By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
A certain frustration can result if we approach Norse myths like we would tend to approach an ordinary novel or movie from our own time. Instead, as in dreams, the actions taken by characters in mythological stories often feel constrained by limits we cannot see, understand, or even reason our way into. Norse mythology was a living body of narrative lore that expanded, contracted, and changed as it was told over the centuries.
Using Dream Logic
When you think about how to understand the stories of Norse mythology, it helps to think about dreams. Like dreams, there might be consistent characters in many individuals myths, but there are minor plot differences in the details of one story versus another. For example, one version of a story says Odin tunneled into a cave, while another says he tunneled out.
However, the original audience did not feel these were ‘plot holes’. Moreover, these plot inconsistencies are seldom very serious. They’re like what we might expect between the original version of a movie, and a remake decades later.
Presence and Absence of Consistency
We are accustomed today to series of novels, movies, or television shows, with internally self-consistent narratives that proceed chronologically from one scene to the next. TV shows often even have one or more people on staff whose job it is to ensure this kind of continuity from scene to scene or season to season. Modern-day fans may even ruminate over small, apparent inconsistencies as clues to logical developments to be revealed in the future.
Medieval listeners, on the other hand, had in mind a canonical set of characters with some canonical attributes and relationships between them. However, they did not necessarily expect these stories to fit together to form a cohesive, chronologically ordered canon. And with no single, widely distributed version, stories changed over time as they were retold by different people in different places.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Stories Built around Characters
While such changeable stories are different from what modern readers expect from a religion, 21st-century audiences are familiar with this kind of ‘franchise’ built around consistent characters. We find just such franchises in comic books and some movie series, even if we do not realize that the practice is pretty old.
For example, the character of Batman is highly consistent in several important respects from one portrayal or appearance to another—he is a wealthy man who fights crime at night in a bat-like costume and uses gadgets. He has a butler named Alfred; he often has a sidekick named Robin; and he has certain defined relationships with certain police in his community and certain recurring enemies. However, the exact details of his origin story—always involving, in broad strokes, his parents being killed by a criminal when he was a child—may vary from telling to telling.
So we do not expect a strict canon—an internally consistent set of narratives—for Batman, and we ought not to for the Norse myths either. If we keep this in mind, we will enjoy them more, without accusing the myths of failing to uphold a consistency that medieval storytellers and audiences never expected or cared about.
Don’t Question Dreams
Just like in dreams, characters will often find themselves forced into illogical solutions for illogical problems, though like dreamers, they do not seem to notice the absurdity themselves. For example, someone has a recurring dream that they’re being chased by a monster, while desperately trying to reach a truck.
Why do they need to get to a truck in particular? Why not try to fight it? What is this monster in the first place? Does it not want to attack anyone else? All sorts of questions we might want answered do not matter in a dream, which offers a contrived problem and a railroaded solution to it.
And our modern science fiction and fantasy often go to some lengths to explain why and how. However, myths do not even consider these questions. Or when they do, the answers are just as strange as what was being explained.
Coming to Terms with Norse Myths
For example, we read that the anti-god Hrungnir fought Thor with a whetstone. Why? We read that he fought Thor at the border between the gods’ enclosure and the homes of the anti-gods. Where is that? After Hrungnir was killed, Odin got mad at Thor for giving Hrungnir’s horse to the son of an anti-goddess. However, both Odin and Thor were sons of just such women. So why was he mad about this one?
There is not a single myth for which we could not generate such questions. But we won’t find the answers in our medieval sources, because the people transmitting these myths in medieval Iceland either didn’t look for them in the first place or didn’t care to interrupt the stories to answer them.
Dreams are no more readily susceptible to these kinds of why and how questions. But we accept them on their own terms while we dream, even though we can’t go back and find out more if we try writing them out the next morning. In the same way, we’ll be happiest if we can take the myths as they are—strange, dreamlike stories that defy our whys and hows.
Common Questions about Why There Are So Many Plotholes in Norse Myths
Modern audience is accustomed to series of novels, movies, or television shows, with internally self-consistent narratives that proceed chronologically from one scene to the next. Medieval listeners, on the other hand, had in mind a canonical set of characters with some canonical attributes and relationships between them. However, they did not necessarily expect these stories to fit together to form a cohesive, chronologically ordered canon.
Batman is a good example of a character that is well established with specific qualities that stay the same in each version, just like the characters of Norse myths. As there is no expectation of an internally consistent set of narratives for Batman, there should be none for the Norse myths either.
It’s best to understand Norse myths as if they are dreams. Nobody questions their dreams because they don’t expect consistent logic. This is the same with Norse mythology because there are limits and constraints in the stories that we cannot perceive.