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13 Mar 2010

Review: Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On (Steven T. Abell)

Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On by Steven T. Abell
2008, Outskirts Press
268 pages

Open The Poetic Edda at a random page – particularly Lee Hollander’s canonical and nigh-unreadable translation – and you might find Norse mythology to be altogether too bizarre and cryptic to connect with. Such a reaction would be very understandable – Icelandic poetry is insanely complex and the stories seem to have been composed for an audience that already knew the background to the situations and characters. How, then, can we moderns find our way in? How can we translate the connection in our hearts into a form that permits speech and words?

As if attempting to solve this conundrum, some authors have attempted to retell the myths in a more modern vernacular. This has produced mixed results – some of these attempts are very successful, but even the best of these is vulnerable to well-intended but disappointing simplifications and distortions. Blunders such as painting Loki as one-dimensionally “evil” or Freya as a simplistic love goddess really fail to do this complex and subtle mythology the credit it deserves.

Thankfully Steven T. Abell has found a nigh-on perfect solution, and he presents this solution with wit, wisdom, and a knowing wink in the form of Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On.

This book is an anthology of short stories which Abell originally composed for oral performance (and it would be quite a treat to see him perform I suspect). The stories are mostly set in modern times, or at least fairly recent times. They’re stories of human beings living all sorts of different lives, and Abell is brilliant at conjuring their different universes like a chameleonic insider.

The fulcrum of each of these stories is that somehow the protagonist of each tale needs something to shift or to change in their lives. And that, obviously or not, is where the mythological figures – gods and goddesses – get involved: guiding, provoking, tricking, healing, challenging, and just being themselves.

The image of Thor and Loki walking into a diner (that gets held up by a robber with darkly comedic consequences); or Frigga hanging out at a beach-side resort; or Tyr as a biker who guides folk onto the way they need to go – well, this is potent stuff. Abell taps right into the beating pulse of Norse mythology and lets the red life of it gush out into a form with which almost anyone could relate.

Of course, the human protagonists have no idea that they are dealing with forces divine, and this adds to the subtle hilarity of the pieces. This is exactly how it is when gods walk the world, and Abell throws us right into the deepest heart of what Heathenism is at its best: a sacred bewilderment, a source of hope, a profound love of life, even in its miseries.

There’s a deeper point that Abell makes with this book, perhaps not entirely explicitly: that form and essence are not identical. This book, though it ceaselessly echoes and references the forms of Germanic mythology, nevertheless strikes out in all manner of creative and original directions. And yet, by expressing the ancient creative spark – rather than, idiot-savant style, attempting to create a brittle simulacrum of old traditions – Abell demonstrates that authenticity is just as much about intention and innovation as it is attention to tradition.

Because truly I believe that the experience of these stories in the present is the closest thing we can have to what the original stories must have been like for the original Heathens. I occasionally talk about something called psychological reconstructionism – the idea that evoking the spirit of the ancient ways sometimes brings them into manifestation more powerfully than if we merely copy them slavishly. This book is potent evidence for the value of this idea.

The book is not only written for Heathens, and though it might seem cryptic and maddening at times to those not familiar with the mythological references, I suspect these quirky tales might also seduce the Heathen tendencies to the surface of many a reader or listener. Instead of the idiotic chest-beating that some Heathen authors adopt when trying to spread the word, this book entices and intrigues and delights. Such an approach is much sexier, in my opinion.

And there is something truly, truly sacred about reading stories of the gods and goddesses presented in this fashion. Abell deeply grasps the power and vulnerability of Tyr; deeply grasps the complex machinations of Odin’s mind; deeply grasps the many-shaded richness of Loki’s character (which is very welcome, given how confused so many people, even Heathens, are about this profoundly beautiful, profoundly flawed being).

Interspersed with the main stories are a string of short vignettes evoking scenes from the Icelandic landscape, always with a historical or mythological angle. This is a clever stratagem, because it situates the stories in strong supportive context, particularly for readers who are not familiar with Germanic Heathen traditions and myths. These intermissions help the reader to connect to their own sense of curiosity and wonder, and this serves to heighten the sometimes bewildering magic of the narratives on offer.

I think it is really telling that the gods in these stories appear as agents provocateurs in the cause of needed change. In Abell’s vision they help us heal, let go, ripen, explore, and find our courage in the face of adversity. There is a powerful object lesson here about polytheism: these beings after which we are made deeply understand the fragility and beauty of our mortal predicament, and in their generosity are moved to act for our benefit (though some of the characters in these stories experience this generosity as hardship, being forced as they are to answer for the ill or cowardly decisions they have made).

Steven T. Abell truly is a skald, a word-magician, a galdor-master. He imbues these tales with a light-hearted gravity, weaves narratives that are exquisitely captivating. I really hope that this book penetrates deeply into modern Heathen consciousness – it has the power to help us all transform for the better. For life and myth are not separate, hermetically sealed realms, the one dismal and the other shining. The two are deeply entwined, the necessary condition for one another’s sacredness. And in this book we find a beautiful, marvellous, magical invitation to roam the mysterious road that the old stories of northern Europe shelter so impeccably. Here and now the gods are vital and active and alive…and always with us, their mortal travelling companions.

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