Carlo Rotella

The doomsayer in his hot tub

The wooden foreparts of Viking ships are thought to have been carved in dragon shapes to ward off sea monsters.
Istock Photo
The wooden foreparts of Viking ships are thought to have been carved in dragon shapes to ward off sea monsters.

A new book can send you back to an old one, showing you something about who you are and how you got to be that way. That’s what happened to me recently when I read Nancy Marie Brown’s “Song of the Vikings,” a lively new retelling of the life of the 13th-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson.

Brown calls Snorri “the Homer of the North — and also its Herodotus.” A gouty fat man “prone to soaking long hours in his hot tub while sipping stout ale,” Snorri was a shrewd businessman and lawyer, but his lasting fame rests on the books he’s credited with writing: “Egil’s Saga,” a paleo-noir tale starring the murderously capable Egil Skallagrimsson; “Heimskringla,” a history of the kings of Norway; and “The Prose Edda,” which is the principal source of what we know about Norse mythology. Brown also traces Snorri’s influence through the ages, showing how his work was seized on by Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien, Scandinavian nationalists and Nazi ideologues, metalheads and Aquarians.

Reading Brown sent me back to Snorri’s own writing, which brims with poetry and hardboiled wit. But Brown also sent me back to Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire’s “Norse Gods and Giants,” a children’s version of the Prose Edda’s mythological section, first published in 1967. After decades of hard use, my copy’s illustrations have faded, and its spine is heavily reinforced with clear tape. In my formative years I read and reread it with an intensity that I now associate with the urge to fashion a self.


I was raised in a Mediterranean household filled with Italian and Spanish food, music, and talk. Bedtime stories came not from the Grimms but from classical Greek mythology. The siege of Troy, the voyages of Odysseus and Hercules, and the intrigues of the Olympian gods were my narrative touchstones. And then one day I happened upon “Norse Gods and Giants,” and the Greek paragons, suddenly recast as whining prima donnas, were instantly relegated to second place.

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The D’Aulaires introduced me to the one-eyed all-seeing Odin, the irascible thunder god Thor, the perverse double-dealing Loki, and the rest of the Aesir, forever at war with the teeming ice giants and monsters of the outer darkness who encroached on heaven and earth. And they introduced me to Ragnarok, the gods’ foretold day of reckoning.

There was a time in the early 1970s when I read the D’Aulaires’ Ragnarok chapter nearly every day, sometimes several times a day. First come three years of winter, a dire axe-time of starvation and war, and then one morning the golden cock of Asgard and the sooty cock of Hel announce the end of days. The earth splits open and all bonds are broken. Uncountable hosts of giants, beasts, and the vengeful dead converge on Asgard’s outnumbered gods and heroes, who take up arms and go to meet their doom knowing already that they will lose. Prophecy has shown them that when they all lie slain on the field of battle the sun and moon and stars will be extinguished, and Surt, the demon-god of fire, will split the vault of heaven and torch the world with his flaming sword.

I remember chills running up the back of my neck as I lay on my stomach on a scratchy carpet in a bar of sunlight, the oversize book open in front of me to the page on which Heimdall, the watchman of the gods, blows his horn as frost-rimed horrors march on Asgard from every direction. I see now that a part of me was taking definite form then.

While it’s true that long roots trail down to the Greek myths from the part of me that glories in learning and light, there’s a grimmer part of me that waits for inevitable trouble and regards the coming of spring or the weekly garbage pickup as a forlorn gesture, a brief putting off of eternally advancing chaos. Nancy Marie Brown has taught me that the roots of this part run deeper than I knew — down through “Norse Gods and Giants” to the imagination of a gouty poet, historian, and lawyer drinking beer in his hot tub eight centuries ago.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles and Other True Stories.’’