Source of book: Audiobook from the library
This is a relatively short children’s book - about two hours on audiobook. As such, it relates a single incident, and packs a lot into a short space. Neil Gaiman wrote this book for World Book Day, and fits elements of the Norse myths into the story.
To summarize it, those hapless gods, Odin and Thor, hire a Frost Giant to build a wall around Asgard for them. As usual, the fee is exorbitant, and includes poor Freya, who always seems to be a required throw-in in these deals, being the most beautiful woman and all. Odin gets cold feet, Thor gets Loki to cheat the Frost Giant, Thor kills the Frost Giant, and a grudge match inevitably results. (If this reminds you at all of Das Rheingold, you are not imagining things.)
So, the brother of the deceased Frost Giant tricks Loki into giving him Thor’s hammer, thus taking control of Asgard. Loki, Thor, and Odin are exiled to the realm of the mortals in the form of a fox, bear, and eagle, respectively. It is at this point in the story that Odd, a crippled Viking boy, finds them. As Thor has gotten stuck by a tree, Odd takes pity and rescues him, eventually discovering their identities and setting off on a quest to reclaim Asgard.
Odd is a typical Gaiman hero: quiet, socially outcast, introverted, and without friends of the mortal variety. But he is thoughtful, and fearless because he has already faced his own worst case scenario. What is death after what he has been through? It is easy to see a relationship to Bod in The Graveyard Book. Even the name has some resemblance.
The story itself unfolds precisely as one would expect. That’s the comforting thing about myth, of course. The stories are often the same story, told differently. (After reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, I can see the Monomyth elements easily in so many tales.) We already know that Odd is going to figure out some way of saving the day, and it will come via brains rather than brawn. (To quote The Sword and the Stone’s Merlin…)
Illustration by Brett Helquist
Without revealing exactly what happens, I do wish to comment on Gaiman’s conception of “magic.” In the legendary retelling of this story by Thor, it is clear that it will be “magic” that Odd uses. But it obviously isn’t in the classic sense. As Odd muses, his “magic” just consists in giving people permission to do what their better selves really want to do. This means giving up pride, “honor,” and toxic masculinity. It means making a rational decision about what is best even though one might lose face. But Odd also offers a way to save face to the Frost Giant. And that is the magic.
I find this fascinating, because a certain portion of my legal practice consists in exactly this. Bringing a case to a reasonable settlement really tends to involve those two things. Enabling people to take the sensible compromise, by helping them put aside wounded pride and the desire to “win.” And to make a proper show to the other side to help one’s client feel that they haven’t been “beaten.” As many a wise attorney will tell you, the very best settlements make each side feel they won, but these are very rare. If this kind of settlement were to happen, it would have before the sides lawyered up. The next best settlement is one both sides dislike equally. And in divorce cases, this is the most common result when the attorneys have done their jobs. This is the settlement that Odd negotiates. Enough to save face, while helping the Frost Giant to release what he really neither wants nor enjoys.
It’s kind of ironic that poor Loki, much maligned god, who is really the patron god of lawyers, isn’t the one to resolve the issue. But Odd himself takes that role as the advocate who brings the best kind of resolution.
Over the last year and a half, my kids have really taken to Neil Gaiman, and are a bit disappointed that we have nearly exhausted his kid-level books. They are macabre, thoughtful, and engrossing. This one is a worthy book, more short story than novel, and a good introduction both Gaiman and the Norse myths.
As with all Gaiman books, this one should be read by the author. Fortunately, our audiobook was.
A number of years ago, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra did a concert contrasting the two greatest opera composers of the late 19th Century, Verdi and Wagner. One of the selections we performed was the final scene in Das Rheingold, the entrance of the gods into Valhalla (Asgard). Many of the ideas found in Odd And The Frost Giants are in this scene, from Wotan (Odin) and his single eye, the Rainbow Bridge, and Loge (Loki) with his wounded pride.
I still have nightmares about the endless pages of arpeggios from playing this - The horns had fun, I’m sure - but I must admit, it is an amazing composition.