Douglas “Dag” Rossman’s previous work (The Nine Worlds: A Dictionary of Norse Mythology; The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends Retold . . . and What They Reveal; and Theft of the Sun and Other New Norse Myths) should be familiar to readers intrigued by the lore of the North per se. It should also be familiar to and appreciated by anyone interested in the light that mythology can shed on depth psychology in the vein of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, particularly the mythology of one’s own ethnic background. Speaking of his early experiences as a storyteller of Norse legends, in the book’s “Afterword”, Rossman says: “Perhaps because the stories grew out of, and spoke to, my family’s heritage . . . the Norse myths resonated with me in a way no others have before or since. They seemed to belong to me personally, and I to them. It was as if the voices of my ancestors were speaking to—and through—me, sharing their wisdom and world view.”
Rossman’s Scandinavian ancestors would approve of The Dragonseeker Saga, a new collection of original short stories set in the nine Norse worlds. They would also find that those familiar tales had both changed and deepened. In Rossman’s hands, myth is a living entity in which the past interacts with and informs the present, not a package of calcified tropes. Where there is life, there is growth and evolution, as the author seeks to fill in some of the gaps in and among the earliest written versions of the stories that have come down to us. Like Tolkien, he’s spent the most time and imagination in fleshing out the cosmology and culture of the Elves.
Not unlike a picaresque hero, the main character, Dag Ormseeker (Dragonseeker), sets off on a journey throughout the Nine Worlds, and sweeps the reader along with him. Like a fairy tale protagonist or a Campbellian hero, Dag also has a quest: to tell tales of the gods and their foes, because the loss of those stories would mean that “the gods could no longer reach humankind with their lore to help and heal them.” Entwined with his profound knowledge of Norse myth and Jungian seriousness of intention is Rossman’s sheer ability as a storyteller. The book is a rich handful of crackling good stories. Like any fine genre writer, Rossman fulfills some of his or her readers’ expectations of a tale set in the Norse mythic worlds (Odin has one eye, ravens and wolves), plays with other expectations (what if Odin were involved with a third raven . . .?), and adds some twists of his own.
In “Dragonseeker,” we meet the title character and learn something of his mysterious parentage—a common theme in fairy tales and in “hero’s journey” myths. From Nidhögg, the dragon who patrols Niflheim, Dag receives a shamanistic initiatory wound, the loss of one arm. His mentor and uncle dies, and he’s trapped in ice—a symbol of frozen feelings. In “Brekka,” the cow Audumla, who freed Odin’s grandfather from a block of ice, frees Dag. At the behest of the god Heimdall the Watcher, come from Asgard where Dag’s newly-arrived uncle has explained his plight and excited the sympathy of a master smith, Dag tricks the troll-woman Angrboda and procures living ironwood to make a new arm. He also falls in love with the giantess Brekka—the ice has truly melted—only to lose her to the revenge of Angrboda, consort of Loki the Trickster. Heimdall encourages him not to give in to despair. In “The Smith’s Tale,” Dag accompanies Heimdall to Asgard, where he meets his father, the lame half-Elven smith Völund, who seems crippled not only by his wound but also by his vengefulness against those who inflicted it. Still, Dag refrains from judging him. He receives a new arm from Völund, and learns of the existence of his half -brother.
In “The Faces of Freya,” Dag is temporarily reunited with his beloved Brekka, whose spirit now dwells in Asgard. Once Odin’s wolves show themselves friendly to Dag, Odin gives him his quest. Odin also comments that the gods might see little reason for fending off Ragnarök, the final battle wherein the gods are fated to fall, if they were forgotten by men and women. Moved by the love between Dag and Brekka, Freya, goddess of love, arranges to have Brekka assigned as his hamingja, a kind of spirit-guide who brings luck and warnings. This story is important, for in it, like a fairy tale hero, Dag receives not only his hero’s quest, but also the favor of both the instinctive world (the wolves) and the feminine (Freya and Brekka).
Dag is then sent to learn more of his father’s people, the Elves. In “The Troll at the Tarn,” he confronts a tarn Troll to rescue a stranger Elf, Formindar. The Elf then becomes Dag’s sworn-brother and takes him to his village, one good turn earning another. Formindar narrates the following tale, “The Third Raven,” in which we learn what happens when Odin returns from a trip to find that his brothers Vili and Ve have taken over Asgard and married Odin’s wife, Frigg. Ve’s punishment is commuted for humility, but the unrepentant Vili is turned into a raven for his hubris. “The Alfar Way” describes the mores and beliefs of the Elves, Dag’s patriarchal line. When told about the Elven ritual of placing one’s anger in a fen dragon’s tooth, which must be seized by two Elves working togther, Dag agrees to hunt the dragon with Formindar’s niece, Aelas.
Before hunting the orm, Formindar and Dag pursue “The Dream Thief,” an evil wizard who steals the dreams so important to the Elves’ well-being. In the battle with the wizard, Dag meets his own fylgja (spirit ally). Aelas reappears for a successful hunt of “The Dragon in the Fen” with Dag, with whom she exchanges fangs imbued with each other’s true names and deepest feelings. Then a raven—perhaps Vili?—appears and tells Dag that he must resume Odin’s errand to tell stories of the gods. When the raven forbids Aelas to accompany Dag, she complains it’s unfair. The raven is unyielding: life is unfair and Dag must leave Alfheim, his newfound true home, and fang-mate to go on with his quest.
“The Final Lesson” brings Dag to consult the oracle in the Grotto of Grief, where he perceives that his swan-mother hadn’t surrendered to despair at being trapped in bird form after his birth, and had salvaged some happiness from her new swan family. He decides that there are times when love matters more than duty, and that he’ll return to Alfheim, Formindar and Aelas. Far from striking Dag down—here we see a major evolution of myth—Odin says that blind obedience to any authority, even that of a god, is no path for a man.
The Norse world-view is deeply embedded in these tales. Dag struggles against the forces of chaos, destruction, entropy and random ill-will: Niddhogg the dragon; Angrboda the troll-woman, a kind of anima-figure for Loki; the fight to resist despair or anger in the face of life’s inevitable physical and emotional wounds. The universal truths and virtues illustrated here occur in the Havamal: courage; loyalty to loved ones; friendship; self-respect; generosity; insight; strength of character. A more modern wisdom appears as well: the importance of dreams; the need to still the restless mind; the role of free will. Legend, a psychologically sophisticated humanist’s perspective, and the storyteller’s art all blend to produce a gift: an augmented and amplified perspective on both the cosmology of the peoples of northern Europe, and its ongoing relevance to our psyches today. Highly recommended!