You know that you’re an argumentative person when you feel the impulse to argue with something you agree with. This happens to me on an daily, or even hourly, basis. Today’s case in point is a slice from China Miéville’s recent and (justly) much-linked post, “Five Reasons Why Tolkien Rocks”:
“For those of us who regret the hegemony of the Classicists’ Classics, the chewy Anglo-Saxonisms of Mirkwood and its surrounds are a vindication. We always knew these other gods and monsters were cooler.”
This, of course, is the sound of my ox being gored… by my own damn ox: I’m a big fan of both mythologies (and others besides).
[Monstrous quibbling beyond the jump.]
In some significant ways, Norse mythology is cooler than Classical mythology. The Norse gods can be heroic because they can suffer and die (and are doomed to do so). The Greek gods can’t. They may look like us, but they aren’t really like us; there’s a gap that sympathy and affection can’t cross. Advantage: Norse.
As far as heroes go, I think it’s a wash. Norse mythology has a lot of great heroes–Starkad and Wayland and Grettir and so on. But the classical world has at least as many and probably more variety. The hot-headed young Achilles could have stepped straight onto a Viking ship with a minimum of trouble (and an Old Norse-Mycenaean Greek dictionary), likewise Odysseus (who wouldn’t have needed a dictionary; he’d trick the Vikings into learning Greek). The cold-blooded social-climber Jason is a different story, and the sharp-witted clown Hercules is yet another–he’s many stories, a library of stories, most of which don’t belong in the same biography. But if you include Icelandic family saga and Roman history (often crossing into legend) the heroes (of both genders) get too numerous to really keep track of. So I’ll call this a draw.
And the setting for Norse mythology is just preferable to some people: Norse myth is dark, foggy and drinks beer or mead. Classical mythology is bright, hot, and drinks wine. It depends on what you like. All this is the sound of me being reasonable.
But I refuse to be reasonable on the subject of monsters. There’s no way Norse mythology can compete with Classical myth in the way of monsters. I nod respectfully to the Grendelkin as I say this; I bow in the general direction of Fafnir and Beowulf’s dragon, and the Fenris-Wolf and so on. But in fact the monster is very often just a place-holder in Norse myth–a plot-coupon the hero collects on his way through the story.
Take the Yule-beast that Bodvar Bjarki defeats when he comes to the court of Hrolf Kraki. It’s got wings; it shows up; Bodvar’s sidekick screams; Bodvar kills the beast. That’s it. There’s refraining from over-description so that your audience has scope to exercise its imagination, and then there’s just not describing stuff; the Yule-beast falls into the latter category. I like to picture the beast along the lines of Tenniel’s Jabberwock, burbling through the Tulgey Wood, so the scene works for me. But I don’t think it works on its own.
On the other hand, consider Polyphemus the Cyclops. He’s got one eye (and not because he lost one); he herds gigantic sheep; he lives alone in a cave with his sheep and his memories; he doesn’t like strangers who eat his cheese, so he traps them and kills them and eats them. This paints a vivid picture in the mind without giving too much detail (e.g. his unhappy one-sided romance with Galatea, a sort of ST:TNG plot that later writers added to his backstory). And Odysseus defeats him by being what he’s not: Odysseus is cunning where Polyphemus is savage, generous where Polyphemus is selfish, relentless where Polyphemus is weak. The hero and the monster define each other.
And herds of monsters like this darken the hills and valleys and waters of mythological Greece: hundred-handers, fire-breathing donkey-eared giants, giant gray man-eating sows, sphinxes (because smart story-tellers steal from the best), a Freudian smorgasbord of snaky-haired female monsters, blood-drinking ghosts that prey on children: you name it. Greek mythology is the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery of monsters: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it.”
The best monsters are malefic distortions of the real, preying on some deep fear or anxiety in the audience’s mind. And Classical myth has a plenitude of monsters that begin as human. Consider Erysichthon, cursed with perpetual hunger so that he sells everything he can, including his own daughter, to buy food. In the end he devours himself.
For a nightmare like this you have to leave the grim Gothic shades of Mirkwood and go to the sunlit ostensibly rational fields of Classical myth.