Ingri & Edgar Parin d'Aulaire,
Norse Gods & Giants
(Doubleday, 1967)

I know I wasn't the only child to receive one of those oversized children's Bibles. Even if you avoided getting one, you've seen them in the bookstores: primary-colored tomes that cover the main stories of the faith in simplified and often patronizing tones. My version had bright, photorealistic illustrations that put the birth of Jesus somewhere in southern California, and as for the text ... it had very bright illustrations.

So I was thrilled to get another collection of myths, one with vibrant, inspired illustrations, one that made its heroes intimate, living beings and used the simplified language of children's books to give urgency and drama to the old stories. I couldn't have explained all that at the time, of course; I only knew that I'd found something truly inspirational in Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire's Norse Gods & Giants.

Like most books that introduce mythology to children, Norse Gods & Giants focuses on the main cast and most essential stories of the pantheon. Unlike the majority of such books, Norse Gods takes the time to sketch, if only in passing, the people who gave life to the tales and the importance of their religion in their time.

Despite the constraints of page space, the d'Aulaires take on the bulk of the Norse myths, covering the tales from creation of the world to Ragnarok. They don't flinch from the grim stories of Balder's death or Loki's monstrous children. The lighter stories are also given a fair showing. Thor's comical misadventures with Loki provide a relief from the grim tales of war while giving the gods a chance to show off their lesser-known, friendlier natures. While the tales are often simplified, the d'Aulaires never talk down to their presumably young audience. The violence and brutality of the old myths are left intact -- not glorified, but not justified or ignored, either. No apologies are offered for the gods; when they misbehave or break oaths, the issue is left alone, with consequences to be revealed through another story. At the same time, the constant concern with noble behavior, honor and valor that is inherent to the Aesir's myth cycle is allowed to come through without being captured in neat moral phrases.

The d'Aulaires' text is simplified to fit both their audience and the span of the book, and they often leave the emotional heavy lifting to their illustrations. The rough artwork and limited, naturalistic color palette give the pictures a primitive, earthy feel. The color arrangement and simple composition gives an illusion of kinetic movement; the images flicker and seem to move like shadows in a hearth fire. Colors are used for their emotional resonance: Loki flickers in shades of orange, Thor's chariot rumbles along in crackles of red lightning from his beard. The dominance of warm colors makes the occasional splash of blue or shot of green a welcome and relaxing surprise. The rough, simple art makes even the fantastic elements of the Norse gods' tales appear lively and possible. Dwarves creating themselves from earthworms and eight-legged horses romping across the sky seem as natural and wonderful as villagers giving a feast. Lively, colorful and deceptively simple, the d'Aulaires' art is a perfect complement to the straightforward enchantment of the Aesir world.

Norse Gods & Giants is by necessity a simplified book; diehard Asatru and academics looking for obscure lore from the Norse religions will probably not find what they seek here. Those tired of the too-often repeated Mediterranean myth cycles will find an engaging introduction to something new. And believers of all ages will find themselves watching the skies for a rider on an eight-legged horse.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 15 May 2004

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