Thursday, 20 September 2012

Yggdrasil

Poul Anderson's War Of The Gods (New York, 1999) is set much more in the world of men than is his earlier Norse fantasy, The Broken Sword. The author summarizes the geography of Saxons, Jutland, Danes, the Baltic, Wends, Gardariki, Anglians, the Skagerrak, Zealand, Scania, Geats, Finns and the Swedish kingdom founded by Odin.

Mythological material is matter-of-factly incorporated into this realistic framework. A giant living in Midgard no longer fights men because they would call on Thor.

Anderson invents a story to explain both why Odin's brothers, Vili and Ve, fade from the story in the myths and why Odin swore blood brotherhood with Loki. But the invented story owes much to the myths. Loki buzzing someone as a fly rings a bell.

Anderson writes perhaps the most detailed account of the World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, to be found anywhere in literature. The worlds are around its roots and its bole or high in its boughs. He describes its inhabitants as recounted in the Eddas and adds:

"...the tree lives, for it is life, and it shall abide when the world goes under." (p. 82)

(The new world after Ragnarok will be populated by descendants of a couple who hide in the Tree.)

Odin and Loki climb the Tree:

"...through shadowy, whispery caverns of leaf..." (p. 82)

I am fairly sure that that description is original with Anderson.

Yet again, Anderson's science fiction echoes his fantasy. In Harvest Of Stars, characters climb and contemplate among the branches of a tree grown huge in the low gravity of a space habitat.

In British children's fiction, Enid Blyton wrote a trilogy about a Magic Faraway Tree climbed by children who find a different world at the top each time. A typical Alan Moore job would be a sequel in which the children, grown up, revisit the Tree and interpret their earlier experiences there in adult terms.

Although the Faraway Tree is conceptually related to Yggdrasil, Anderson's treatment of the latter has greater imaginative power and literary merit. As in the sagas, the story of Odin's journey through Midgard, Ironwood, Niflheim, Muspellheim, Jotunheim and Yggdrasil is a "play with the play," in this case recounted by Hadding to his captors while getting them drunk so that he can escape and claim his kingdom. The mythical story of Odin plays its part in the human story of Hadding.

Hadding's hearers are fascinated by his account because Hadding, raised by giants, can recount stories from jotun sagas differing in detail both from what men know and from what the gods have disclosed. The jotuns are the oldest race, with lore that goes back to the beginning. If there were such a race, then their account would be valuable indeed.

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