A Childhood Story I Have Never Forgotten: The Death of Balder

Like many children, I read to be scared witless, to be less lonely, to believe in other possibilities.” – Amy Tan

When I was young, I spent hours devouring a ten volume set of stories and poems called, Journeys Through Bookland:  A New and Original Plan for Reading Applied to the World’s Best Literature for Children , 1939.  

The illustrations alone could transport you to other worlds, and the world I most liked to visit was that of the Norse gods.  Interesting choice for a kid, since this was a world that was destined to end badly.  At Rangarok, the last battle, the forces of chaos and darkness would win the day.  No doubt this mythic cycle influenced Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and just like our mortal lives or a fleeting sunset, the certainty of an ending lends these northern stories a haunting beauty.  Within that canon, there is one story that fascinated me more than others and pops into mind whenever I think of the root stories of my life.

The Death of Balder:

Balder, the god of light and summer, was the second son of Odin and Frigg and beloved of mortals and gods alike.  Because he was associated with truth, his mother worried when he was plagued with nightmares of his own death.  Frigg travelled the nine worlds, extracting vows from humans, immortals, plants, and metals not to hurt her son.  Because Balder was popular, every creature agreed – except the mistletoe, which Frigg considered too insignificant to ask. ( Oops!!!!! )

Now Loki was the trickster and the most fascinating and multi-faceted character of the lot.  He wasn’t one of the ruling family of gods, though sometimes humans prayed to him and he helped.  As a sower of chaos, he kept things in motion.  Coyote did the same for Native Americans, but Loki was much darker and proved deadly to Balder.

Loki and Rhinemaidens, by Arthur Rackham, 1910

Balder was asking for trouble the day he stood before the gods and challenged them to throw their spears and weapons at him.  “Gimme your best shot!”  In a color plate in Journey’s Through Bookland, there he was, the curly-haired golden boy, strutting his stuff like a star quarter back.  Ten years later, reading the Illiad in college, I would learn the word, hubris, but even without the vocabulary, I knew he was asking for trouble.  I knew I was supposed to like him, but I honestly thought him a moron.  You wanted to slap Balder – and Loki did worse that that.

Balder’s blind brother, Hodr wanted to join the fun, so Loki, in the shape of Thokk, a giantess, offered to help.  Did I mention Loki was a shapeshifter?  Loki/Thokk handed Hodr a dart made of mistletoe and guided his throw so it pierced Balder’s heart.  Thokk also refused to weep at Balder’s funeral, thus preventing him from returning from Hel.

The gods caught Loki and his punishment was terrible:  he was chained beneath the earth with a serpent above him dripping searing venom on his face and there he will stay until the bones of the earth are shattered at Ragnarok.  Sometimes the pain is so fierce, Loki writhes in agony and the earth shakes.  Without the god of light, the final battle draws near, and Fenris the Wolf, strains against the chains he will break at the start of Ragnarok.

Odin battles Fenris at Ragnarok

So why did the story fascinate me so?  When I was younger and imagined myself to be wiser, I might have tried to concoct some plausible explanation, but now I agree with Heraclitus (as quoted by James Hillman) who observed that one can never plumb the depths of the soul or be certain of its shifting landscapes and cast of characters.  But I am certain that one thing that keeps this story alive for me in imagination is mystery:  all the questions I cannot answer.

  • Why was Balder such a jerk?  Well over the years I sort of got a handle on this with the understanding that mythological gods are do not have well-rounded personalities.  It is a function of the god of summer to die – though most often in annual cycles.
  • Why, in spite of my best efforts, did I secretly identify with Loki even as I feared and loathed him?  I have no clear idea, except now I suspect that is a common reaction.  Somehow it is necessary, and we know it in our bones.
  • Why such a cruel and unusual punishment for Loki?  Isn’t it out of proportion to the crime?  I remember I thought so as a kid.
  • Why did I enjoy a story and illustrations that frightened me out of my wits?  That too, I think, is necessary.  That’s why we like Stephen King and Mary Shelley and why I’m betting Bram Stoker will outlive Twilight.  I believe well meaning people who would clean up fairy tales for children have it all wrong – life itself will sometimes be more scary than any story, and the old tales are like inoculations.
Ultimately, “The Death of Balder” just leaves me wondering – wondering about all kinds of things.  About the kind of people who would tell such a story.  About how they found their courage in a cosmology in which their gods were doomed to go down in defeat in the end.  Wondering if they really believed that or if, like the classical Greeks, they told these as beautiful wisdom tales without thinking they were literally true?

My wondering about a story like this could go on forever, which is probably why it still lives and breathes for me all these decades later.

NEXT:  Two ballads that keep me wondering.

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2 Responses to A Childhood Story I Have Never Forgotten: The Death of Balder

  1. Nicky says:

    Hey, nice post; I’ve never really explored mythology properly but you’ve inspired me to do so!
    I couldn’t agree more about scary stories being necessary for kids – more and more parents seem desperate to hide their children away from reality which I can sympathise with, but it seems like they’re setting everybody up for a fall when the real world inevitably comes knocking… Your analogy of innoculation sums it up perfectly.

    Like

    • I think another relevant comment comes from James Hillman, without doubt the most prominent of the post-Jungian psychologist, who said, “If we had more fairytales as children, we’d need fewer therapists as adults.”

      Like

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