GREAT SUPPORT FROM THE TIMES: CHILDREN’S BOOK OF THE WEEK

What are the Norse myths exactly?  Clock’s ticking.  Phew, lucky that Kevin Crossley-Holland, the Carnegie medal-winning author and poet, presumes ignorance from the start in this magnificent anthology.                                            In the foreword of his book  –  a perfect Christmas present for little warriors everywhere  –  we learn that the Vikings believed that humans inhabited Midgard (Middle Earth) and shared it with dwarfs and giants.  Above Midgard lived the gods in the realm of Asgard, and below Midgard was the third level, the world of the dead, ruled over by a woman whose body was half alive and half a corpse.                                                                                                  The axis of these three levels?  A colossal ash tree, which everything alive depended on: the Tree of Life.  A man in Iceland called Snorri Sturluson (expect guffaws) eventually wrote down these myths, which Crossley-Holland read as a child and became entranced enough to write his own versions in adulthood.                                                                                                                 It’s impossible not to be captivated by these extraordinary characters, aided by Jeffrey Alan Love’s tremendous pictures of gods and goddesses, dwarfs and giants.  Crossley-Holland, who has translated Beowulf and is an expert in Norse mythology, is a natural storyteller who wears his learning lightly.  He writes beautifully, dramatically and accessibly, whether he’s telling the story of one-eyed Odin, Thor’s mighty hammer or tricky Loki with the flaming hair.  There is a helpful glossary at the back that allows you to tell your Aegir (the god of the ocean) from your Ymir (the first giant, made of fire of ice).                                                                                                                       At the end of the book the three mysterious wise kings  –  High-One, Just-as-High and Third  –  speak: “Tell these stories yourself and for as long as our worlds last, people will retell them.  Make what use of them you can.”  If they were still around to give dust-jacket quotes, they would effuse about these revived versions.  Instead, the writer must make do with a modern literary deity, Neil Gaiman (“Kevin Crossley-Holland is the master”).  He’s not wrong.

Alex O’Connell – The Times, Children’s book of the week