Move aside, cotton-candy haired trolls
Tales from Norway: of Vikings, Gods, Giants and Trolls tells Norse mythology like it is
It is nice to have a children’s book dedicated to Norwegian mythology rooted in fact. While popular culture has adopted many Nordic creatures, they have been utterly severed from their historic origins.
For example, trolls have been transformed from stone-like grisly monsters into candy-colored cuties. Perhaps this began with the nude wishniks of the 1970s, but now they are so far removed from their beginnings that they have become disconnected from their original purpose, a way to explain the surrounding environment—in this case the mountains of Norway. It is said that if trolls come out in daylight, they will turn into rocks. Hence, an explanation for Norway’s rocky terrain. This is not reflected in the depiction of trolls in recent media, instead we have a saccharine mutation that in no way looks like a craggy mountain.
So a book using historic truth about Norwegian mythology is truly appreciated. Charmingly constructed as a story (with interactive dialogue) between a Norwegian farmor, Ann-Lise Bay Braathen, and her two granddaughters, who reside in Chicago, the reader immediately trusts the careful words uttered in Tales from Norway of Vikings, Gods, Giants and Trolls.
The book opens with a map depicting the world from Norway to North America. Instead of marking L’Anse Aux Meadows, the archaeological site where Vikings reached what is now Canada, Chicago is noted, a shout out to the place where the author’s granddaughters live.
Braathen’s conversation style allows for smooth segues, bringing the past to the present. For instance, while telling the children about King Harald Fairhair, the girls mention that Norway’s current king is also a Harald.
The book allows for the relevant interruptions that occur when we chat, especially with children. In one section, their thoughts are interrupted by lightning and a thunderclap outside the window, which triggers talk about the Viking god Thor.
Braathen makes the Viking gods relevant to children today. She compares them to the superheroes that dominate popular culture, an easy task given Marvel’s incorporation of Thor and Loki.
There is at least one small historical inaccuracy, in response to her granddaughters’ question about why they are called Vikings. “That’s because many of the Vikings came from an area around Oslofjord in Norway called Viken.” This is one theory, but it is not definitive. But this is a minor discrepancy.
I would be remiss not to mention the book’s illustrator, Caterina Moretti. In her colorful images, she offers accurate details of Vikings: clothing, homes terrain, ships, and weaponry, including anatomically correct Viking helmets, i.e. without horns, thus enhancing the book’s veracity.
The picture of Midgardsormen (the sea serpent who lived in the ocean) attacking Viking ships with a storm that tears their sails to shreds, as well as her image of two humongous trolls, visually portrays the dangers faced by the Vikings, whether real or imagined. Her most romantic and beautiful image is her final one: two Viking ships gracefully sail up a mountainous fjord illuminated by the northern lights. It is lovely.
Braathen offers a brief but thorough synopsis of the Vikings and their mythology that is easy to consume and a wonderful addition to any library. This is the first in her planned series of three, which will only add more knowledge to our youth. In American schools, Greek and Roman mythology dominate, with a smattering of Egyptian. Shouldn’t Norse mythology also be part of our children’s education?
Recommended for children ages 7 to 12, Tales from Norway is available in print or as an ebook.
This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.