Thor: Viking God of Thunder by Graeme Davis
With all the attention being paid to Thor lately, thanks to the Marvel same-named films and his appearances in the Avengers movies, Osprey Publishing made a wise decision to make the god the subject of one of their texts in their MYTHS AND LEGENDS series, this one written by Graeme Davis. I had been a little disappointed in my first MYTHS AND LEGENDS text, dealing with Jason and the Argonauts (giving it a three-star rating), but I found Thor: Viking God of Thunder to be an overall improvement on that first experience.
The text, like all the Osprey books in the series, is slim, coming in at 80 pages, and begins with a brief introduction placing Thor in literary/historical/pop culture context. A short “cast list” comes next, offering up a 1-3 line description of several of the more prominent Norse gods and goddesses, followed by a similarly concise listing/description of the Nine Worlds settings.
Davis moves us quickly then through some background on the sources for the upcoming stories, laying out the history of the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, as well as their structures. The myths begin on page 14, starting with “How Thor Got his Hammer,” and moving through “Thor and Utgardaloki” (one of the best-known tales, where Thor, unbeknownst to him almost empties the ocean and destroys the world by lifting up the Midgard Serpent), “Thor Hooks the Midgard Serpent, and ”Aegir’s Feast” (basically an insult contest involving Loki versus everyone else). The ensuing chapter focuses on other tales involving giants, including “Thor’s Duel with Hrungnir,” “Thrym’s Wedding,” (Thor has to dress as a bride to reclaim his stolen hammer), and “Thor and Geirrod,” These are all straight descriptive narratives, varying between simple summary and retellings. Davis switches to actual scene and dialogue with “Thor and Habard,” with Thor confronting a cantankerous ferryman (possibly Odin in disguise) who refuses to take him across the passage and instead hurls insult upon insult at him.
After “Habard,” we get a concise but nicely detailed description of Ragnarok, the fall of the gods and rebirth of a new world. The retelling section of the text comes to a close with a chapter on a few myths that only barely mention Thor, such as “The Death of Balder” or “The Birth of Sleipnir.” After these, Davis quickly covers Thor’s religious role as opposed to his mythological one, tracing the god from early (first century) Germany through Anglo-Saxon England, the Vikings, and on into the overlap between Thor worship and Christianity, dealing with such areas as temples, icons, modes of worship, and the like. The last chapter takes Thor forward into the 19th and 20th centuries, referencing Wagner, Hitler, and Marvel Comics along the way. Finally, the text closes with a glossary and a bibliography.
As with other Osprey texts in the series, the narratives are supplemented by a large number of sidebars and illustrations. The sidebars here do a nice job of adding information that either fleshes out some aspects of the myths (expanding on Fenrir the wolf for instance) or gives a greater literary/historical understanding (the use of kennings or the tradition of the “insult duel). The illustrations are excellent: copious, varied in size (there are a pair of two-page spreads and multiple full-page panels to go with the numerous smaller ones), and including reproductions of paintings, film stills, woodcuts, stone carvings, illustrated texts, along with original black and white and color illustrations (Miguel Coimbra is the illustrator). They are a definite highlight. My only complaint is that their placement at times is a bit awkward with regard to the text, but really, they add so much to the text that this is a minor if sometimes annoying quibble.
One of my complaints about Jason and the Argonauts was the flatness of the retelling, which robbed the tales of much of their excitement. That’s far less of an issue here.
Davis’s prose is smooth and easy to follow, fluidly and concisely summarizing and retelling, and shifting easily from straight non-fiction to more narrative form. While it isn’t quite as vivid or exciting as an out and out retelling, I’d say Davis strikes a nice balance here.
Even though I’d been disappointed a bit in Jason and the Argonauts, I still found it “worthwhile, informative, and complete.” Thor: Viking God of Thunder does all that and adds a more vibrant, entertaining dimension as well, making this a far easier recommendation. Osprey is so far doing a nice job with these works, offering up slim but informative information that will appeal to a broad range of ages and purposes, from younger students doing research, to people just a bit curious.