Surviving Twenty Something

11 Books to Read if You Love Norse Mythology

BooksDanna Rowan
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For me, there is something deeply compelling about the Norse myths that other systems of mythology don't have in quite the same way; maybe it's the cold, dark, slightly mysterious North, maybe it's how the Gods often seem more human than deity— petty, sneaky, funny, loving, and ultimately, flawed. Like some overgrown dysfunctional family. 

So naturally, once I got a taste for Norse mythology, I couldn't help but go after more, reading retellings and adaptations, books inspired by Norse myths, books about Viking history, and about the sources we have for the Norse tales. Here are some of my favourites.

 
 

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1. The Gospel of Loki

Joanne M. Harris

 

The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods - retold from the point of view of the world's ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki's recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.

 

2. The Age of the Vikings

Anders Winroth

The Vikings maintain their grip on our imagination, but their image is too often distorted by myth. It is true that they pillaged, looted, and enslaved. But they also settled peacefully and traveled far from their homelands in swift and sturdy ships to explore. The Age of the Vikings tells the full story of this exciting period in history. Drawing on a wealth of written, visual, and archaeological evidence, Anders Winroth captures the innovation and pure daring of the Vikings without glossing over their destructive heritage. He not only explains the Viking attacks, but also looks at Viking endeavors in commerce, politics, discovery, and colonization, and reveals how Viking arts, literature, and religious thought evolved in ways unequaled in the rest of Europe. The Age of the Vikings sheds new light on the complex society, culture, and legacy of these legendary seafarers.

 

3. The Poetic Edda

After the terrible conflagration of Ragnarok, the earth rises serenely again from the ocean, and life is renewed. The Poetic Edda begins with The Seeress's Prophecy which recounts the creation of the world, and looks forward to its destruction and rebirth. In this great collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, the exploits of gods and humans are related. The one-eyed Odin, red-bearded Thor, Loki the trickster, the lovely goddesses and the giants who are their enemies walk beside the heroic Helgi, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the shield-maiden, and the implacable Gudrun.

 

4. the prose edda

Snorri Sturlusson

Written in Iceland a century after the close of the Viking Age, The Prose Edda is the source of most of what we know of Norse mythology. Its tales are peopled by giants, dwarves, and elves, superhuman heroes and indomitable warrior queens. Its gods live with the tragic knowledge of their own impending destruction in the cataclysmic battle of Ragnarok. Its time scale spans the eons from the world’s creation to its violent end. This robust new translation captures the magisterial sweep and startling psychological complexity of the Old Icelandic original.

 

5. Song of the Vikings

Nancy Marie Brown

An Indie Next pick for December 2012, Song of the Vikings brings to life Snorri Sturluson, wealthy chieftain, wily politician, witty storyteller, and the sole source of Viking lore for all of Western literature. Tales of one-eyed Odin, Thor and his mighty hammer, the trickster Loki, and the beautiful Valkyries have inspired countless writers, poets, and dreamers through the centuries, including Richard Wagner, JRR Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman, and author Nancy Marie Brown brings alive the medieval Icelandic world where it all began. She paints a vivid picture of the Icelandic landscape, with its colossal glaciers and volcanoes, steaming hot springs, and moonscapes of ash, ice, and rock that inspired Snorri's words, and led him to create unforgettable characters and tales. Drawing on her deep knowledge of Iceland and its history and first-hand reading of the original medieval sources, Brown gives us a richly textured narrative, revealing a spellbinding world that continues to fascinate.

 

6. Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki—son of a giant—blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman—difficult with his beard and huge appetite—to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir—the most sagacious of gods—is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

 

7. American Gods

Neil Gaiman

The storm was coming....

Shadow spent three years in prison, keeping his head down, doing his time. All he wanted was to get back to the loving arms of his wife and to stay out of trouble for the rest of his life. But days before his scheduled release, he learns that his wife has been killed in an accident, and his world becomes a colder place. On the plane ride home to the funeral, Shadow meets a grizzled man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A self-styled grifter and rogue, Wednesday offers Shadow a job. And Shadow, a man with nothing to lose, accepts.

But working for the enigmatic Wednesday is not without its price, and Shadow soon learns that his role in Wednesday's schemes will be far more dangerous than he ever could have imagined. 

All around them a storm of epic proportions threatens to break. Soon Shadow and Wednesday will be swept up into a conflict as old as humanity itself. For beneath the placid surface of everyday life a war is being fought -- and the prize is the very soul of America.

 

8. myths of the pagan north

Christopher Abram 

As the Vikings began to migrate overseas as raiders or settlers in the late eighth century, there is evidence that this new way of life, centred on warfare, commerce and exploration, brought with it a warrior ethos that gradually became codified in the Viking myths, notably in the cult of Odin, the god of war, magic and poetry, and chief god in the Norse pantheon. 

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when most of Scandinavia had long since been converted to Christianity, form perhaps the most important era in the history of Norse mythology: only at this point were the myths of Thor, Freyr and Odin first recorded in written form. Using archaeological sources to take us further back in time than any written document, the accounts of foreign writers like the Roman historian Tacitus, and the most important repository of stories of the gods, old Norse poetry and the Edda, Christopher Abram leads the reader into the lost world of the Norse gods.

 

9. the legend of sigurd and gudrun

J.R.R. Tolkien

In the Lay of the Volsungs is told the ancestry of the great hero Sigurd, the slayer of Fafnir most celebrated of dragons, whose treasure he took for his own; of his awakening of the Valkyrie Brynhild who slept surrounded by a wall of fire, and of their betrothal; and of his coming to the court of the great princes who were named the Niflungs (or Nibelungs), with whom he entered into blood-brotherhood. In that court there sprang great love but also great hate, brought about by the power of the enchantress, mother of the Niflungs, skilled in the arts of magic, of shape-changing and potions of forgetfulness.

In scenes of dramatic intensity, of confusion of identity, thwarted passion, jealousy and bitter strife, the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, of Gunnar the Niflung and Gudrun his sister, mounts to its end in the murder of Sigurd at the hands of his blood-brothers, the suicide of Brynhild, and the despair of Gudrun. In the Lay of Gudrun her fate after the death of Sigurd is told, her marriage against her will to the mighty Atli, ruler of the Huns (the Attila of history), his murder of her brothers the Niflung lords, and her hideous revenge.

 

10. beowulf

translated by seamus heaney

Composed towards the end of the first millennium, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the great Northern epics and a classic of European literature. In his new translation, Seamus Heaney has produced a work which is both true, line by line, to the original poem, and an expression, in its language and music, of something fundamental to his own creative gift. 

The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed, in that exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels between this story and the history of the twentieth century, nor can Heaney's Beowulf fail to be read partly in the light of his Northern Irish upbringing. But it also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating. 

 

11. the broken sword

Poul Anderson

The sword Tyrfing has been broken to prevent it striking at the roots of Yggdrasil, the great tree that binds earth, heaven and hell together ... But now the mighty sword is needed again to save the elves, who are heavily involved in their war against the trolls, and only Skafloc, a human child kidnapped and raised by the elves, can hope to persuade the mighty ice-giant, Bolverk, to make the sword Thor broke whole again. But things are never easy, and along the way Skafloc must also confront his shadow self, Valgard the changeling, who took his place in the world of men. 

 

11 BOOKS TO READ IF YOU LOVE NORSE MYTHOLOGY // Because what's not to love, right?