Norse myths have been very popular with fantasy and science fiction writers. Why? I think it’s because of Snorri’s special touch—the wry and sarcastic humor that infuse his tales.
In 2005, for example, Shadow Writer interviewed Neil Gaiman while he was touring for The Anansi Boys. They asked Gaiman if he had a favorite myth. He answered, “I keep going back to the Norse ones because most myths are about people who are in some way cooler and more magical and more wonderful than us, and while the Norse gods probably sort of qualify, they’re all sort of small-minded evil, conniving bastards, except for Thor and he’s thick as two planks.”
Then Gaiman referred to a tale Snorri wrote.
“I still remember the sheer thrill of reading about Thor,” Gaiman said, “and going into this weird cave that they couldn’t make sense of with five branches—a short one and four longer ones—and coming out in the morning from this place on their way to fight the giants…and realizing they’d actually spent the night in this giant’s glove, and going, Okay, we’re off to fight these guys. Right.”
It’s the beginning of the story of the god Thor’s encounter with the giant Utgard-Loki. No other source tells this tale. I think Snorri made it up. I imagine him regaling his friends with it, as they sat around his feast hall at his grand estate of Reyholt in Iceland, sipping horns of mead or ale. Snorri was known for holding extravagant feasts, to which he invited other poets and storytellers. He might have read aloud from his work-in-progress, the Edda. Or he might have told the tale from memory, like an ancient skald.
Here’s how I relate the story in my biography of Snorri, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths:
One day Thor the Thunder-god and Loki the Trickster sailed east across the sea to Giantland. With them was Thor’s servant, a human boy named Thjalfi, who carried Thor’s food bag. They trudged through a dark forest. It had a very Swedish feel (as Giantland often does in Snorri’s books). That night they found no lodgings except one large, empty house. It had a wide front door, a vast central hall, and five side chambers. Thor and his companions made themselves comfortable in the hall. At midnight came a great earthquake. The ground shuddered. The house shook. They heard scary grumblings and groans. Loki and the boy fled into one of the little side chambers, and Thor guarded the doorway, brandishing his hammer against whatever monster was making that noise.
Nothing more happened that night. At dawn Thor saw a man lying asleep at the edge of the forest. Thor clasped on his magic belt and his strength grew. He lifted his hammer—but then the man awoke and stood up. He was so huge that “Thor for once was afraid to strike him,” Snorri writes. Instead, Thor politely asked the giant’s name.
The giant gave a fake one. “I do not need to ask your name,” he said in return. “You are the mighty Thor. But what were you doing in my glove?”
(Here I imagine Snorri pausing, while laughter fills the room. Maybe he gets up and refills his ale horn.)
The giant, Snorri continues, suggested they travel together and offered to carry their food bag in his giant knapsack. After a long day keeping up with giant strides they camped for the night under an oak tree. The giant settled in for a nap. “You take the knapsack and get on with your supper.”
Thor could not untie the knot. He struggled. He fumed. And—giantlike?—he flew into a rage. He grasped his hammer in both hands and smashed the giant on the head.
The giant awoke. “Did a leaf fall on me?”
(Another pause for laughter.)
He went back to sleep.
Thor hit him a second time.
“Did an acorn fall on me?”
(Pause for laughter.)
He went back to sleep.
Thor took a running start, swung the hammer with all his might—
The giant sat up. “Are you awake, Thor? There must be some birds sitting in the tree. All sorts of rubbish has been falling on my head.”
(Pause for laughter.)
The giant showed Thor the road to the castle of Utgard then went on his way.
Thor and Loki and little Thjalfi walked all morning. They reached a castle so huge they “had to bend their heads back to touch their spines” to see the top. Thor tried to open the gate, but couldn’t budge it. They squeezed in through the bars. The door to the great hall stood open. They walked in.
King Utgard-Loki (no relation to the god Loki) greeted them. “Am I wrong in thinking that this little fellow is Thor? You must be bigger than you look.”
It was the rule of the giant’s castle that no one could stay who was not better than everyone else at some art or skill. Hearing this, Loki piped up. He could eat faster than anyone.
The king called for a man named Logi. A trencher of meat was set before the two of them. Each started at one end and ate so fast they met in the middle. Loki had eaten all the meat off the bones, but his opponent, Logi, had eaten meat, bones, and wooden trencher too. Loki lost.
The boy Thjalfi was next. He could run faster than anyone. The king had a course laid out and called up a boy named Hugi. Thjalfi lost.
Thor could drink more than anyone, he claimed. The king got out his drinking horn. It was not terribly big, though it was rather long. Thor took great gulps, guzzling until he ran out of breath, but the level of liquid hardly changed. He tried twice more. The third time, he saw a little difference.
He called for more contests.
“Well,” said the king, “you could try to pick up my cat.”
Thor seized it around the belly and heaved—but only one paw came off the ground. “Just let someone come out and fight me!” he raged, “Now I am angry!”
The king’s warriors thought it demeaning to fight such a little guy, so he called out his old nurse, Elli.
“There is not a great deal to be told about it,” Snorri writes. “The harder Thor strained in the wrestling, the firmer she stood. Then the old woman started to try some tricks, and then Thor began to lose his footing, and there was some very hard pulling, and it was not long before Thor fell on one knee.”
Utgard-Loki stopped the contest, but allowed them to stay the night anyway.
The next day the king treated Thor and his companions to a feast. When they were ready to go home, he accompanied them out of the castle and said he would now reveal the truth. He himself had been the giant they met along their way; he had prepared these illusions for them.
When Thor swung his hammer—the leaf, the acorn, the rubbish—Utgard-Loki had placed a mountain in the way: It now had three deep valleys. At the castle, they had competed against fire (the name Logi literally means “fire”), thought (Hugi), and old age (Elli). The end of the drinking horn had been sunk in the sea—Thor’s three great drafts had created the tides. The cat? That was the Midgard Serpent which circles the entire earth.
Outraged at being tricked, Thor raised his mighty hammer once more. But he blinked and Utgard-loki and his castle disappeared.
“Thick as two planks,” indeed.
Why do I think Snorri made up this story of Thor’s visit to Utgard-Loki? A poet does refer to Thor hiding in a giant’s glove—but it’s a different giant. Another mentions his struggle with the knot of a giant’s food-sack. A kenning for old age refers to Thor wrestling with Elli—but it appears in Egil’s Saga, which Snorri probably wrote, so he may be quoting himself. Otherwise, the journey and the contests are unknown.
I think the brilliant character of the giant Utgard-Loki, with his wry attitude toward that little fellow Thor who “must be bigger than he looks,” is a stand-in for Snorri himself. They share the same humorous tolerance of the gods. There is very little sense throughout the Edda that these were gods to be feared or worshipped, especially not the childish, naïve, blustering, weak-witted, and fallible Thor who is so easily deluded by Utgard-Loki’s wizardry of words. What god in his right mind would wrestle with a crone named “Old Age”? Or expect his servant-boy to outrun “Thought”?
It also fits with why Snorri wrote the Edda: to teach the 14-year-old king of Norway about Viking poetry. This story has a moral: See how foolish you would look, Snorri is saying to young King Hakon, if you didn’t understand that words can have more than one meaning, or that names can be taken literally? The story of Utgard-loki is, at heart, a story about why poetry matters.
Nancy Marie Brown is the author of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, a biography of the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain and writer, Snorri Sturluson. She blogs at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com.