Tag Archives: Norse

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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The Wrath Of Thor

I’m taking a set of Viking tales out on tour at the end of February, which is, for me, a return to what I started with. At my very first storytelling I told three tales of the Norse gods, one of which, “The lay of Thrym” more commonly known as “The Theft Of Thor’s Hammer”, has remained in my ‘ready bag’ almost continuously for the twenty something years since. Almost. There are many reasons why a teller will drop a story, maybe we become over familiar and begin to gabble through it, or some other tale with too similar a theme takes our fancy; fear that one may be struck by lightning is not generally amongst them.

Possibly the most accurate image of Thor on the internet by Canadian artist Daniel Andrews. Note: iron gloves, belt of strength, sensible clothes, red hair and beard, iron hammer, absence of winged/horned helmet. You can find more of his work here http://danielandrews.ca/

Thor is the popular, people’s god, the adventuring bearded redhead who protects mankind, gods, elves and dwarves from the constant threat of the Frost Giants with the aid of his magic hammer, Mjollnir. One morning Thor woke up to find Mjollnir had been stolen. After much hullabaloo in Asgard, the home of the gods, it transpired that the thief was none other than Thrym, the king of the giants. Thrym’s terms for the return of the hammer are that Freya, the beautiful fertility goddess, is sent to be his bride. When the gods cook up a plan to send Thor in a wedding dress and veil he is at first somewhat reticent but eventually Loki, offering to tag along as a bridesmaid, persuades him. The ensuing scene in the giants hall builds as Thor all but gives himself away, while Loki cleverly keeps the laughably dense Thrym in a state of ignorant excitement until Mjollnir is brought forth to bless the wedding. After Thor is reunited with his weapon it is all downhill for the giants and, leaving them lying in the blood drenched hall he and Loki head back across the sky in Thor’s chariot. The thunder rolls, the rain falls and the ice of winter is washed away.

This tale is rooted in the very serious struggle against the cold northern winters, but in a time when the Scandinavians felt familiar enough with Thor to not only worship but have a laugh with him, it developed in to a comic interlude in the mythological cycle with the reluctantly cross-dressing sky god as the main source of the humour. As my own performance of this classic developed I portrayed Thor as less and less intelligent. Audiences were increasingly amused by my befuddled thunderer.

One fine sunny, summer’s day I was playing a festival in Romsey, a great location with around 150 people gathered to enjoy live music, beer and storytelling in a historic garden. After a couple of other stories, I launched in to “The Theft”. About half way through, just as Thor and Loki were preparing to set of for Thrymheim, it began to cloud over. Then the rain began to fall, harder and harder, until the audience had to run for cover. A month later I was the entertainment for two hundred eager scouts huddled around a camp fire. Once again the weather was clear and fine until I began “The Theft”, whereupon it quickly deteriorated in to driving rain. We decamped to the marquee where it was almost impossible to finish the story because of the water thrashing against the roof. When another beautiful day was ruined as the same thing happened for a third time, this time augmented with thunder, that I recognised the pattern and began to worry about lightning strikes.

You can’t leave a good story untold though, so when I was telling some friends about the experiences above I ended with a public apology to Thor, and have taken care ever since to keep my portrayal of the God of Storms a bit more respectful. So far it seems to be working, I have not been struck with a hundred thousand volts and even this summer I was able to get to the end of the tale with the sky blue and the audience dry. It will probably get a few tellings on my Viking Raid in Feb and March*, if I do it well enough it might keep it from snowing.

*Currently confirmed dates:
Thursday 28th Feb The Ale House, Reading
Sunday 3rd March The Elm Tree, Cambridge
Monday 4th March The White Lion, Norwich
Tuesday 5th March The Devonshire Arms, Cambridge
Saturday 9th March The London Inn, Morchard Bishop, Devon


Filed under Mythology, Norse Gods, Storytelling, Thor