Those who read my stories know that I have a fondness for aspects of my ancestral Norse heritage, especially in the mythology of the Aesir, of wise and manipulative Odin, mighty Thor, fair Balder, and devious and ultimately treacherous Loki. I also have a similar fondness for the great stories of Greek Myth – the Labors of Heracles, Perseus and his defeat of Medusa, crippled yet indispensable Hephaestus, wise Athena, wandering-eyed Zeus, and the rest of the Olympians. The love of these two ancient mythologies began with two brilliant childrens’ adaptations of the myths and legends of Norway and Greece: D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths (previously Norse Gods and Giants).
Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire were both talented artists; as it turned out, together they were also talented writers of children’s books, and their greatest works focused on the adaptation of folktales and mythology. They devised a unique, brilliantly recognizable, and beautiful style of artwork based on actual lithography (use of stone engraving). This gave their books, and especially these two, an ancient, mythical air, artwork that seemed both ancient and modern bridging the era of the reader and the myth.
Given the era in which they were written, and the audience for which they were intended, the books are surprisingly accurate in their recounting of the myths (and in fact often retain some of the more frightening and questionable aspects of the myths that might raise eyebrows today). So it was from the d’Aulaires that I learned about how Odin came to be one-eyed, exchanging the sight of one eye for the wisdom of Mimir; the forging of Thor’s Hammer, complete with a handle that was too short because the job was rushed (and perhaps from a little resentment on the part of the forgers); and red-bearded Thor’s adventures with Thjalfi and Loki in Utgard-Loki’s palace and their contests against impossible opponents. Later I encountered Marvel Comics’ version – and was pleased when I saw them nod back to the original myths, first with a sequence in which a red-headed and bearded man temporarily becomes Thor, and later during the run of the incomparable Walt Simonson. But my first encounter, and most fondly remembered, with the mythology of my Norse ancestors was that given to me by the D’Aulaires, and it still forms the foundation of my gut-level approach to the myths.
Similarly, it was their brilliant-colored illustrations and matter-of-fact recountings that brought me into the chaotic, arbitrary, glorious, and petty realm of the Greek Gods – Ares, cruel and sometimes cowardly god of War, competing with his gray-eyed sister Athena who knew no fear and understood depth of strategy; Zeus, sometimes champion of what is right and just and sometimes a sneaking, cheating husband; Hades, cold, gray, yet fair, and his wife Persephone whose return to her mother brings forth spring; the mighty and fearsome Titans, imprisoned but not ever quite safely gone. This background clashed rather heavily with the… modified version which my later inspiration Saint Seiya provided, but not even that quite managed the wince-worthy appearance of the loving couple Zeus and Hera in Disney’s Hercules. “Xena, Warrior Princess” certainly took as many liberties with the original, but in some ways both it and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” stayed closer to the spirit of the original Greek myths; certainly the Greek Gods of both shows exhibited many of the same impulsive, sometimes childish, and certainly arbitrarily arrogant attitudes as their originals!
What both books gave me most of all was the glimpse into a past of wonder – a place where there were gods and men, and neither gods nor men entirely sure of anything, either good or bad, that was to come, and a place where Heroes walked and determined their own fates – and sometimes those of the gods, as well. Where a single arrow of mistletoe could bring down the destruction of the gods… and where their end could still leave hope for a new beginning.
The d’Aulaires are no longer with us, but their stories – their versions of ancient and perhaps eternal stories – live on. They now sit on the shelves of my children, who perhaps will be inspired by them as I was, and continue to be.