In The Children of Odin: Nordic Gods and Heroes
(1920), Irish-American poet and author Padraic Colum provides not only a succinct and readable introduction to the myths and epic legends of the ancient Scandinavians but also a lyrical work with an originality and artistry all its own. Fusing the disparate mythic accounts of his medieval sources, Colum fashions a powerful tale of the divine adventures of gods and men, locked in an inexorable march of fate. Written in a style accessible to both children and adults, Colum's work offers a haunting and evocative portrait of the mythic world of the Viking Age (c. AD 700–1000).
Padraic Colum was born in 1881 at Collumbkille, County Longford, Ireland, and was the oldest of eight children. Like many writers of his generation in Ireland, he was drawn to the revival movement concerning the Irish language and arts. He was active in the Gaelic League and Irish Republican Army, and wrote plays for the Abbey Theatre, the premiere dramatic venue for Irish playwrights at the turn of the twentieth century. He was acquainted with the prime movers of the Irish literary renaissance, including James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Lady Gregory. In 1914, he emigrated from Ireland and settled in the United States, where he began a new career writing storybooks for children. Already in 1916, he had teamed up with illustrator Willy Pogány on a collection of Irish tales titled The King of Ireland's Son. His adaptation of Greek epic materials, The Adventures of Odysseus, appeared in 1918. The Children of Odin appeared two years later. Never abandoning his poetic avocation, Colum wrote these works in a lean butlyrical style that captivated his audiences, young and old alike. By the end of his career, he had published over fifty works, and his literature for children and adolescents remains at least as popular as his various poems and plays. He died in 1972.
The stories retold in The Children of Odin derive primarily from two medieval Icelandic sources—the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. The first of these was authored by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic chieftain of great learning and high ambition who wished to preserve the fast-vanishing memories of his ancestors' religion. Snorri completed his work before his death in 1241. In this and certain other works, Snorri sought to clarify a set of narratives and concepts that had grown dim in the minds of Icelanders and Norwegians some two and a half centuries after their conversion to Christianity. Memories of the former religion, its rituals, gods and narratives, were preserved only in stray poetic phrases, some more extended mythic poems, and various place names and local legends. Snorri merged these pieces of evidence into a single overview, primarily in prose, but with frequent quotation of poems that he knew either from existing manuscripts (now mostly lost) or oral tradition. His synthesis remains among the most important sources of information regarding the religious beliefs of Scandinavians during the final centuries of the first millennium.
The second major source, the Poetic Edda, was compiled by an unknown Icelandic scribe sometime after 1270. It is made up of a variety of different poems concerning the adventures of various gods as well as certain human heroes of a mythic past. Some of the materials contained in this work are summarized or quoted in Snorri's Prose Edda, while others differ markedly. Harmonizing these two accounts, as well as various other pieces of evidence drawn from other medieval texts, such as the Icelandic sagas, and an ever-increasing increasing body of knowledge drawn from archaeology, has occupied the energies of scholars in the field of Scandinavian mythology for the past two centuries.
The materials contained in these medieval works span an array of questions and themes that held great importance to pre-Christian Scandinavians. Some address questions about the creation of the world or its ultimate destruction. Others focus on some of the major deities of the Scandinavians. These include the god Odin, an aristocratic chieftain god associated with poetry and battle. Odin is portrayed as the father or king of all the gods, and frequently figures in the myths as a wanderer, searching for new sources of wisdom, appraising the hospitality of human hosts, and inspiring acts of valor among men. The god Thor also appears important in these sources. He is represented as a mighty warrior god, intent on beating back the giants who hope to invade and render lifeless the earth of men. Thor is a god of farmers, but is important to seafarers and warriors as well. He also seems to have been associated with some female moments, including weddings. The twin gods Frey and Freyja are fertility gods, deeply interested in the ebullience of the seasons and at times broadly lascivious in their appetites. The clever trickster god Loki occupies a medial position between the gods and the giants, and plays a pivotal role in a number of myths, particularly in the events that will eventually unfold at the end of the world. While the various gods sometimes come to earth, or undertake forays into the land of the giants, they are most often to be found in an overworld known as Asgard (the homestead of the gods), linked to the human world by a rainbow bridge.
In addition to these gods, medieval sources tell of human heroes belonging to a noble clan known as the Volsungs. Descended originally from Odin himself, this line of notables included the heroes Sinfjotli, Helgi, and (most particularly) Sigurd. The lives and feats of these men occupy a great deal of space in the Poetic Edda, and form the basis of another important source, The Saga of the Volsungs. Colum organizes these various themes into the four parts of this book, arranging them so as to create a building tension in the narratives and a unity that culminates in Ragnarök, the final battle between the gods and the giants, in which human heroes also play a part.
For the general reader, the ambiguities of the surviving medieval materials create an obvious need for an overview work such as Colum's Nordic Gods and Heroes. Writing for a mixed audience of children and adults, Colum sought to meld the stray and sometimes obscure myths found in the medieval sources into a single compelling narrative. In meeting this goal, he modifies his source material at times to better suit his aims, or to better satisfy the likely tastes of parents reading the book as bedtime fare for children. The myths are broken into short narrative blocks with frequent pauses and addresses to an inscribed audience of listeners. Particularly ribald or violent passages are expunged. In the book's second chapter, "The Building of the Wall," for instance, Loki lures away the giant's horse Svadilfari, but no longer gives birth to a foal as a result of his activities. Odin likewise is portrayed as morally upright despite the gods' intentional ruse in the story: "But Odin, the Father of the Gods, as he sat upon his throne was sad in his heart, sad that the Gods had got their wall built by a trick; that oaths had been broken, and that a blow had been struck in injustice in Asgard. Clear ascriptions of good and evil are introduced to simplify the moral ambiguities of the pre-Christian myths, and the chief gods undertake their deeds for the explicit purpose of benefiting human beings. Details are added to establish character motivation and create a more complete narrative progression. These emendations make Colum's work a very personal and original interpretation of the pre-Christian mythology, one marked by a unity of theme and purpose that is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the varied and contradictory source materials dating from the Middle Ages.
Colum's reading of the ancient materials is also influenced by post-medieval interpretations, particularly those of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Wagner produced his own rendering of pre-Christian mythology through his series of operas titled Der Ring des Nibelungen. Written over a twenty-six-year period from 1848 to 1874, Wagner's four-opera "Ring Cycle" combines the Scandinavian materials with related accounts from the German epic Nibelungenlied. Wagner creates a passionate and melancholic narrative of gods and men, bound by fate to a course of events that will destroy their lives and worlds. Colum echoes this view of Scandinavian mythology from his very first chapter, which begins with a wistful synopsis of the passing of the old order of the gods, and recounts in abstract the great battle of Ragnarök which will be developed and explored in the pages that follow. Colum's translation of Ragnarök as "the Twilight of the Gods," as well as his portrayal of Brynhild as a valkyrie-turned-mortal later in the book, reflect not only his use of medieval materials, but also his cognizance of Wagner's seminal rendering.
Willy Pogány's illustrations add a striking visual dimension to Colum's work. Born Vilmos Andreas Pogány in Hungary in 1882, a year after Colum's birth, Pogány arrived in the United States in 1915, again, one year after Colum. He became a prolific illustrator, producing art for more than one hundred books over his career and creating a series of how-to books for drawing as well. He died in 1955. By the time of Nordic Gods and Heroes, he had already produced some of his greatest works of art, including illustrations for book versions of three of Wagner's operas, which he completed while living in London from 1910 to 1913. For Nordic Gods and Heroes, he supplied thirty-eight line illustrations and four halftones. In these, Pogány depicts gods and men in angular and dynamic stances. Detailed, muscular figures in pen and ink are enclosed in the heavy lines of boxes, with an explanatory caption in thick, medieval calligraphy. Sometimes the illustrations sit atop the narrative they portray; sometimes they are accorded an entire page of their own. Decorated initials are included throughout the text to further the medieval appearance of the work. Like Colum, Pogány was undoubtedly influenced by Wagnerian images of the myths, particularly as rendered by the great illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), who had produced two works of illustrations of Wagner's "Ring Cycle," Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods (1911) and The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie (1912). Pogány echoes some of the stylistic tendencies of Rackham's works, while creating distinctive interpretations of his own: artful meldings of realist techniques and art deco styling. Loki in particular is interesting in Pogány's depictions: his thin, wiry body, pointy nose and chin, cunning expression, and sexual ambiguity establish him visually as a misfit—an apt image for Colum's portrayal of the god as the oft-misunderstood, sometimes witty, sometimes bitter driving force behind much of the misfortune in the tales.
While Nordic Gods and Heroes serves as a valuable overview of the narratives surviving from the pre-Christian world of Scandinavia, it also can be read as a reflection of its own era of publication. Appearing in the aftermath of the devastation of World War I, one year after the formation of the League of Nations and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the book presents an idealized world of benevolent gods, poetic beauty, and the ultimate triumph of good. It was as much a myth for its time as a rendering of myths from a bygone era, created before the insidious cooption of Scandinavian mythology by Nazi ideologues two decades later. And its sense of hope remains an unmistakable source of appeal for the work today:
And the people who lived after Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, were not troubled, as the people in the older days were troubled, by the terrible beings who had brought destruction upon the world and upon men and women, and who from the beginning had waged war upon the Gods.
Thomas A. DuBois is a professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He holds a Ph. D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania and writes and teaches on a variety of topics, including Viking Age religion.