Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, a review

In his “Introduction to The Elder Edda” (from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun), J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the broad, multi-general appeal of Old Norse poetry:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power; moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

In other words, you don’t have to be able to read Old Norse in its native tongue to enjoy the myths and legends of Odin and Loki and Thor, of the war of the Giants and Aesir and Vanir, and of Ragnarok and the ending of the world. The characters and stories have a power all their own, regardless of the language in which they’re told or the particular form they take, be it alliterative verse or child-accessible plain narration. Which is why I derive such great pleasure in owning and reading Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin.

Published in November 1920, The Children of Odin would have been available to Tolkien (1892-1973) and perhaps he too read and enjoyed Colum’s work. One wonders what he would have made of the volume. It certainly meets his criteria of being possessed of a heady northern power, even while remaining accessible to younger readers.

My edition is a hardcover reissue from June 1929, published by the MacMillan Company of New York. It contains a series of excellent black and white illustrations by Willy Pogany as well as four beautiful full-color plates. In just 282 pages it tells 35 stories of the Old Norse legends.

Mythology expresses a form of truth, timeless wisdom honed through repeated tellings and passed down through the tales and songs of loremasters, skalds, and scribes. Though they concern the doings of Gods and heroes, the Old Norse myths are familiar and accessible and speak to the human condition.We can enjoy reading about the Gods' super-powers and impossible feats (Thor wrestling Old Age to a standstill and opening up canyon-sized chasms with Mjolnir) while still recognizing them as us, their lives applicable to our own. The Norse Gods and heroes are fallible and make poor decisions that speed their downfall. For example, Frey exchanges his rune-engraved sword for the beautiful giantess Gerda and so does not have it at Ragnarok when it might have turned the tide. Freya succumbs to the beauty of a necklace and loses the respect of her husband. Even Odin the All-Father is not above reproach: In the tale “The Dwarf’s Hoard, and the Curse that it Brought,” he commits a misstep in a moment of weakness and offers base gold instead of more meaningful gifts as weregild for the unintentional slaying of Hreidmar’s son. There is no perfect being in this pagan universe.

Loki in particular is a fascinating, three-dimensional character, a God with a mean and jealous streak who eventually falls so out of favor that he joins forces with the giants and works for the destruction of the Aesir/Vanir. 

Yet in general the Aesir fight to preserve the beauty of Midgard, and so we root for them against the wicked race of destructive Giants. Even though they will lose the final battle and the world will end in fire and darkness, the Aesir and Vanir take down evil with them so that the new world may begin with a clean slate.

The stories are told in Column’s straightforward yet strong narrative voice. Here is a passage typical of the style:

The fagots burned round and round him. But the fire did not burn the flesh of Odin All-Father. The King and the King’s friends stood round, watching with delight the fires blaze round a living man. The fagots all burned away, and Odin was left standing there with his terrible gaze fixed upon the men who were so hard and cruel.

I was surprised upon a recent re-reading of The Children of Odin to find so many parallels with Christianity (the Balder resurrection myth, Iduna and her Edenic apples, the apocalypse of Ragnarok and a new world begun with a man and woman meeting deep in a wood) as well as the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien: The warnings about placing too much value on hoarded gold, and especially the scene in which Loki takes the most “precious” ring of the Dwarf Avadni, should of course sound familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings. When Avadni curses Loki as follows, the inspiration for the One Ring is made plain:

The ring with the rune
Of power upon it:
May it weigh down your fortune,
And load you with evil,
You, Loki, and all
Who lust to possess
The ring I have cherished.

Thanks to the wonder that is the internet there’s no need to track down a copy of The Children of Odin; the entire book and its illustrations sans color plates can be found here. Here’s another series of web pages with the complete text and images of the book, including a color plate of Iduna picking the apples of life for the gods.


Brer said...

You remind me of Lewis' definition of myth in "An Experiment in Criticism," which is almost exactly a story that moves the heart no matter what form it takes.

I read "The Children of Odin" in 1975, in 6th grade; it was the first more or less complete telling of the Norse Myths I ever read, but not the last. Right now I am (coincidentally) reading the same book to my 11 year old nephew.

Colum and Pogany collaborated on several other volumes; I have copies of "The King of Ireland's Son" and "The Golden Fleece," and both are fine, simple introductions to different cycles of legend.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Brer, I apologize for the late reply as I somehow missed your comment. I had no idea Colum and Pogany collaborated on other volumes; I will have to seek them out.