A trio of Vikings and a loveable Valkyrie

Valuable lessons in life seen through a mythological lens

Image courtesy of Adam Auerbach

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Image courtesy of Adam Auerbach

Adam Auerbach is a Brooklyn-based illustrator, whose work has been published by The New York Times as well as other illustrious publications. He has also created several delightful children’s books, two with Viking themes, the first of which was awarded the prestigious Ezra Jack Keats Award, Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School (2014). 

This first book is the whimsical tale of Edda, a little Valkyrie girl, well-loved as the youngest in a bevy of sisters. She calls her father “Papa,” but as he dons a fetching eye patch and is surrounded by iconic ravens, you will recognize him as Odin. Playing with dragons and trolls, climbing huge trees, and dining at boisterous feasts, Edda leads an exciting Viking life.

The conundrum is that she wishes to meet someone her own age. Her father is very wise. He does not try to talk her out of her wish and respects her feelings. His solution is to take her on his magical flying horse, Sleipnir, out of Asgard and down to earth, so she can attend school.

Like many children, Edda is shy and intimidated in the beginning. She tries to assess the lay of the land, because she doesn’t fit in:  a touching universal human moment. She ruminates on the real differences between her life in Asgard and her life in the classroom. She wonders how she can adapt—which requires a quick learning curve. For example, at school, she has to sit still, while at home she can roam wherever she wants. This requires a sizable behavioral change. 

At lunch, she has to wait in line and can’t share her food, different from home at Asgard, where they have huge communal feasts. The visual juxtaposition found in the images of the colorful Viking world against the muted colors of the school day further enhances the much more exciting Viking world. 

Then it is time for a journal writing assignment. Edda does a drawing instead, because “writing is hard work.” But the teacher stipulates that she has to write. So Edda writes about what she knows, creating a saga in a magical place, with elements that include “danger, bravery, victory and forgiveness.”

Image courtesy of Adam Auerbach

Edda does so well the first day that one of her classmates returns with her to Asgard after school. She brings her love of storytelling back to Asgard, recounting her adventures on her first day of school. She also has a surprise for her school friends the next day, when she brings in her dragon.

Interestingly, the author chose Norse mythological culture to represent the other or outsider, allowing the storyteller to discuss a serious issue without offending. This simple story not only takes a dip into Viking culture, but also holds a poignant answer for our times as to how we can find common ground when we are different from one another. This book’s solution is: Take a leap of faith, reach out, talk, and share. It also reinforces the need for us to acknowledge that our differences make us unique and valued.

The only concern I had with the book was regarding the historical accuracy of the Viking headgear, which includes not only horns but also feathers. We know the Norse did not use horned or feathered helmets. I wondered if they were inspired by the costumes used in Richard Wagner’s epic 19th-century opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung.

The author confirmed this for me: “Some imagery from my first book, Edda, was inspired by Wagner’s Ring cycle, particularly Edda’s outfit, with the winged helmet and scaly armor. I love Wagner’s music, and the fact that the world he created in the Ring is so saturated in Norse mythology. The way he used mythological elements to tell a story of his own was also inspiring to me. Wagner was a great artist, but he held some awful beliefs. That makes loving his operas complicated for me.” 

Auerbach’s second Norse-inspired book, The Three Vikings, was released in 2019. It uses a much more vivid color palette than the first one. It is again an adventure story, but this time the three little Vikings hope to visit Valhalla, and to their delight, they are finally summoned there in a dream—but that does not mean they will not encounter some obstacles along the way.

Image courtesy of Adam Auerbach

The little Vikings travel up the tallest mountain, where an ominous troll confronts them. They journey through the darkest forest, where they encounter a fire-breathing dragon, and over the widest sea, where a Norse sea monster, the Kraken, blocks their ship. Each time the littlest Viking tries to bring a peaceful solution using his gift of music. But he is unsuccessful, so the other two step in, using strength and bravery,

I liked the author’s droll explanation of how they solved their troll problem: “Luckily the strongest Viking was able to give the troll a lift back to where he belonged,” as the story tells of how the strongest Viking hoisted the troll through the air toward the mountain.  

When the Vikings finally reach Valhalla, there is a shift in appreciation, as the feasting warriors wait in anticipation for the littlest Viking, who will provide them with the much-anticipated music and stories they have been yearning for. It was wonderful that the author not only included but also elevated the skald, the poet, storyteller, and musician. In Viking society, the skald held a high status, but today, few are aware of this and instead focus on their warrior culture.

In both stories, the author incorporates Norse mythological themes. Each includes a journey, full of challenges or obstacles along the way, and bravery and creative thinking take the heroes to the finish line. Auerbach uses Viking gods and goddesses and mythological creatures as his characters: the Kraken, troll, and dragon. The visual images he chose, such as the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, also introduce the reader to elements of Norse mythology. And if you look carefully at the mountain after the troll is hoisted, you will see his face at the pinnacle. It is as if the mountain has become personified or “trollified,” a nod to the Norse belief that if trolls come out in the daylight, they explode and turn into mountains. 

This story speaks to several lessons that carry us through life. One is the importance of sacrifice evident in the two other Vikings who saved the day during their hardships, and the other is finding your place and gift in life, as shown by the littlest Viking who has an unusual, quieter skill, yet remains tenacious in his endeavor to use it toward peace. 

Visually, the end pages of this book are exquisite, almost like a reverse negative. And I love the depiction of the littlest Viking singing a heartfelt lullaby to the Kraken.

I spoke to the author about his two books and their Norse inspiration. His thoughts follow.

Image courtesy of Adam Auerbach

Victoria Hofmo: Do you have any connection to Scandinavia, and if so, what is it? 

Adam Auerbach: I don’t have any personal connection to Scandinavia or Scandinavian heritage. I am a fan of Norse mythology and have been interested in it since childhood. My first exposure to Norse mythology came from a classic children’s book called d’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants. Since then, I have loved the stories that come from the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. I named the character from my first book after it!

VH: Why did you use Viking themes in two of your books?

AA: In Edda, I wanted to tell a really different kind of first-day-of-school story. We’re all our own people, and our personal lives often feel so different from the ones we share in public spaces. The first day of school can feel like entering a new world, with different rules and a totally new rhythm. Edda’s two different worlds are sort of a metaphor for that idea. I also thought using Norse mythology would be a fun way to add imaginative elements to a story grounded in real-life experience.

In The Three Vikings, I wanted to write a book that celebrated storytelling, and there’s no doubt that the Norse myths are some of the greatest stories ever told. The three Vikings go on a quest to reach Valhalla. The strength and bravery of the two bigger Vikings help them to get past the obstacles in their path, but they would never have set out in the first place if it wasn’t for the little Viking’s song. Strength and bravery are celebrated in Norse culture, but so is knowledge and storytelling. 

Image courtesy of Adam Auerbach

VH: How did you choose which elements of Norse culture you wished to include?

AA: In each of my two Norse-themed books, I chose elements of the myths that fit with the stories I wanted to tell. In my very first draft of Edda, I had her riding the bus to school. I soon realized her dad, Odin, should take her there himself on the first day. It was only natural that they would ride on Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. 

In The Three Vikings, I wanted to tell a story about a Viking character who is a musician but not particularly strong or brave. Would he be able to enter Valhalla, which, in the myths, is reserved for warriors who fell bravely in battle? The monsters in that book—the troll, kraken, and dragon—all come from Norse mythology. The original Norse myths also have a really funny side, and I definitely wanted to include humor in my books.

VH: Do you have any plans to use Viking themes in future stories?

AA: I’m currently working on a book called Legendary Creatures. It’s not a story, like my previous books, but a collection of mythical creatures from around the world. It’s not specifically Viking-themed, but it will contain one famous creature from Norse mythology.

Auerbach’s books are fun and would make a wonderful addition to any library. And there is an extra bonus, as they provide Scandinavian Americans with a creative way to introduce Viking mythology and provide valuable lessons in life to a beloved child. 

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.