I remember the first movie I ever saw. I was about six. We lived in a refugee settlement in Hong Kong, having fled China. I had no idea what to expect when Mom took me to the dark, spacious theater. I had to be very quiet.
Then the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs began. I didn’t understand the English, but I didn’t need to. I got the story. I was mesmerized by the talking mirror, the beautiful queen, the even more beautiful Snow White, Prince Charming, the echoing well, the scary hag.
And the “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho” dwarfs! As a kid who felt alone, having left my home and my language, I was deeply moved when Snow White found protection and love from the odd little guys with long beards.
I was reminded of this long-ago episode of my life while reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.
I was more familiar with the Greek gods: the philandering Zeus, the vengeful Hera, Hermes with the little wings on his feet, the huntress Artemis, Athena and Dionysius. They were like taller and more beautiful version of humans, sort of like Hollywood celebrities. Unlike the Norse gods, the Greek gods never paid a price for foolish actions or unwise decisions as they were immortal.
Of the Norse gods, I knew of Thor the Thunder God, Thor’s father Odin who ruled all the gods and Loki. Loki was often called a trickster. As it turns out, Loki belonged to a race of giants.
Neil Gaiman, a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, brings a true storyteller’s sensibility to crafting these tales about the Norse Cosmos: gods, giants, men, dwarfs, elves, trolls, monsters and the Dead. The stories originate from pre-Christian, North Germanic tales, that, luckily for us, were written down in 13th century Iceland. I recommend listening to Gaiman read his book. He has a rich, smoky baritone which can be caressing, cajoling or menacing as needed. Think Alan Rickman.
The characters of the Norse universe had outsized personalities. Odin gave one of his eyes to drink from the well of wisdom. When Mimir, the well’s guardian, said that the price of a drink was an eye, all Odin said was, “Give me a knife.”
Thor was physically imposing: “A huge god, red-bearded and muscular, wearing iron gauntlets and holding an iron hammer.” All the gods counted on him and his dwarf-forged hammer to protect them. In one instance, the threat was a mountain giant. Thor made quick work of him.
“There was a flash of lightning from the clear skies, followed by the dull boom of thunder as the hammer left Thor’s hand. The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again.”
Loki’s parents were giants. He himself was a shape-shifter and could assume any form. He was very smart, perhaps too smart. His elaborate schemes got him and the other gods into terrible fixes. He never had any remorse. When asked why, he would say, “It was funny. I was drunk.”
One time, he talked the gods into accepting an offer to erect a wall around their home, which was called Asgard. The reward was the sun, the moon and the beautiful Freya if the builder could complete the wall in one season. With the help of his powerful horse, this man was about to succeed. Then, on the last day of the season, the horse was lured away by a beautiful chestnut mare. The wall did not get finished. In time, the mare gave birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. That mare was Loki.
An important female in Norse mythology was Loki’s daughter Hel, the ruler of those who died shamefully. (The Valkyries carried those who died bravely to Odin’s Valhalla.) From her name, we get the word “hell.” She had unusual looks: “on the right side of her face her cheek was pink and white, her eye was the green of Loki’s eyes, her lips were full and carmine; on the left side of her face, the skin was blotched and striated, swollen in the bruises of death, her sightless eye rotted and pale, her lipless mouth wizened and stretched over skull-brown teeth.”
Someday, Hel will lead her horde of the Dead to fight against all the gods and the warriors of Valhalla at Ragnarok, the prophesied End of Days. Her Dead will arrive to the battlefield in “the biggest ship that ever have been: it is built of the fingernails of the dead.” Loki will be on board. Loki’s other children will be at the battle too: the Midgard serpent, big enough to encircle the world of humans, and the Fenris wolf, who will eat the sun and the moon. Frost giants, including fiery Surtr with his burning sword, will fight on Loki’s side.
Ragnarok will start with unending winter and darkness. The all-seeing god Heimdall will blow the horn that “will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep.” Odin on his steed Sleipnir will brandish his dwarf-made spear. All will enter the fight: Thor wielding his hammer; Tyr, the one-handed god; Frey; Odin’s sons and Thor’s sons.
What does this battle with armies of the “Undead” and monsters and ice and fire remind me of? The Game of Thrones, of course. And then it hits me. It’s not coincidental that these two works have similar battle scenarios. The Norse mythological stories are the inspiration for the White Walkers, the Walking Dead and for all zombie movies.
Not just the Undead, but the concept of dwarfs, elves, trolls, giants and ogres are all found in these stories. This is the wellspring of so much that I love in literature, in movies, in art.
This is why the dwarfs in both Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and the in The Lord of the Rings live underground and are master craftsmen. It comes from Norse mythology. The fact of the existence of the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli, not to mention their unlikely friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring, is due to the amazing inventiveness of the early Norse storytellers who created these races of beings.
Marvel Studios have a series of movies about Thor. I have only seen one, Thor: Ragnarok. Of course, they played fast and loose with the characters, including having the Hulk make an appearance. But I think that’s okay. The myths themselves present such a rich and generous template that people have been adapting them for their own purposes for millennia.
It turns out I have known about aspects of the Norse world practically my whole life, ever since I encountered the Seven Dwarfs in that dark theater in Hong Kong. I just took them for granted.
Tell me: Did you ever have a favorite story that turned out to be based on an old tale?