Gloomy/Cheerful

Tom Shippey

  • From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Heather O’Donoghue
    Tauris, 224 pp, £20.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 1 84511 357 5

Norse myths are probably more familiar than classical ones in the modern world, perhaps even more familiar than the Old Testament stories Europeans were once brought up on. That is remarkable when one considers the almost vanished literature on which our knowledge of the myths is based. We would know virtually nothing of the tradition of Eddic poetry, with its stories of Thor and Odin and Balder and the giants, if Bishop Brynjolfr Sveinsson had not found the one manuscript that contains most of them in an Icelandic farmhouse in 1662 and sent it as a curiosity to the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Our other main source is the prose account, to some extent based on the poems, which the unlucky Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) wrote as a guide to obsolete poetic diction a few years before his enemies cut him down as he hid in his own cellar. The Dane Peder Resen translated it into Latin in 1665, although interest in such subjects had been stirring in Scandinavia, as Heather O’Donoghue points out, for a hundred years before that. Just the same, Shakespeare, for instance, can’t have known anything at all about Norse myth. Hamlet may, as O’Donoghue claims, go back to the story of Frodi’s mill and the giantess-slaves who grind at a magic stone there, as told in one of the few Eddic poems outside the bishop’s Codex Regius, and Hamlet’s feigned madness may have something to do with the many riddle and wisdom contests to be found in Old Norse; but by Shakespeare’s time these had long been overlaid by Latin versions, their originals lost or forgotten. Siward in Macbeth does sound very Norse, with his gruff refusal to mourn his son – ‘Had he his hurts before? . . . Why then, God’s soldier be he’ – but Vikings did not have the patent on stoicism. Until about 1600 no English-speaker showed any awareness of Norse myth: the tradition was dead.

Things are very different these days, now that one-eyed Odins, trickster Lokis and hammer-wielding Thors are fantasy and comic-book clichés. Why have these stories broken out of their academic and antiquarian milieu? One secret of their appeal is surely that, in a manner which has always been seen as typically Anglo-Scandinavian, they are deeply gloomy, in a cheerful sort of way. The most striking aspect of Norse mythology is that it is fundamentally hopeless. Odin busily harvests warriors from the battlefield using his Valkyries, the ‘choosers of the slain’, so that he can host them in Valhalla. One of these warriors, according to the poem ‘Eiríksmál’, was Eirik Bloodaxe, King of Norway and latterly of York, killed by his enemies at Stainmore (on the modern A66 between Scotch Corner and Penrith). The poem is thought to have been commissioned by his widow. Odin’s top hero, Sigmund, asks why all this is happening now, and Odin answers: ‘Because it’s not known for sure. The grey wolf looks at the seat of the gods.’ What is not known for sure is when Ragnarök will come, the battle at the end of the world when the wolf Fenrir, along with other monsters and giants, will challenge gods and men. Odin wants his first team available and in training for the day. Not that it will make any difference, for it is known that the gods and heroes will lose, Thor dead from poison spat by the Midgard-Serpent, Odin swallowed by Fenrir, Frey killed by the fire-giant Surt. There may be a new world after the destruction, but there is no indication that Sigmund and Eirik and the rest of Odin’s einheriar will be part of it, let alone the rest of us. Much of the rest of the mythology has the same grim feel. We are not in a divina commedia, and what drives the sun and moon across the sky is not divine love or the primum mobile, but two wolves called Sköll and Hati chasing them. One day they’ll catch up; eclipses show they’ve nearly managed.

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