The Viking Spirit [Book Review]

This is the first of a new feature on this blog. I’ll be posting ocassional reviews of books that I am reading, poetry related or not. If you’d like to see more of these, please let me know in the comments.

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Title: The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion.

Author: Daniel McCoy

This book is intended as a introduction to Norse/Viking Mythology and culture for the layman. It is written in a fairly accessible style and contains a plethora of information and retells many of the best known tales from Norse Mythology. He also includes many footnotes and a large bibliography if one is inclined to read deeper about these topics. However, there are some pretty substantial flaws in the book that a potential reader should be aware of:

1) The author presents his own theories about Norse Mythology as almost undisputed fact. The two cases that leap to mind are (a) his theory (Which I personally agree with) that the goddesses Frigg and Freyja were originally the same figure. While this is a valid theory, he doesn’t spend nearly enough time discussing why he came to this conclusion or presenting the opposing viewpoint that they are two separate figures. The other (b) is his theory that the idea of Norse Cyclical Time (ie, that the world renews after Ragnarok) is a late Christian influenced addition. There may in fact be merit to this theory, as there is identifiable Christian influence in some of the written versions of the myths that have come down to us (especially in Snorri’s Edda), but he makes his case in a few sentences and quickly dismisses the traditional interpretations of the myth, even adding a snarky comment to the end of his rendition of Ragnarok that anyone who believes in the rebirth of the world doesn’t understand what has gone before.

2) The author is condescending. I am used to reading both academic and popular books on religion and mythology and often the authors, especially in academic works, take on a voice of authority that can be off-putting. This author, however, often condescends to the reader and disparages any interpretation of the myths that is not his own. When faced with contradictions in the source material, instead of just appreciating that Nordic culture wasn’t monolithic, he often dismisses anything that doesn’t fit with his own vision of Viking society as being either Christian embellishments, or being made up fictions by Snorri.

3) The second half of the book contains retellings of many tales from Norse Mythology preceded by a short note on each story. The notes are helpful, and it them he often mentions having used two sources for his version of a given story, but doesn’t mention what he changed or what he took from each source. He presents two versions of Baldr’s death (one based on Snorri’s Prose Edda and one based on Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum) and pretty well dismisses the Eddic version as being not “authentic” due to supposed Christian influences on Snorri (These could be valid, but he doesn’t give any kind of balanced argument for this) and states that, while they could just be regional variations, it is more likely to him that the Gesta Danorum version is more “authentic,” without mentioning that this version is a Euhemeristic retelling of the Norse myths that is near contemporaneous with the writing of the Prose Edda and that Saxo himself was likely a Christian and possibly clergy. I don’t personally know enough about Saxo or his work to know what may have influenced his writing or what his sources were, but these things are never mentioned in this book.

4) These classic Norse Myths are retold is a very simple style, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Simplicity can make tales such as these more accessible for a modern reader. However, these simply retelling retain none of the charm or style of the Eddic originals and can be fairly bland and boring (I had trouble muddling through the last half of the book). For a modern retelling of these tales I much preferred Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.

In short, this book contains a lot of interesting material and some basic retellings of Norse Mythology, but potential readers should be aware of the above flaws before reading or accepting what the author says as accurate.

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