“An awe-inspiring work of reconstruction” – The Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland

There are other books on Norse Myths, but possibly none quite as thorough as this one. Kevin Crossley-Holland is a poet and translator and for this edition has apparently gone right to the source, translating and piecing together fragments of original manuscripts to attempt a complete reconstruction. Somewhere between a story book and a reference book, the detailed notes section is only slightly shorter than the part dedicated to the myths themselves.

The myths in their current forms date from the 10th century onwards and take the form of epic poems, apparently elegantly constructed and full of rhyme and word play, written mostly in old Germanic (we’re talking pre-Christian Scandinavia and Iceland). The universe at this time, according to the Norse worldview, consisted of nine worlds on three levels, housing variously gods, giants, people, elves, dwarves and dead ones.

The sequence opens with the creation (the first man and woman were sweated out of the armpit of an evil frost giant) and ends with the apocalypse (Ragnarok). The stories feature old favourites such as Thor, Odin and Freya as well as lesser known players such as the trickster god Loki, whose idea of a laugh is sneaking into his fellow god’s bedrooms at night and cutting off their wife’s hair, and whose son is a wolf so dangerous that he has to be bound with a special fetter created by dwarves:

‘But what is it made of?’ asked Odin, fingering the fetter.
‘Six things,’ said Skirnir. ‘The sound a cat makes when it moves; a woman’s beard; the roots of a mountain; the sinews of a bear; the breath of a fish; and a bird’s spittle.’

Being as we’re talking mythology rather than fairy tales, and this is a scholarly edition rather than a children’s book, there is work required. The notes section, if you have the discipline to read it (in the style of a YA make your own adventure story, ‘now turn to page 204!’), contains loads of interesting context, including where the myths coincide with Greek and Irish folklore. Occasionally and beautifully, we do venture into folklore territory:

“Every day the two stallions dragged the sun across the sky, and Day himself rode at ease round the world. But then Night tightened the reins of her mount, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from his bit.”

However the poetic moments are all too few and far between. I’m probably being unfair (the author comments more than once on the impossibility of adequate translation), but how disappointing, when wrestling with sometimes clunky language, to read of the ‘elegant construction’, ’rapid, unfailingly sharp’ characterisation and ‘beautifully judged’ tone of the originals. I’ll leave you with one that made it through the language barrier.

“They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand.”

Any Cop?: An awe-inspiring work of reconstruction, slightly challenging to read but utterly fascinating.

 

Lucy Chatburn

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