Neil Gaiman Odd and the Frost Giants Bloomsbury 2008
Published for World Book Day in April 2008, Odd and the Frost Giants was designed with youngsters in mind but can be enjoyed by oldsters as well. Part fable, part fairytale, with a dash of mythology, it features the resourceful Odd, son of a Norwegian Viking and a Scottish mother. Lamed when a tree trunk falls on his leg he is bullied — particularly, after the death of his own father, by his new stepfather. So in the midst of a prolonged winter which shows no sign of ending he heads off to the lone cabin in the woods where his woodcutter father stayed when he was out chopping down trees. And it is then that he is plunged into an adventure which begins to uncover the explanation of Winter’s continued grip.
Odd hasn’t got his name from the English word “odd” (though there is no doubt that there much that is strange about him, especially his enigmatic smile). I suspect that Odd is the author’s amalgam of aspects of two characters from ancient Greek myth. His lameness suggests Oedipus (the name means “swollen foot”), though unlike the Greek hero it is not his father that he confronts and a Sphinx that he outwits but another creature altogether, a Frost Giant, that he vanquishes. And like Odysseus (the name possibly related to “odium” because Odysseus is universally mistrusted) he has to rely on his wits and cunning to win through, especially against a Northern version of the Cyclops. But because this is Scandinavia the mythological setting is very far from that of the Mediterranean and Odd is neither Oedipus nor Odysseus exactly.
Neil Gaiman has created a haunting tale that almost reads like a retold folktale. He has woven in typical folktale motifs such as the hero who by generously helping the unfortunate gains useful advice and assistance; Gaiman’s also brought down to human level the culture hero who fits Joseph Campbell’s monomyth criteria by bringing benefits to humankind; and he’s also made Odd a likeable lad whom we can relate to, who respects his father’s calling and touchingly demonstrates love for his mother in an unexpected final gesture.
Without giving the whole story away I’d just like to add two points. One is that this novella is a different treatment of the Scandinavian divinities such as Odin and Loki from that in Gaiman’s earlier American Gods. The other is that I suspect this represents a nod to one of Gaiman’s favourite authors, his friend Diana Wynne Jones, who had herself written her take on Scandinavian mythology in Eight Days of Luke. But of course neither of these points is essential to the enjoyment of Odd and the Frost Giants, a magical tale with a heart which can be easily read in one sitting — or at least within twenty-four hours.