Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman, W.W. Norton, 2017.
Earlier this year I reviewed Carolyne Larrington’s The Norse Myths, a lavishly illustrated introduction to the Norse myths for a popular audience. While Larrington’s book is more scholarly and objective, Gaiman’s book is laid out as a series of stories; retellings rather than analysis.
Norse myth tends to echo; one story calling to another. There are at least three stories in Norse myth about a young man passing through a wall of flames and other hazards to reach a woman. This would seem to be a straightforward story of a woman sought and won, except that in two of these stories the young man is a stand-in for another, and only one story has a happy ending.
While it’s part of Norse myth that the gods and giants are enemies, it seems that the giantesses were a different story. Odin clearly never met one he didn’t like, and he was far from being the only one to have a fling with one. Even Thor the giant-smasher had an affair with Jarnsaxa. These romances usually resulted in the second-generation gods, such as Thor’s son Magni.
Sometimes, however, the sons of these unions were mortals, or demi-mortals anyway. The Swedish ruling dynasty called the Ynglings and the Norwegian earls of Hladir traced themselves back to the giantesses/goddesses Gerdr and Skadi, respectively.
(This post was inspired by one written by Nancy Marie Brown at God of Wednesday: A Viking Fairy Tale. She in turn was inspired by a question from a reader, and a paper by Takahiro Narikawa. And on it goes.)
Long before I began this blog, just plain long ago in fact, I did a degree in Medieval Studies, with a specialty in English. This taught me how to dig into a text for its meaning, but we rarely considered the political or historical aspects of the texts. In some cases it would have been difficult to do so.
Who wrote Beowulf? We can guess at his (probably his) politics, and what was happening around him while he was writing, but we know very little about him. Even much later texts have similar problems, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. The poet Simon Armitage hypothesized that the author was from northern England, based on some of the words used, but we don’t know for sure.
Women in power in the Middle Ages had a problem. Women weren’t supposed to rule (remember Eve? and St. Paul?). If they did take the throne, they were expected to marry, and their husband would then exercise power. So the choice was simple: marry and lose power, or stay single and keep it, but rule alone and die childless.
The meykongr, or maiden king, romance was born out of this dilemma.