Book Review: The Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland

norse myth cover★★★★

I came to The Penguin Book of Norse Myths as a fan of The Avengers. I thought Thor and Loki were fascinating in the movies, both as individuals and in their dynamic with each other.  I picked up this book to get a better understanding of where the characters came from and how they were adapted for Marvel’s universe.  The answer: they’re very different.

The Norse gods are not necessarily likeable characters.  Thor is a stubborn, proud but passionate god who’s decisions I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at.  Loki, however, is indeed a master trickster.  He is a jealous and shrewd god, constantly causing trouble for the gods above and beyond the realms of simple mischief.

However it is not the characters that are of interest in these ancient myths, but how they interact with each other and the world and most importantly, how these interactions were used by the Vikings to explain the mysteries of the world – What causes night and day? Where did Denmark come from (a personal favourite of mine)?

This is an entertaining, easy-to-understand modern translation of the Norse myths, useful for both entertainment value but also academic interest.  The book begins with a comprehensive introduction, discussing everything from the Norse world to the author’s approach to the myths.  In addition to this in-depth introduction, there are notes on each myth, giving further detail.  These can be entirely skipped if you simply want to read the myths, or devoured if you crave the knowledge.  I was satisfied to flick through and read interesting snippets.

As noted in the introduction, straight translations can be confusing and uninteresting, so Crossley-Holland has adapted the myths into new versions – elaborating with dialogue, enchanting descriptions of the Norse world and slight dramatisation.  These additions to the original myths make it easier to explore and understand each character’s story.  Although the author managed to avoid copious info-dumping, that is the purpose of certain myths. Odin taking on Vafthrudnir in a knowledge battle resulted in several pages of repetitive questioning, with Odin beginning every question “Tell me then Vafthrudnir, if you’re so wise and know the answer…” But these myths, which I found quite boring, are easily skipped.

Each myth is short and tells a separate story, be it action-packed, comical, adventurous or explanatory,  which made the book easy to put down and pick up later.  The glossary was incredibly helpful in reminding me who each character was after long breaks in reading.  The only thing missing from this book, which I found odd considering the comprehensive supporting material, was a pronunciation guide.  I found the names particularly confusing – remembering the difference between Freyr and Freyja would have been easier if I knew how the names were different.

Overall, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths was an interesting and entertaining read, and is worth reading by those anywhere on the scale between curious Marvel fans and fascinated historians.  It is written in a way that makes it possible to skip or skim the more academic sections, and focus on the modern take of these ancient stories.

Read more about The Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland at Goodreads

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