Can an encyclopedia ever be considered a good read?
For those who didn't grow up reading encyclopedias for fun, the experience can be quite different. The current author remembers a classmate who did – you can imagine how much fun he was in the playground.
These great works of scholarship are generally treated as having about the same enjoyment as listening to nails being scraped down a blackboard on a loop for several hours.
However, encyclopedias are invaluable works of education and erudition when used for the discerning reader or scholar.
They have been useful long before you could simply just type things into Google, and one suspects they will continue to be in use long after Googling ceases to exist, centuries into the future...
John Lindow, in Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, offers up what is surely an excellent resource for beginners and seasoned Viking enthusiasts but feels like a slightly jarred tome.
To be fair, the book is now over two decades old. So much new research on, thinking about, and analysis of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) has flowed under the metaphorical academic bridge.
When it was published back in 2001, it was hailed as the go-to guide for the study of Norse mythology.
If this mythology is, as some academics have suggested, the mythology of names, then this book is great.
Reading texts written eight centuries ago about real and imagined characters, events, and concepts that date back another four or five centuries, if not longer, can confuse the heck out of us 21st-century mortals, including this author.
Lindow not only details the major and minor figures of Norse mythology but also examines the Viking Age's broader historical backdrop and its mythological roots in Indo-European traditions. Illustration: The Viking Herald
An offering worthy of the Norse Gods
Lindow's solution to this confusion is the production of a clear and concise encyclopedia of the major Norse deities and related concepts, including the whole cast of characters, from Ægir to Yngvi, and everyone (and I mean everyone) in between.
In an era where typing something into Google gives us unlimited information in microseconds, Lindow's effort in compiling an encyclopedia that is both informative and accessible should be commended.
Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs reminds us that there is great satisfaction and reward – in an intellectual and pleasurable sense – for turning to a scholar's carefully crafted written creation.
In addition to his deep knowledge of all major and minor Norse beings, creatures, and deities, Lindow also offers the reader a broader understanding of the Viking Age.
He delves into the Indo-European roots of Norse mythology and explores the concept of cyclical time in Viking sagas and stories.
His writing style strikes a balance between academic rigor and readability, often making complex concepts approachable without sacrificing scholarly accuracy.
However, despite the book's wealth of knowledge that could even leave wise Odin dumbstruck, one major flaw is its flow.
Now, as mentioned, people often don't read encyclopedias for pleasure as they, by their nature, have no narrative flow, no gripping yarn to pull readers in.
Furthermore, your average reader (i.e., the non-academic) may find the depth of information overwhelming. Lindow's use of alphabetical order adds to this stilted and fragmented flow.
Yet all of this is frankly nitpicking. The Guide stands as a commendable handbook that navigates the complexities of Norse myths and gods with scholarly rigor and engaging prose.
This is a valuable and insightful work that helps unlock the mysteries of gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs in the thrilling world of Norse mythology.
You can find Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs by John Lindow, available for purchase on Amazon here.
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