Originally published in March 2008 with illustrations by Brett Helquist as part of the celebrations of World Book Day, Neil Gaiman’s story of twelve year old Norseman Odd and his encounter with the gods of Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim has now been gloriously repackaged in a new edition with illustrations by Gaiman’s friend and frequent collaborator, the Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell.
In Norwegian Odd’s name means “the tip of a blade,” yet to the other villagers it is the English meaning he carries, not fitting in with any of his peers or his newly extended family, his mother now married to Fat Elfred, an arrangement which pleases neither of them and which has forced Odd further from the fireside, displaced by four step brothers and three stepsisters.
It is two years since Odd’s father died returning from a raid, leaping into the cold water off Orkney to save a pony. Like the rest of the villagers he had only been a part time Viking, a woodcutter and carver by trade, and Odd still carries his father’s axe though it is too large for him and has brought him only bad luck, his leg broken when he tried to fell a tree which landed on him, leaving him lame.
One morning in the depths of the seemingly endless winter Odd sets off for his father’s mountain hut to be alone yet finds himself in the company of a curious trio seeking shelter and warmth, a crafty fox, a one-eyed eagle and a large and boisterous bear. More curiously, in the depths of the night when they believe Odd to be asleep, he hears the animals talking amongst themselves.
In fact they are the legendary Loki, Odin and Thor, transformed into animals and ousted from Asgard and unable to return without access to the rainbow bridge of the Bifrost, the occupation of the Frost Giants affecting the seasons in the mortal realm of Midgard to which they have been exiled, but having earned the trust of these three strangers Odd is determined to help them.
Written before Marvel recreated these characters in the image in which they are currently overwhelmingly thought of, both that version and Gaiman’s draw on vastly older sources which have permeated the mythology of many cultures; even had Chris Hemsworth never picked up a hammer, there would be a comforting echo of familiarity about this story which carries the traditions of folk tales without seeming dusty, dry or remote.
Despite his bad leg and his conviction that he does not belong, Odd has insights and skills which the gods lack, approaching the Frost Giants with reason rather than attempting to fight for Asgard as a warrior would, his reserve a contrast to the clout of Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir or the impulsiveness of Loki which landed them all in the situation in the first place.
Illuminated throughout by Riddell’s characteristic flowing pen and ink style, children will appreciate the bold characters and movement while adults will notice the intricate detail of every panel. Compact, undemanding and hugely enjoyable, it’s certainly a book which can be read by children but more than that it is a book to be read to children, particularly on a cold winter night where the stars are bright in the dark sky above, and beautifully presented it is ideal for discovery under a tree by eager young hands on a frosty Christmas morning.
Odd and the Frost Giants is published by Bloomsbury on Thursday 8th September