Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Witch's Heart

In her novel, The Witch's Heart, Genevieve Gornichec picks apart the ancient tapestry of Old Norse myths, sorts and irons out the colored threads, adds some narrative silver wire and sparkling jewels, and embroiders a stunning new story of the Norse gods and giants.

Much of what we know about Norse mythology comes from one short book written in Iceland in the early 1200s by a man named Snorri Sturluson. It's called the Prose Edda, or Snorri's Edda. By the time Snorri wrote it, Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia had been Christian for 200 years. No one exclusively worshipped the old gods. Snorri himself was educated in a powerful Christian family. When Snorri was 17, his foster brother, Páll, was elected the Bishop of Skalholt.

As I explain in my 2013 biography of him, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Snorri had no intention of "collecting" or "preserving" pagan myths for us to enjoy 800 years later--though that's what he did. Snorri was not thinking about his "legacy." Like every writer, he had an immediate audience and purpose in mind when he sat down to write. His audience was the 16-year-old Norwegian king. His purpose was to teach the young king to appreciate the poetry of the ancient North--so that he himself could obtain a powerful position at court.

Snorri was an expert in the songs of the Vikings. He had memorized nearly a thousand poems and could write in the ancient skaldic style himself, with its convoluted word order, its strict rules about rhyme and meter and alliteration, and its many vague allusions to mythology. When he went to Norway in 1218, Snorri brought a new poem to recite. He expected to be named King's Skald, or court poet.

But young King Hakon thought skaldic poetry was old-fashioned. It was too hard to understand. He preferred the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which were just then being translated from the French.

Snorri must have been shocked. Skalds, or court poets, had been a fixture at the Norwegian court for 400 years. Skalds were a king's ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were part of the high ritual of his royal court, upholding the Viking virtues of generosity and valor. They legitimized his claim to kingship. They were time-binders: They wove the past into the present.

Snorri wrote the Edda to teach the young king his heritage.

To appease the bishops, who controlled the young king, Snorri put a Christian slant on the myths he told. He wasted few words on female characters, choosing instead stories that would excite a young man: stories of fast horses, magic swords, and trials of strength.

When goddesses and giantesses do appear in Snorri's Edda, they are reduced to objects of lust--or disgust.

Such as the one at the center of Genevieve Gornichec's The Witch's Heart.

"There was a giantess called Angrboda in Giantland," Snorri writes (in the 1987 translation by Anthony Faulkes). "With her Loki had three children. One was Fenriswolf, the second Iormungard (i.e. the Midgard serpent), the third is Hel. And when the gods realized that these three siblings were being brought up in Giantland, and when the gods traced prophecies stating that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them, then they all felt evil was to be expected from them, to begin with because of their mother's nature, but still worse because of their father's." The gods capture the three children and take them away--but Angrboda, their mother, lover of the Trickster God Loki, is never mentioned again.

In The Witch's Heart, Genevieve Gornichec fills that void, imagining the Tale of Angrboda that Snorri never told. It's a love story, an origin story, a coming-of-age tale, and a quest, with an indomitable witch at its center. The mother of Loki's monster children will win a place in your heart.

For more stories of powerful Viking women, see my book The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, or read the related posts on this blog (click here).

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of and may earn a commission if you click through and purchase the books mentioned here.

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