by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
New York Review Children’s Collection, 1967
interests: mythology, magic, Scandinavia, Norse myths, gods, monsters, dragons, creation myths, war
also by these author/illustrators: Foxy, d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, d’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls, Abraham Lincoln
A simple and compelling presentation of the ancient Norse myths, which were first written down in the 10th and 11th centuries. The d’Aulaires put these stories into modern language and illuminate them with monumental, entrancing illustrations. And to their great credit they do not shy away from the inherent violence, gore, and all-out weirdness of the old tales. From the first frost giant Ymir spawning offspring in the warmth of his armpits and toes, to a ghoulish ship covered in finger- and toenail clippings, this book is full of captivating oddities.
And humour as well. The comedy is broad and mocking – Thor, the fiercest and mightiest of the gods must dress as a blushing bride, and in another tale wrestle a tiny old lady (unsuccessfully). There are fearsome trolls, magical talismans, maidens who cry real golden tears, fearsome valkyries, sea nymphs, gnomes and dragons. And the trickster to end all tricksters, Loki, who charms even Odin but plays such mind-numbingly cruel tricks on the other gods that he brings about their final cataclysmic destruction.
There’s also a colourful creation theory, as Odin forms the earth from the very bones, teeth and blood of his grandfather. On the overleaf of the book is a marvellous diagram of the nine Norse worlds, maelstroms of fire, ice and fog. The eventual downfall of the gods was decreed from their very creation – even as they play chess on the peaceful plains of Ida, in the depths of Niflheim the dragon Nidhogg gnaws relentlessly as the root of the world tree.
In his excellent Preface Michael Chabon describes how he discovered this book as a child and fell in love with it:
Here the gods themselves are no better or worse, in the moral sense, than humans. They have the glint of courage, of truthfulness, loyalty, wit, and in them maybe it shines a little brighter, as their darkness throws deeper shadows. … Moreover (and to my eight-year-old imagination this more than anything endeared them to me) the Norse gods are mortal. … Gods whose flaws of character – pride, unfaithfulness, cruelty, deception, seduction – while no worse than those of Jehovah or the Olympians, will one day, and they know this, prove their undoing.
Chabon rightly claims that the “spectacular and quirky” artwork of the d’Aulaires is perfectly suited to the Norse world, “with its odd blend of gorgeousness and violence, its wild prodigies and grim humor.”
I was excited to revisit this book, one of the favourites of my childhood. Like Michael Chabon, I discovered it (along with d’Aulaires’ Greek Myths) in my elementary school library around the age of eight or nine, and took it home so many times they should have just retired its dog-eared card. As troubled as I was by the awful doings of Loki, and how he caused the death of gentle Balder, the book was just too fascinating to put down. And I was transfixed by the double-page illustration of Odin and the Valkyries riding through a stormy sky, plucking worthy warriors from the field of battle.
For any child entranced by the complex morality and icy violence of the Nordic myths, this book should provide many years of rereading and contemplation.
Michael Chabon’s Preface is definitely worth a read, for thoughts on the lessons that a child can take away from ancient myths. The d’Aulaires also included a “Reader’s Companion”, or index at the end – a guide to the pronunciations of names and places and where they can be found in the book.