Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

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.


  1. Okay, my inner music geek has to know: Which Verdi scene did you play? :D

    Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, up there with Tolkien, Gene Wolfe and Pamela Sargent.

    1. You made me dig back into the archives of programs from my 20 year BSO career. :)

      Here is the Verdi section of the program:
      Overture from La Forza del Destino (still a favorite of mine)
      Pace, pace, mio Dio from Forza
      Prelude to Aida
      Silenzio! Aida verso noi s'avanza from Aida (I've done this one a few times, so it was hard to remember whether it was on this program)
      Sinfonia from Luisa Miller (which is not as well known...)

      Also on the Wagner half of the program was the prelude to Lohengrin and Wotan's Farewell from Die Walkure (another amazing and treacherous selection)

    2. A decade ago or so, we did an all Verdi program. I don't remember what all we did, but I'm sure La Donna Mobile was on there, and a few from La Traviata, Anvil Chorus, and the other stuff you have to do for a Verdi retrospective. We also did a concert version (no recitatives) of La Traviata once.

    3. Oh, very nice! As melodious and hypnotic as Wagner is, he didn't have Verdi's gift for concise drama and catchy yet dramatically effective melodies.

      Musical instrument trivia department: I've seen a few Verdi scores and wondered about the part labeled "cimbasso" which is usually played on tuba now. It turns out that a cimbasso is a sort of contrabass valve trombone, that probably wouldn't have sounded much like a modern tuba. Interesting how much has changed in a century and a half. :)

    4. Ah yes, all the precursors to the modern tuba. It's rarely used, but Symphonie Fantastique calls for (among other things) a serpent. That instrument dates to the Baroque, and can be seen in action in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. We actually had a trombone player for a couple of years who owned one, and brought it for the Berlioz.

      Most of the early and mid Romantic era pieces call for an Ophicleide, which looks like the love child of a bugle and a saxophone. It, like the serpent, was difficult to play in tune, which led to the doggerel verse:

      The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
      Was fostered by the serpent

    5. It's kind of interesting that the strings haven't changed much at all during that time frame. Once they tuned up to 440 Hz and changed the neck angle, things remained the same. For that matter, many still play on 300 year old instruments (with a modified neck) while few functional wind instruments from that era survive.

  2. Hey, look, the Terry Pratchett book I'm reading right now is dedicated to Gaiman.

    And seriously, you HAVE to read it. It's like some kind of premonition of the 2016 election cycle. It's one of the Discworld books and it's called Guards! Guards!

    1. We're working our way through Pratchett one at a time.

      You do know that Pratchett and Gaiman wrote a book together, right? It's called Good Omens, and it is the funniest - and most thoughtful - sendups of Eschatology that I have ever read. And it too seems rather prescient.

      For what it's worth, I think my kids are getting a pretty good course in ethics from Pratchett, Alexander McCall Smith, and Star Trek TNG. :)