A professor of Medieval European Literature at Oxford, Carolyne Larrington is a translator of a key medieval Norse source, The Poetic Edda, and the author of Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones.
She is, therefore, eminently erudite yet wonderfully imaginative enough to lead any reader through the magical realm of Norse mythology while keeping in touch with the real world.
The writer shows how the myths were pilfered and adapted centuries later by Wagner and Tolkien, citing specific examples – who knew that in 1926, Tolkien formed a niche literary society called the Coal-biters after the indolent youths of Norse mythology?
Where did they come from?
The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes is the fourth installment in a series published by Thames & Hudson. This follows volumes on Celtic, Egyptian, and Greek & Roman mythical histories.
As the writer concludes, it's a field that is currently top of history's hit parade, thanks to the Vikings TV series, Game of Thrones, and death metal.
The Norse Myths should benefit both the curious beginner and seasoned enthusiast. Carolyne Larrington neither talks down to one nor shows off her knowledge to the other.
A series of informative sidebars on subjects ranging from blood-eagle punishments to secret rites allow her to summarize complex concepts in a few brief lines, just enough to equip the reader with the know-how to better understand the stories being described on the following pages.
Because none of this is clear or concrete, of course, most of our knowledge of Norse mythology is gleaned from the works of Icelandic wordsmith Snorri Sturluson, composed in the early 1200s and mainly reliant on oral tradition.
However, as Larrington points out in an early passage, "It seems likely that there were some pre-existing written collections of mythological and heroic poetry that Snorri drew upon."
Snorri, writing as a medieval Christian, also sought to explain away some of the more unsavory aspects of the Vikings' pagan past.
He was also inventive – after all, what could be more complex than trying to describe the origins of the world we live in? – but typically, today's writer picks apart the dense Icelandic text to offer the essence of what we need to understand.
Old Norse poetry had two primary forms: skaldic, a system of metaphorical riddles, and Eddic, akin to the alliterative meter of Old English and Old High German, and the one used by Snorri himself, hence the name.
Defining the properties of a specific Norse god or goddess and unraveling the relevance of a myth associated with them is an imprecise art.
It is also one that artists themselves have been inspired to depict since the Viking era.
The book relies heavily on beautiful illustrations, either in the form of close-up photographs of the picture stones of Gotland detailing the multi-headed monsters of lore or in the drawings of Wagner and Tolkien's contemporaries such as Arthur Rackham, W. G. Collingwood and, most of all, Danish engraver Lorenz Frølich.
Through an exploration of Old Norse poetry and sagas, the book unravels the complex stories of Odin, Yggdrasill, and the impending doom of ragnarök. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Fate, doom, and incest
Larrington defines the two distinct groups of gods and goddesses, the Æsir and the Vanir, whose eventual collision seems inevitable.
Conflict is ever-present, in fact, between gods and giants, fathers and sons, gods and humans.
Another leitmotif is the impending doom of Ragnarök, and the devastating combustion of the world tree, Yggdrasill, an apocalyptic event that may be linked, the reader now understands, to actual volcanic explosions in Iceland.
The central figure of Óðinn (Odin), the leader of the gods, is driven to his bitter fate – often atop his eight-legged flying horse Sleipnir – by a quest for wisdom, although many temptations lead him astray before the ultimate finale.
The writer isn't afraid to bring in the sexuality prevalent in Norse myths, even incest, topics she may have tackled in one of her first books, The Feminist Companion to Mythology.
We are introduced quite early on to the pagan temples of Sweden and the sacrificial rites of humans and animals by hanging or drowning as a likeness of Odin and his fellow deities looked on.
Mythology must have been a serious business for those who believed in it.
Humor isn't too far away, either. We learn that Forseti was "the go-to god for legal difficulties" and, in a bullet-point breakdown of the incestuous Njörðr, we find that his attributes were: "Exceptionally clean feet. Not fond of the mountains".
Carolyne Larrington is a natural communicator, a recent presenter of a Guardian workshop on Norse mythology, and the force behind a BBC Radio 4 series, The Lore of the Land, which explored British folklore.
She needs all her skills here to untangle the medieval meters of myth-making employed by an Icelandic master a millennium ago. It's a task she handles lightly, entertainingly, and informatively.
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