Odd and the Frost Giants
Few modern authors have the talent of blending the classical with the modern that Neil Gaiman does. In Odd and the Frost Giants, he melds that talent with the not inconsiderable feat of writing a good children’s book. Finally, he adds that rare gift, writing a book with a fox in it*, to make a delightful little tale.
I grew up on Greek and Norse myths, and so, apparently, did Gaiman. He’s invented a little one here, in which Thor, Loki, and Odin (the Big Three of Norse mythology) are transformed into animals and cast out of Asgard. The longer they stay in animal form, the more the animal nature will take them over. Enter Odd, a staple hero of children’s books, a young man who isn’t understood by his community. He’s too quiet and introspective to be a good Norseman (shades of How to Train Your Dragon), and his penchant for taking long, solitary walks in the woods has left him with a permanent limp following an accident in which a tree fell on his leg and shattered the bones.
One winter seems to go on forever, and the Norsemen, trapped in their lodges, become more and more edgy and belligerent. Odd decides it will be more peaceful out in the woods, even if it is still winter. In the course of his travels, he meets a fox who, curiously, entices him to follow it to a bear with his paw stuck in a tree, surrounded by angry bees. Odd sees the problem immediately, and decides that the animals seem non-threatening enough that it’s worth taking the chance to free the bear. Not only do they not kill him, they follow him to an abandoned woodcutter’s cabin he knows of. He invites them inside and they stay the night.
In the middle of the night, Odd wakes to hear the animals arguing in human voices about whose fault their predicament is. Blame seems to settle on the fox, despite his protests. When Odd sits up and confronts them, the animals reveal themselves as Odin (eagle), Thor (bear), and Loki (fox). They explain their predicament: a Frost Giant has taken over Asgard. This is the cause of the endless winter, as well, and so if Odd can help the gods return to their home, his village will also benefit.
Gaiman bases this tale in an old Norse myth, in which Loki helps the gods cheat a Frost Giant by seducing his stallion. The Frost Giant in this book, it turns out, is the other’s brother, and has taken over Asgard on a mission of revenge. The anchoring in actual Norse myth gives the book a hold in reality that makes it more compelling. I felt at times as though I were reading a newly-discovered Norse myth.
And yet, Gaiman brings a modern sensibility to the characters. Though they are undeniably Norse, they talk in modern English. For example:
“I think,” said the bear, “as a responsible adult, I should point a few things out.”
“Talk is free,” said Odd, “but the wise man chooses when to spend his words.” It was something his father used to say.
“I just thought I should point out that we are wasting our time. We don’t have any way of getting to the Rainbow Bridge. And if by some miracle we crossed it, look at us—we’re animals, and you can barely walk. We can’t defeat Frost Giants. This whole thing is hopeless.”
“He’s right,” said the fox.
“If it’s hopeless,” said Odd, “why are you coming with me?”
The animals said nothing. The morning sun sparkled up at them from the snow, dazzling Odd, making him squint.
“Nothing better to do,” said the bear after a while.
This is a very short read (by my estimation, about 15,000 words), but an enjoyable one, with a satisfying conclusion. About the only fault I can find is that Loki doesn’t remain a fox*. But as the trickster god, I’m sure he took on the shape again at some point in his life. As he says in the book, “It wasn’t the first time I had turned into animal form—I was a horse once, you know—but it was the first time it was imposed on me from the outside, and it wasn’t a nice feeling. Not a nice feeling at all.”
Odd and the Frost Giants, though, leaves quite a nice feeling. I was swept up in the book, and Gaiman expertly weaves all the trappings of myth into the story. So if you grew up on Greek and Norse myths, like I did, you will enjoy this non-traditional addition to the library.
* I’m joking, of course. There are many very very good books without foxes in them.