When I was in grade school, so many years ago, a friend of mine turned me on to this amazing book. This book became my raison d'etre during those years. I checked it out of the library so many times that the librarian would come looking for me when someone else wanted to borrow it. I can still remember that copy of the book: the clear plastic cover over the dust jacket with a tear along the bottom right corner. When I moved on into junior high, once in awhile I would think of this book and wonder if it still resided in its usual position on the bookshelf. Even after I graduated from high school and began my life, I continued to wonder if this book was still in the library of my old elementary school. True, I thought about the book less and less as the years went by, but I still remembered it fondly when I thought of it. Then one night, while skating along the Internet, I thought of the book and decided to see if I could locate a copy. I frowned when I discovered it was out of print, but continued my search, becoming feverish as each avenue of inquiry turned up naught.
Then finally, success! I found a copy, available for an astronomical sum. I shelled out the dough and waited for its arrival. I was not disappointed. The book was just as I remembered it: an oversized hard cover copy with the familiar, although faded, dust jacket. Ultimately, the price I paid for the book really didn't matter. Who can put a price on the memories of childhood? I would have paid double what I coughed up for this precious book. What disappointed me was discovering that it was out of print. That is a crime I hope is soon remedied.
D'Aulaire's "Norse Gods and Giants" is an excellent book for a child. It is a simplified retelling of the stories and adventures of the Norse pantheon. All of the gods are here: Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, Balder, Freya, and all the rest. Along with the descriptions and anecdotes of the gods and goddesses are stories about the creation of the earth, the evil jotuns, and Ragnorrak (the end the world). All of the stories explain earthly phenomena, such as planting, writing, death, fertility, war, and love. My favorite story in the book is the Thor cycle, actually four stories recounting the exploits of Thor (often with the treacherous Loki in tow) against the hated jotuns. The book crackles with magic, action, and amazing worlds. The D'Aulaires even add a post-script about the emergence of Christianity after the Norse pantheon collapses.
However, it is the illustrations that make this book such a treasure. The pictures run the gamut, from crude pencil or charcoal drawings, to ultra-bright colored pictures depicting the gods and goddesses acting out their stories. The artwork is, at times, extraordinary. The drawing of the goddess Sif and her golden hair is one of the most beautiful depictions of a woman I've seen in a children's book. It is the pictures, more so than the text, which moves the book along at a fast pace.
A reader's companion at the end of the book explains all of the characters and events in the narrative, along with explanations of what a story meant for those who told them and listened to them. For example, the story of Frey wooing the icy jotun Gerd explained how the barley fields thawed in the spring. A story about Odin hanging himself from a tree for nine days and nights explained how runes came into being. Even if the stories were stripped of their meaning in human terms, they would still be enormously entertaining for children.
As age encroaches on us, we learn about soteriology, eschatology, and the common origins of every religion. But once in awhile it's nice to shuck all of that and just indulge in something for the sheer joy of the thing. This book goes a long way towards accomplishing that. I wish every library contained a copy of this exciting and beautiful book. To think I even considered going back to my old elementary school in order to "liberate" this book! Oh well, I've got my copy. Now you have to find yours.