.
Gods and Heroes
Some in-print re-tellings of myths and legends of the northern world. Great stuff for reading aloud with junior, middle or lower secondary classes.
The Heroes of Asgard
A. and E. Keary, ill. C. E. Brock, Macmillan Facsimile Classics, 0 333 07802 0, £4.95
Annie and Eliza Keary’s selection of the most accessible of the Norse myths was first published in 1870. There’s still a lot of life in their rather formal Victorian prose. Those expecting winged and horned helmets, blonde braided hair and lots of thongs will not be disappointed by the pictures.
The Norse Myths
Kevin Crossley-Holland, Deutsch, 0 233 972714, £8.95; Penguin, 0 14 00.6056 1, £4.95
For adults, with plenty of scholarly notes; but the telling is such that many of the stories could be used with children as they stand – The Theft of Idun’s Apples for one, which is so rich and resonant with meanings.
Mikael Esping, ill. Julek Heller, Piccolo, 0 330 26746 9, £1.00
Stories of Norse gods and Scandinavian and Icelandic heroes as told by `my parents and grandparents on long winter evenings’. The narrative style sometimes switches strangely from the formal/poetic to the colloquial – “`That settles it,” said Odin.’ – but in general the eight myth episodes are swiftly and simply told. The illustrations which look as if they might be very powerful suffer badly from being reproduced on such nasty paper.
The Faber Book of Northern Legends
ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland, ill. Alan Howard, Faber, 0 571 11519 5,£5.50
Twenty-two stories drawn from the Germanic hero legends, Icelandic sagas and Norse myths, with an excellent and useful foreword. Contains a chilling re-telling by Penelope Farmer of the marvellous legend of Wayland Smith. (See also Weland Smith of the Gods by Ursula Synge, Bodley Head, now out of print.)
Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes
Barbara Leonie Picard, Oxford University Press, 0 19 274513 1, £5.25
An established collection by a well-respected collector. Two clear sections: gods (Odin, Thor, Freya) and heroes. Useful alphabetical list of names with meanings.
Myths of the Norsemen
Roger Lancelyn Green, Puffin, 0 14 03.0464 9, £1.10
Myths and legends linked in one continuing story of the saga of Asgard.
Rosemary Sutcliff, ill. Charles Keeping, Bodley Head, 0 370 01043 4, £3.50; Puffin, 0 14 03.0254 9, 85p
Imaginative and descriptive prose version of the Anglo-Saxon poem. Excellent read aloud; good version for younger juniors.
Kevin Crossley-Holland and Charles Keeping, Oxford University Press, 0 19 279770 0, £4.50
A strong and exciting version by Kevin Crossley-Holland right in the spirit of the original. Begs to be read aloud by all would-be actor teachers. Keeping’s pictures take off from his last encounter with Beowulf in Dragon Slayer. They are more than a match for the story, full of power and feeling. The book is a splendid exercise in counterpoint.