Bookish Discussions · Reviews

The Penguin Book of Norse Myths:

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Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars | Read: 11 February – 12 February, 2018. 

This week, you lucky devils, you’ll be getting three blog posts! I recently read this book and just had to share my thoughts on it. Enjoy!

I have always been curious about Norse mythology (you know, Odin, Thor and Loki), but my interest has peaked since watching the History Channel’s Vikings. Listening to the host of characters talk about such stories had me endlessly researching for a good book on their myths. I came across this re-telling of ‘Edda Prose’ by Kevin Crossley-Holland and ordered it almost immediately. Bound up inside this collection is 32 re-tellings, ‘taking us from the creation of the world through the building of Asgard’s Wall to the final end in Ragnarök’. Inside, you will ‘discover how Thor got his hammer and how Odin lost his eye, the terrible price of binding the wolf Fenrir and why Loki the trickster can never be trusted’. On the whole, this book delivered just that.

The amount of research Crossley-Holland put into this collection really showed. There is a lengthy introduction for those of you wanting to be glued up on what is about to come, in addition to how and why Crossley-Holland is publishing this. Not only that, but considering the book is 276 pages long, one-hundred of those pages are notes (or further research). So, in the grand scheme of things, it seems Crossley-Holland was the perfect candidate for writing this; he knows his stuff. However, I found one major issue with this. He didn’t utilise the potential to make these stories engaging. I know he is re-telling the ancient poetry, so probably wants to stick as close to that as possible, but he could have added to it. Instead of describing them in such dull and monotonous ways, Crossley-Holland could have used more vibrant language to engage me as a reader. This wouldn’t have taken away the authenticity, but would have made it more fun to read.

Most of my issues were a result of this. I enjoyed the first fifteen myths thoroughly; they were fun, utterly ridiculous and truly riveting to read. However, after that fifteenth story, I found myself getting bored. I was constantly flicking through the pages to see when one story would end and a new one would start. I’m not sure if this was Crossley-Holland’s re-telling or if it was the actual myth I wasn’t interested in, but, either way, this wasn’t a good sign. To begin with, I appreciated the eccentric nature of the stories; they completely lacked any sense. However, I grew bored of this after a while. I think I would have gotten on board with the ridiculousness if it was written as a novel. I hate short stories with a passion, so I felt like this hindered my enjoyment a lot.

Despite not liking at least half of it, there were some stories I became really fascinated with. In particular, I enjoyed ‘The Creation’ and ‘Ragnarök’, which are essentially the Vikings’ beliefs on the beginning and end of the world. The former story was described so brutally, it was discomforting to read at times. But this definitely wasn’t a bad thing. Odin, Vili and Ve ‘shaped the Earth from Ymir’s flesh and the mountains from his unbroken bones; from his teeth and jaws and the fragments of his shattered bones they made rocks and boulders and stones’ (4). This is only one tiny fraction of ‘The Creation’ story, but it demonstrates how brilliantly it was described. As someone who is familiar with the Christian’s belief of creation, it was interesting to see how much these two stories differed from one another.

Moreover, the latter story detailed the end of the world. It was utter mayhem, total chaos and, at times, quite frightening. Not only was it fun to read, but it was fun to imagine. Yet again, Crossley-Holland captured it wonderfully: ‘the nine worlds will burn and the gods will die. […The] sun will be dark and there will be no stars in the sky. The earth will sink into the sea’ (175). From this description alone, I felt unnerved. In retrospect, I’m glad I don’t believe in this otherwise I would be so terrified of Ragnarök happening that I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything meaningful. However, it appears the ‘earth will rise again out of the water, fair and green’, which is a nice way of looking at it, right? I also love how Crossley-Holland ended the collection. He quotes straight from ‘Prose Edda’: ‘and now, if you have anything more to ask, I can’t think how you can manage it, for I’ve never heard anyone tell more of the story of the world. Make what use of it you can’. I thought this was a really lovely way to end such a collection.

It’s so strange to think this was a highly esteemed religion amongst the Vikings. They looked to people who were wholly unjust and uncivil, and, when I say that, I mean murderers, sadists and incestuous gods. However, at the same time, this also fascinates me so much. I’m really glad I read this, despite not enjoying it as much as I hoped, because when I’m watching Vikings or Thor (which, by the way, Marvel’s Thor is nothing like the Thor from ‘Prose Edda’), I can appreciate the background a lot more. I would recommend this to people interested in reading up on Norse mythology; it was a simple read, and introduced you to all the main (or relevant) stories. Personally, I just couldn’t connect to it.

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6 thoughts on “The Penguin Book of Norse Myths:

  1. I’ve read that the giant tree which shows up in “avatar” movie was inspired by yggdrasil, the ash tree of the norse tales. This cosmic pillar is a metaphor of the universe intended as an organic being and a complex living system. Which book would you recommend about norse myths? I’ve read “the children of odin” and i liked it but now i’m looking for something more specific that could help me understand Vikings culture better.

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    1. Well, I’ve only read two books concerning Norse myths. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s is good as, it seems, he sticks quite closely to the original poems, but I preferred reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. You could always check out the originals (Prose Edda and Poetic Edda) from Penguin Classics 🙂

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