Oct 26 2011 6:00pm

The Quiet Sense of Foreboding That is Norse Mythology

A few years ago, when I was working up the basic story line for my new series which begins with Black Blade Blues, I wanted to do something different from the other urban fantasy I’d been reading. How could I stand out in the crowd? What I needed was to work with a mythos with that was under-represented in the field.

I’ve always been fascinated with mythos and religion. I remember reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as a kid and finding every bit of it fascinating. I especially loved how for the longest time, we as a species had gods that looked and acted just like us. I went through different phases of favorite mythos. They each had an appeal. Norse mythology, however, stuck with me as I began to think toward my own stories.

Norse mythology is so prevalent in our culture even the days of the week are named for Norse gods: Wednesday is Woden’s (Odin) Day, Thursday is Thor’s Day, Friday is Freya’s Day.

Odin and his crew were just like the rest of us with a few extraordinary exceptions. They got married, had kids, screwed around, got into fights and drank too much. They suffered from hubris and vanity among the many sins and vices portrayed in the epics and songs that have carried down from ancient times.

I’m a lover of story. Mostly SFF, with a bent toward fantasy. Of all the authors I’ve read in my life, Tolkien holds the top place in my heart. If the adventures on Barsoom and throughout Hyboria were my gateway drugs into fantasy; Middle-earth was where I stepped up to the hard stuff. Tolkien studied the lore and incorporated it into his story. Gandalf is Odin. The dwarves from The Hobbit are called out in the epics. Middle Earth is peppered with bits of Norse mythology. Tolkien took something he loved and worked it into his own vision.

It was time for me to do the same.

In the legends, Odin dresses up like a beggar and goes into the world to see what his people are up to. If he happens to bed a fair maiden here and there, more the better. Thor is the strongest of the lot, but he’s gullible and easily tricked by Loki. Loki, on the other hand, suffers from both envy and vanity. They are beautiful and flawed, anxious, melancholy, vengeful, jealous and loving. They are a bundle of emotional turmoil and foibles that mimic the people who worshipped them.

All of which makes them perfect story fodder.

I needed to flavor my characters with the nuances that permeated the lore. Sarah and her friends are classical heroes in the epic sense. They struggle in a world not of their making, fighting horrible odds, against opponents more powerful than they. How could I lose?

I listen to music when I write. Led Zeppelin has one song, “No Quarter,” that puts me into the mindset of the people who created these gods. I imagine the cold and the despair of those who wait for their loved ones to return. How the warriors who are fighting to get back home despair that they’ll never see their loved ones again. It’s a compelling and heart-breaking song. It reminds me that not too long ago we lived huddled together, praying we’d survive the winter wolves and the next snow storm.

Skalds from time-out-of-mind have told stories to get people through the long black nights. Imagine a world without the written word. Before television or movies, before electricity, running water or penicillin. Then imagine that there were things in the woods outside your hut that wanted to kill you and eat you. Now, it’s winter and the food’s running short. It’s another month until spring and you are going stir crazy locked in the hut where at least the wolves won’t eat you and there’s some heat.

This is where being a story teller makes you one of the most powerful and important people in existence. That’s who I want to be when I grow up — a skald that keeps the night at bay.

I want to instill in my readers a sense of that cold reality that permeates Norse mythology. I want them to see the world through the eyes of those who remember the days of tribulation and those who are discovering the harsh truth. It is a world of endless and frequently tragic possibilities.


J. A. Pitts resides in the Pacific Northwest where he hunts dragons, trolls and other beasties among the coffee shops and tattoo parlors.

Hampus Eckerman
1. Hampus Eckerman
Your not alone. You will find them in Robert Jordans books also. Rand is Tyr (al Thor). As him, he looses his hand. Matt is Oden with his lost eye and strategic mastery (Oden is the war god) and hanged on the tree of life, Yggdrasil. Perrin is Thor with his hammer. You will find a lot of examples.

The way to read this myths is to keep a way as much as possible from the horrible Marvel-version. Instead, go to the Danish author Madsen and his version of the stories in the comic book Valhalla (the home of the gods).

These are also available as one movie based on the story of the Journey to Utgaarda-Loki, one of the most famous stories. I can be found translated to english on Youtube.
Steve Taylor
2. teapot7
I used to love Norse legends when I was a kid - them and Russian fairy tales. I read through them with my daughter a while ago (she lapped them up) and was struck by how incoherent their cosmology was - it's the most jumbled bundle of contradictions, memory lapses and missing explanations.

I still love them though.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
@teapot7: The inconsistencies are mostly because we don't really know what the original Norse mythology was. Most of the sources where we get the legends are from the 13-16th centuries - ages after the Norse were doing their tromping around, just like how there are a ton of inconsisitencies with Greek mythology. It's also why much of Norse mythology matches up so well with Christianity. Part of that is because Christians were writing down oral stories and modifying them to fit their world view, and the other part of that is that they were skewing Norse mythology to make the pagans more comfortable with Christianity (like how they moved Jesus' birthday to Christmas to match with the solstice).
Hampus Eckerman
4. a-j
Kevin Crossley-Hollands' The Norse Myths takes bits and pieces from the various sources and puts them into one continuous narrative while Poul Anderson does a neat re-telling of one of the tales in Hrolf Kraki's Saga while producing his own story set in the world of the Norse myths, The Broken Sword. All recommended.
As so often with mythology and legends, Roger Lancelyn Green's books are an excellent gateway. Myths of the Northmen is his one on the Norse legends. Written for children but give an excellent feel for the tales and will let you know if you want to move onto Crossley-Holland's more lusty version.
A warning though. I found that going to the source somewhat lessened LOTR for me, though not The Hobbit oddly enough. Probably just me.
Steve Taylor
5. teapot7
@Milo1313 - a fair point indeed, and I was aware of both the paucity of our sources for the Norse legends and their Christian connection. Of course we can't be sure the originals were any more coherent than what we've got :)

It's a bit different with the Greek legends though, as they can be cross checked against indisputably correct historical sources such as Xena Warrior Princess.
Mike Conley
6. NomadUK
One of the great uses of Norse mythology in SFF is L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's The Roaring Trumpet, in which the hero projects himself into the world of Norse myth on the eve of Ragnarok. I fondly remember reading this as a teen; it's a great story.

(And I'll just mention Lest Darkness Fall, which has nothing to do with any of this, but is also by de Camp and is utterly brilliant.)
Hampus Eckerman
7. Tor Ivar
Fun reading :-)

One comment on days. Tuesday is Ty's day, one of the goddesses.
Also there are serious theories that Odin came from Asov (Åsgård)
(long, long before they became mere myths) by the Black Sea, and decided to move north as the Roman empire was threathening his lands ...

The late and famous Thor Heyerdahl (Ra, Kon Tiki etc.) wrote about these theories in one of his (if not the) last book(s).

Other sources are the norwegian-icelandic Snorre Sturlasson who wrote down a lot of the Kings' Sagas, one book by a captured areabian prince (from appx the 9th century I think) that the film "The 13th Warrior" is based on (with a somewhat "liberal" attachment to the original story.)

Also the Russian empire were built by swedish vikings, the name Russland denotes "Rurik's Land", see theories in wiki for who or whom (plural) Rurik was or were ...

Tor Ivar Nilsen
Oslo, Norway
Clark Myers
8. ClarkEMyers
David Drake has some interesting things to say about using such myths in his own books after a visit to Iceland. Interesting, given the hard tenor of much of Drake's writing, to read that he felt it necessary to make some characters more explicitly unpleasant people than in the remaining sources. This to make today's reader accept some of the collective punishment/revenge handed out in the course of the story.

For the Greeks certainly, and for the Norse likely, some of the differences are regional differences - there is an aspect of myth that varies much like history with changing times and places though I don't know a good explicit history of changing Norse mythology to go with historiography for changing views of history. Grave's the Greek Myths shows a way for Greek mythology in very accessible form but like the White Goddess from the same source is itself much influenced by mythological thinking.
Hampus Eckerman
9. Grettir
Vilkat godh geyja: grey thykkjumk Freyja
I don't wish to blaspheme the gods: but I think Freyja's a bitch

You should be able to find a copy of Sweet's Icelandic Primer in PDF format on the Interwebs and indulge yourself in learning to read :

Thorr er asunna framstr, sa er kalladhr er Asa-thorr edha Oku-thorr; hann er sterkastr allra gudhanna ok manna.

It won't necessarily make you understand the stories any better - but on the other hand, it gets you safely away from the Marvel comic series Thor, and you can meditate on just what sort of world gave rise to the worship of "the foremost of the gods, the strongest of all the gods and men, called Thunder-of-the-Gods, Thunder-of-the-Chariot".

and nice to know that I'm not the only habitue of this site who knows about Rus and Rusland. "rus" as far as I know, was what the Slavic tribesfolk heard for Old Norse raudhr = "Red", "Reddish", etc., and they it seems took a nickname for a given name.
Hampus Eckerman
10. Phelps
"It reminds me that not too long ago we lived huddled together, praying we’d survive the winter wolves and the next snow storm."

I don't think it was quite that darkly romantic. I think people in the middle ages were largely hardened against our ideas of sorrow and apprehension. At least I find it hard to combine this notion with their draconic, boundlessly cruel way of treating each other (sawing in two, anyone? Come on, it's fun) whenever possible. But I also don't think that's just the way they were back then. I'm reminded of this because some folks wouldn't mind those things even today, showing that sensitivity for the finer points of life is nothing to be taken for granted. I wonder what right and order are worth if the punitive measures are a billion times as bad as crimes or simple aberrant behaviour. But that's human nature for you.
Anyway, not really on topic, sorry. (It's because of some special documentaries at Halloween time.)
Hampus Eckerman
11. Wizard Clip
@Hampus: I haven't read Jordan, but I'd assume that his Perrin is named for Perun, the Slavic Thunder God (Perun also a war god, incorporates elements of Odin's persona).

@Tor Ivar: Ibn Fadlan is the Arab diplomat you're refering to. Michael Chrichton used his writings (and Ibn Fadlan himself) in his novel The Eaters of the Dead, which became the film The 13th Warrior. This is essentially a de-mythologized Beowulf, and, despite its gaping plot holes, a better version of the story than that CGI version of a few years ago.

I'm surprised there's so little love for Marvel's Thor. Sure, the comics take a lot of liberties with the source material, but curious readers will seek out the more "authentic" sources, so I think the comics are an effective gateway. I know those crappy Hercules cartoons from the 60s started me on my mythology obsession. Olympiaaaaa....
Hugh Arai
12. HArai
teapot7@5: Warn a person! You owe me a keyboard...

Wizard Clip@11: Regarding "gateway" examples, I think it can go either way. I know people who will probably never get past that horrible Disney musical movie version of Hercules, because that's all they've seen and their interests have moved elsewhere now.
Hampus Eckerman
13. Hampus Eckerman
@Wizard Clip, it is different for me as a swede. I've grown up with the authentic version. Marvels version was nasty surprise for me later on. Thank you for the information on Perrins name. Just another piece that fits neatly into the puzzle.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment