Friday, November 11, 2016

The Children of Odin, The Book of Northern Myths, by Padraic Colum

If you follow my blog, you know I have a predilection for myths, legends, and ancient stories involving heroes and their various virtues and vices. This has been a passion of mine for decades. It might have to do with the primal elements involved in such tales – the pristine condition of the earth, its inherent beauty untainted by electric lines and smoke stacks, the clarity of good versus evil often in the form of archetypes, as well as the courage displayed in the face of overwhelming odds without the amenities of technology or modern conveniences to aid the good guys and gals in their struggle. Then there's the bonus of the mystical, the miraculous, the supernatural, and, most importantly, the wisdom and lessons learned we often don't find in the modern novel.

This Public Domain Book, which I downloaded for free from Amazon.com, quenches many of those thirsts. The author Colum, a poet and a playwright, was awarded the Regina Medal in 1961 for his “distinguished contribution in children's literature.”

First published in 1920 and later reissued in 1962, this book contains the Norse Sagas, a collection of the Scandinavian myths. Stories of the gods of Asgard – Odin, the All-Father; Thor and his mighty hammer Miolnir; Loki, the trickster; Iduna and her shining apples of immortality; Sif's golden hair; Prometheus, the jar (or box, depending on which version of the tale you prefer) of plagues Pandora uncorked (though this is really a Greek myth, not a Scandinavian one), as well as the stories of the Giants, the Valkyries, and heroes such as Sigard and others. Their mighty deeds, their crimes, greed, deceits, courage, cruelty, etc. comprise a cycle of cautionary tales, full of grandiose events.

As with many world myths, a ritualistic pattern abounds; the number three appears frequently: three temptations, three trials, three days, three choices, three attempts, and so on. We likewise find this recurring series of numbers in Greek mythology as well as in The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, not to mention the stories of Gilgamesh. Curiously, the numbers three, five, seven, and nine pervade many world myths and ancient stories. I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis who wrote, and I'm paraphrasing here of course, that world religions and myths don't conflict with one another but rather allude to a single Author preparing us for what would ultimately become the greatest story ever told, namely the story of Jesus of the New Testament.

In fact, early in the cycle, the reader is told that the Gods won't endure forever. A foreboding about their demise is made clear long before we immerse ourselves in their tales of grandeur and might. For that reason, the stories assume a precious, fleeting, transitory tone. These Gods and their concerns will pass away. What's more, and this is the more interesting element, allusions to a heaven beyond the Norse Gods recurs. This heaven is never described, apart from saying that it's some thing or some place “that Surtur's flames would not reach.” And the reader can't help but come away with an impression of the transcendent, something set apart and superior to the often frivolous, petty squabbling these lesser gods fall prey to. Bulfinch puts it this way. “Odin is frequently called Alfdaur (All-father), but this name is sometimes used in a way that shows that the Scandinavians had an idea of a deity superior to Odin, uncreated and eternal.” Again, C.S. Lewis alluded to something similar in his Narnia Chronicles. I think it was Prince Caspian in which Aslan tells the Pevensie children that their dealings with him in Narnia will make it easier for them to recognize Him in their own world.

The format is reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, in which one story introduces another. In this case, one great tale links dozens of smaller ones. As an aside, reading these stories and coming across some of the place names and personalities, I couldn't help but notice what was bound to have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien and his books The Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings. The Norse Vidar vs. Tolkien's Valar, Asgard vs. Isengard, the Dwarves and their covetous preoccupation with treasure, the capricious elves. Even the name Gimli appears in the Norse saga, though only as a thing “that was untouched by Surtur's fire.” (Surtur is a giant with a flaming sword who would aid the other Giants in ultimately toppling the Gods and their abode in Asgard.)

While this collection of extraordinary characters doing sensational things is lots of fun to read, fairy-talesque happenings abound, many of which defy not only logic but logistics. Still, these are wonderful tellings both young and old can enjoy. Four out of five stars. PG

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The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

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