Just Doin’ Their Job


Every now and then someone will have their curiosity awakened by a supporting character in a story or suite of stories. For some reason their perception of the bit part in question has connected with a chain of thought, resonated with their emotional state, or highlighted the particular point they have reached on some internal journey of psychological discovery. “Can you tell me more about the wig maker?” they might say, or, as happened recently, “Can you fill in some details about the personality of Valkyries?”.

I’m sad to say that the answer is far too frequently a simple “No.” Outside of a bit of historical info relating to their occupation there is usually nothing more to tell. With a question about personality, like the one above it is especially hard. It’s not great being responsible for ending that excitement, for bringing that journey to an unsatisfying end, so in lieu of a more edifying response we storytellers often set them a task: “Find your way to the source material” we encourage enigmatically. We have, of course, read the source material and the answer will still be “No”, but at least we won’t have had to be the one to say it!

You may be a writer inspired to re-work a classic trope or a seeker on a spiritual quest, it matters not. If you are looking for the deeper personality or motivations of the supporting cast in myth and folktale I fear you will be disappointed. You are looking for embroidered silk but you are standing in a smithy. Everything is functional. Occasionally a personality trait may be instrumental to the plot in which case it will be stated in advance, e.g: an evil sorcerer; a greedy merchant; a pious maiden. If it isn’t necessary then it isn’t there.


Let’s take the Valkyrie example above. In Norse myth, as with much myth and folktale, characters are defined by their functions and personality is revealed by their actions. We can say very little about the personality of valkyries because they don’t get to do very much: serve drinks in Valhalla, collect dead warriors, hang around having cool names (Axe time, Raging), that’s about it. Think of them like backing dancers for M.C. Odin: They make him look good, help set the scene, and fill out the stage but you know nothing about who they are under the leather and steel, that is not what they are there for.

Three valkyries turn up in the story of Wayland the smith. They card flax by the lake, are chatted up by Wayland and his brothers, bunk off work to live with them for 8 years before putting on their swan skins and flying away. The closest thing to a revelation of character in this is that neither Alvis, Hladgud nor Hervor mention to their “husbands” that they are leaving. Remember that they are immortal psychopomps, heavily armed personifications of death, in their universe eight years is just a chat by the coffee machine and then it’s back to the celestial call-centre to continue recruiting dead warriors for the final battle. There is nothing unkind in their leaving, it’s just time to go back to work.

What’s more they have two bosses. It’s not only the All-Father they have to work for, they are doing a job for the storyteller too. Their departure may not reveal their own character but it does shine a light on elements of Wayland’s. He says “If Hervor wants me she knows where to find me.” He is a blacksmith and stays at his forge where every day he makes a gold arm ring for his absent wife. His brothers, who are hunters, go off to seek their loved ones leaving Wayland alone in Wolfdale, as he needs to be for the story to progress. The supporting cast, having fulfilled their function, are gone.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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