I am drawn to fairy tales and myths—not only in the cultural heritage of my Norwegian ancestry, but also the role such forms play globally and the ways they appear in literature, theatre, visual art, and song. In the process of becoming aware of the broader range of stories and qualities that I enjoy, I’ve also discovered that I appreciate ones with a gothic, romantic quality, as evidenced by a string of novels I’ve enjoyed over the years, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights by her sister Emily Brontë, Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The plays of Henrick Ibsen, which often allude to some element of Scandinavian folk belief (the white horse in Rosmersholm and the seaman in The Lady from the Sea) also come to mind).
These interests apply to my own writing as well as what I read. One of my main challenges I faced in developing my novel earlier this year was been deciding whether it can contain elements of both mythology and folklore or whether it must color within the lines. Myth and folklore are different things, after all, but part of my research involved determining how the two are linked. And it didn’t take long to begin finding answers. After all, in the case of the Nordic stories, they both came from the north, developed over time, and were shared over and over until the time they were written down.
In the introduction to his book Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman writes,
The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them (14).Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
The stories of the Norse gods go back farther than we can know, and much has been lost to history (not unlike what a scribe tells Anna in Cloud Cuckoo Land: “Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world” (Doerr, 172)). Indeed, Gaiman writes,
There are so many Norse stories we do not have, so much we do not know. All we have are some myths that have come to us in the form of folktales, in retellings, in poems, in prose. They were written down when Christianity had already displaced the worship of the Norse gods, and some of the stories we have came to us because people were concerned that if the stories were not preserved, some of the kennings—the usages of poets that referred to events in specific myths—would become meaningless; Freya’s tears, for example, was a poetic way of saying “gold” (15-16, bold emphasis mine).Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Gaiman makes brief mention of the folktales in the excerpt above, and he adds to that slightly in the forward he wrote for The Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjørnsen & Moe, translated by Tiina Nunnally (2019):
I was already in love with Norse mythology, and one can feel the shadows of the Frost Giants in some of these stories, or echoes of the tale of Thor and the Loki and the Thialfi of the contest with the giants: Asbjørnsen and Moe also sensed this and drew attention to it. Our sacred mysteries become myths become folktales, and Frost Giants and gods become trolls and heroes, given enough time (x, bold emphasis again mine).Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen, et al. The Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjørnsen
and Moe. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Adding to that connection, the book’s translator, Tiina Nunnally, points out that Jørgen Moe had his own view of how the Norwegian tales that he and Peter Christen Asbjørnson collected related back to the Norse mythology and the sagas. As he wrote in the Introduction to the Second Norwegian Edition in 1851 (as included in the 2019 Nunnally translation),
“Like the dwarves Austri, Vestri, Nordri, and Sudri in the Eddas, the winds are personified in the tales ‘About the Boy Who Went to the North Wind and Demanded the Flour Back,’ ‘Sonia Moria Castle,’ and ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon.’ In the story ‘Lillekort,’ the title character is given a ship that is one and the same with the ship called Skíðblaðnir of North mythology. And you might even deduce that the hunchbacked and one-eyed old woman is reminiscent of the god Odin, whose divine power is manifested in the description of the ship” (292-293).Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen, et al. The Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjørnsen
and Moe. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Over the months, as my novel has found its story and direction, I’ve become less concerned about where myth, folklore, and fairy tales begin and end, and more interested in how they serve the story. I wrapped up my first semester of my MFA work earlier this month, and it is here that my reading and research ends, for now, with threads emerging that connect Norse mythology and Norwegian folktales. I do not yet have my own answers to how any of this will impact my future work beyond my current novel-in-progress. But it is, certainly, a place to start.
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2 thoughts on “Linking Norse Mythology & Folktales”
Wonderful post! I’m starting my masters in medieval European history next fall, and I’ve always been intrigued by how the myths have withstood time and taken on different shapes. I think about the early modern Swedish folktale, Sömnrunorna, and how it echoes visions of seiðr in the old tales.
Thanks, Casey. Intriguing indeed!