The best books on Norse myths and the gods and heroes of their universe

Who am I?

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of seven books about Iceland and the Viking Age, including The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, and the award-winning Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths. Her books combine extremes: medieval literature and modern archaeology, myths and facts. They ask, What have we overlooked? What have we forgotten? Whose story must not be lost? A former science writer and editor at a university magazine, she lives on a farm in northern Vermont and spends part of each summer in Iceland.


I wrote...

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

By Nancy Marie Brown,

Book cover of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

What is my book about?

Song of the Vikings brings to life Snorri Sturluson, wealthy chieftain, wily politician, witty storyteller, and the main source of Viking lore for all of Western literature. Tales of one-eyed Odin, Thor and his mighty hammer, the trickster Loki, and the beautiful Valkyries have inspired countless writers, poets, and dreamers through the centuries, including Richard Wagner, JRR Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman. Author Nancy Marie Brown brings alive the medieval Icelandic world where it all began. She paints a vivid picture of the Icelandic landscape, with its colossal glaciers and volcanoes, steaming hot springs, and moonscapes of ash, ice, and rock that inspired Snorri's words, and led him to create unforgettable characters and tales. Drawing on her deep knowledge of Iceland and its history and first-hand reading of the original medieval sources, Brown gives us a richly textured narrative, revealing a spellbinding world that continues to fascinate.

The books I picked & why

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Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs

By John Lindow,

Book cover of Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs

Why this book?

As an expert on Norse mythology, this is the book I reach for again and again. Who was Angrboda? Where was Folkvang? What does Yggdrasil mean? John Lindow answers all these questions, and hundreds more, in Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.

Organized alphabetically, Lindow puts at your fingertips a concise description of each name or concept in the Norse myths and lists all the original poems and tales in which you’ll find it, plus a number of scholarly studies (now 20 years out of date, but still valuable). A few entries are illustrated with photos of archaeological sites or artifacts. I consider Lindow’s Norse Mythology to be a necessary companion to the other books on this list.


Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

By Carolyne Larrington,

Book cover of Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

Why this book?

Carolyne Larrington takes a different approach to John Lindow. In The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, she arranges the myths in a rough chronology. After introducing her sources and the main gods and goddesses, she proceeds from the creation of the world to its destruction at Ragnarok, digressing along the way to explore how the myths defined what it meant to be a hero in the Viking Age.

Larrington’s Norse Myths is gorgeously illustrated and filled with relevant (and beautifully translated) quotations from the medieval texts. Larrington also does an excellent job of placing the Norse myths into the context of modern culture, making her book the perfect gateway into the Vikings’ complex and fascinating way of seeing the world.


Norse Mythology

By Neil Gaiman,

Book cover of Norse Mythology

Why this book?

Many storytellers have tried to make sense of Norse mythology, starting with the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson, whose Edda contains almost all the myths we know.

Like Snorri, Neil Gaiman deals with the myths’ contradictions and logical leaps to retell these timeless tales of gods and giants so they’ll speak to the readers of his time. In his inimitable style, Gaiman turns Norse mythology into a journey, “from the ice and the fire that the universe begins into the fire and the ice that ends the world,” freely “blending,” as he puts it, the different versions of the tales told in Old Norse.

His prose is direct, his emphasis on the story, not on the words. “Before the beginning there was nothing,” he writes of the world’s creation, “no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world always burning.”

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a clean and modern retelling of the stories that define Viking culture.


Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings

By Kevin Crossley-Holland,

Book cover of Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings

Why this book?

Kevin Crossley-Holland works from the same material as Neil Gaiman, uses the same blending technique, and comes up with a completely different set of stories.

Compare how he tells of the creation: “Burning ice, biting flame; that is how life began.” What Gaiman calls “the mist world,” Crossley-Holland describes as “heavy with layers of ice and hoar frost, a desolate place haunted by gusts and skuthers of wind.”

In Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings, the word reigns supreme—though these powerful stories have no trouble standing up to his wordsmithing. And for those of us who love the taste of words on their tongue, these poetic retellings of the myths are the best.


Norse Mythology for Kids: Tales of Gods, Creatures, and Quests

By Mathias Nordvig,

Book cover of Norse Mythology for Kids: Tales of Gods, Creatures, and Quests

Why this book?

Kevin Crossley-Holland published excerpts from his Norse Myths as a book for children. But as a child’s first introduction to the tales, it might be too poetic. I’d recommend, instead, Norse Mythology for Kids by Mathias Nordvig.

Nordvig retells the myths as your wise uncle might—if he happened to be Loki, the trickster god. For Nordvig not only blends different versions of a tale, but he also adds bits he thinks our original sources shouldn’t have left out.

Into that “mist world” at time’s beginning, for instance, Nordvig inserts a loon who helps the goddess Jord build the Earth. It’s a tale I’m familiar with from Native American mythology, but as Nordvig asserts, the Norse stories “are still alive.” And to keep them that way, we need to make them our own.


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