When I was a child, I had a book of Norse myths and legends. It was absolutely my favourite thing in the world for about two months out of every year, after which I would get tired as kids do and leave it somewhere dusty. This cycle only ended when I got to the age of fourteen and everything suddenly became incredibly tiring and pointless.
The point — which I am getting to, I promise — is that there was one story from that collection that I enjoyed more than any story I’ve ever read, before or since. I’m not sure why.
Maybe it was because it illustrated the great feats people can achieve when they’re not told how hard they are. Maybe because it was the first story I ever read that dared to take a figure who was the avatar of power and strength, and make him seem vulnerable, almost afraid.
This story, the story of Thor in the city of giants, resonates with me to this day. I love it, and have retold it here as much in my own words, from my own flawed memory, as possible.
I hope someone else reads it and takes as much from it as I did.
If the Norse god Thor had been in your class at school, he would’ve been the scarily intense and fairly thick teenager who lifted free weights all day under the mistaken impression that this would make him attractive to whoever he was interested in. He would also be the kid who genuinely thought that it was impressive that he punched walls when he was angry, and who got into altercations with the police when everyone else was trying to have a nice night out.
Loki, meanwhile, would have been the vaguely goth-y teenager who made provocatively edgy arguments in philosophy class and sneered at everyone, while thinking that they were much smarter than they were.
Neither was particularly pleasant, and of course each disliked the other an enormous amount.
Thor, being a rather competitive god by nature, was perpetually looking for a challenge. Loki was always looking for an opportunity to see Thor fall flat on his face. So, of course, after what passed for banter in the age of beards and the celebratory mass imbibing of rotting bee-spit, they both went to the land of the Jötunn.
On the way there, Thor and Loki rested in a peasant’s hut. The peasant had no food to offer the two gods, but did have a couple of really big goats. Probably the peasant lived on their milk, it’s not recorded.
What is recorded is that Thor slew the two goats, ate most of them (kindly inviting the peasant’s family to join him in eating the stew that was their livelihood), and then forbade the hungry peasant family from sucking the marrow from the bones of the goats. He did not explain why, but then he was the mighty god of thunder, and probably rarely had to explain himself to anyone.
Their teenage son Thialfi ate some of the marrow from one of the smaller bones, as should have been expected.
The result of this was that, the next night, when Thor re-animated the goats by magic, one of the goats — belonging to the peasants in the first place, you might remember — had a slight limp. Thor was furious.
Thor was in a pretty much constant state of mild to moderate fury, but the nerve of this peasant boy in slightly damaging some of the property which belonged to him anyway, and which he had not been told was particularly important, made Thor so angry that the peasant was reduced to begging for his life.
Thor eventually relented, and by relented I mean he kidnapped both the peasant’s children, Thialfi and Roskva.
Once the two gods and two terrified peasant children entered the land of the Jötunn, it was night, and they were forced to seek refuge in a cave, spending the night in a side chamber a little way in. During the night their sleep was disturbed by constant earthquakes and thunder, with the result that Thor woke up feeling cranky.
On leaving the cave, Thor saw that the loud noises had actually been the snoring of the giant Skrymir, who was resting peacefully nearby. Naturally, he put on his belt of strength and iron gloves, and attempted to cave the thing’s skull in — however, Skrymir awoke before he could commit murder as his first act of diplomacy in a foreign land, and politely asked him what on earth four tiny people had been doing sleeping in his glove.
This strikes me as a fairly reasonable question. The four are supposed to be quite shocked at the size of the glove which doubled as a cave, and much is made of this, but I think it would be much more of a shock to discover that there were tiny people living inside your clothes. I have only felt that there were tiny people living in my clothes a couple of times, and each time I was more than a little unhappy about the situation.
Skrymir — lest we forget, Thor’s intended murder victim — seems quite amiable, and noticing that they’re going the same way as him, offers them a lift. I imagine there was much awkward “Oh, this hammer? Why, do you know, I barely noticed that I was wielding the thing!” before this point, but the skalds don’t seem to have sung about all of the social faux-pas of their most warlike gods. Probably a good survival tactic.
As night fell a second time, Skrymir let his knapsack full of food fall to the ground, and fell asleep.
Naturally, Thor tried to steal some food from the knapsack, but couldn’t. In petulant frustration, he drove his hammer into Skrymir’s head.
Skrymir, who probably was just being a sarky bastard, simply rolled over and asked “What happened? Did a leaf fall on me?”
Thor went back to trying to undo the knots on the knapsack, and still he couldn’t do it. He got even more hungry and cranky, and drove his hammer into Skrymir’s head with more force.
Skrymir rolled over and asked “Was that an acorn?” before promptly falling back asleep.
Thor continued with his struggle a little while longer, before, exasperated and confused and tired and probably needing to be burped, Thor drove his hammer into the skull of Skrymir with all his godly might, resulting in a most satisfying squidgy fleshy sort of sound.
This time, Skrymir woke up, and asked “Did a bird drop a twig on me? Gah, never mind, it’s morning. You’d better get going or we’ll never get to the Jötunn citadel of Utgard. The Utgardians aren’t weak and feeble specimens like me, though. You’d best show them some respect!”
History does not record what the sound of a deity crapping his pants is.
The four of them continued on their way, though, and eventually reached the gates of Utgard, finding them locked and barred. Thor, not having spotted the theme of his being constantly humiliated and made to look small, attempted to pry the gates open with his considerable brute strength, but failed, and the four had to try to squeeze through to the courtyard of Utgard.
As they entered the hall of the Jötunn, the creatures stared at them with contempt. The chief questioned Thor’s manliness and size, and the fact that Thor did not respond with immediate brute rage shows just how genuinely terrified for his very life Thor was.
The four were allowed to stay, but only if they entertained their hosts with feats of strength and skill.
They began with an eating contest. Loki, who was never full even when he ate all day and all night, was pitted against a giant named Logi. A huge number of dishes were placed in between the two competitors, and Loki warned the giant that he was extra hungry that day, because he had not eaten anything since the previous morning.
The giant and the god started at opposite ends of the tables, and ate towards the centre as fast as they could. When they met, the giants found that they had met in the exact centre, and were ready to declare an honourable tie — until they noticed that Loki had only eaten the meat from the bones, while Logi the giant had eaten the meat, the bones, the dish, and a good section of the table underneath it.
So Loki lost the first challenge.
Next, Thialfi, being small and fast, was set against the giant Hugi. Even as Thialfi warmed up, he was so fast that you could hardly see him. However, once the race started, the giant showed that he was just as fast — but he took enormous steps while Thialfi’s steps were only small. Hugi turned around at the end of the race and met Thialfi as he returned, finding that Thialfi had only made it halfway down the track.
So Thialfi lost the second challenge.
Finally, Thor was challenged to a drinking contest. Thor was thirsty, tired and needed a drink, so he agreed to the challenge. The giant chief laid out the terms of the challenge — any giant of worth could drain the drinking horn in one go. All but the most feeble giants could drain it in two draughts. Only the weakest and most pathetic runts would take three draughts to empty the horn.
The drinking horn was only a little larger than the horns the gods drank from, and Thor was a thirsty drunkard, so he accepted the challenge.
With the first draught, he drank as much as he could, until his lungs were bursting from his chest, but the drinking horn hardly looked any emptier.
With the second draught, again he drank until he almost passed out for want of air, but the level of mead in the horn was no lower.
With his final draught he pulled further and deeper from the horn than he had ever thought possible — and still, when he looked back at his work, the horn looked hardly any emptier.
The Chief of Utgarde laughed, and said “Such a feeble god! I recommend that you give up now, to save yourself from any further embarrassment.”
Thor was defiant, and said “I will attempt any feat you choose to put before me.”
The Chief looked thoughtful, then said “Alright — I have a task suitable for someone like you. Only a game, really, that our very youngest play. See that grey cat over there?”
Thor looked and saw that there was a large cat, probably twice the size of a wildcat, curled up by the fire.
“If you can lift that cat completely from the floor, I will consider that a feat of strength.”
Thor snorted, and went confidently to lift the cat — but the cat clung tightly to the floor without even opening its eyes, and Thor only managed to lift a single paw from the floor.
The Chief came over, helpless with laughter, saying “Stop, stop, stop! You have done more than enough to discredit the name of mighty Thor for one evening. Don’t worry about this — it is kind of a big cat, after all.”
Thor was furious(er than usual) at this. He demanded that, since he was so weak, he should be allowed to fight the very mightiest of the Jötunn. The Chief looked serious, and explained that there would be great shame for any Jötunn to fight with someone who could barely lift a cat — but that he would allow him to fight his old nurse, Elli.
Elli was a very old woman, whose bones creaked as she moved. Although she made her way towards Thor determinedly, her steps were slow and looked painful to make, and her clothing gave off a strong dank odour, as though she were already in the grave.
Thor being Thor, he entered into the battle with all his might, attempting to crush the old woman into submission.
She did not relent though. In fact, Elli did not even flinch in the face of Thor’s assault. Slowly, she began to push back, and Thor found himself, shocked, being wrestled into submission.
Even the Chief looked embarrassed on Thor’s behalf at this show of weakness, and as soon as Thor was forced onto one knee, he came forwards and stopped proceedings. “Stop!” he said, “The fight is finished. Thor and his companions have done their best, and will be allowed safe passage through Utgarde.”
Thor was ashamed, and wondered how he could ever hold his head up among the gods again.
However, it was revealed to him that not all had been as it seemed.
The Jötunn Skrymir was none other than the Chief of Utgarde himself, and had been deceiving him with his magic.
Where the three blows of Thor’s hammer had landed — not on Skrymir himself, but just next to him — three huge valleys had formed, each deeper than the last.
Loki’s opponent in the eating competition had been Fire itself, and had eaten through everything in its path, but still was challenged by Loki’s impressive hunger.
Thialfi had raced against the swiftness of Thought itself, and proved himself to be a third of the speed.
When he had drunk from the horn, it was magically tied to the sea, and though Thor did not empty it, he reduced it and created the tides that continue to this day.
Finally, when Thor lifted the cat’s paw, all of Utgarde trembled in fear. It was not really a cat, but the Midgard Serpent Jormungandr, who circles the entire world, and lifting its paw was a mighty feat.
Most impressive of all was the old woman, who was Time. In the end, everyone falls to Time — but Thor was merely forced onto one knee.
Thor was angry at this, because he had no other emotions, and attempted to smash the Jötunn, having learned literally nothing from the whole story, and the Jötunn and Utgarde disappeared from view.
Loki probably said something smart-ass and then they all had ginger beer and ice cream floats that weren’t as good as they remembered them being when they were children, because ice cream floats are a little pointless if we’re honest.
Despite the title of this post, I have used Jötunn instead of giant throughout. This is for a couple of reasons.
Jötunn is often translated as giant, but the English understanding of “giant” doesn’t really cover what most of them were. They were often huge, but some were only around the same size as the gods, while others were wolves or multi-headed foot babies. I imagine most of them as being like things from the stunningly atmospheric computer game Shadow of the Colossus.
The point I’m making is that these things aren’t just big people. They are bizarre, powerful, magical creatures of many different sizes. Thor and Loki going to the land of the Jötunn is like a brave knight in English tales going into the land of the fair folk, only the fair folk are all enormous and some of them are giant snakes.
It’s a scary place, is the gist of my point (if I have one).
It also means that the “giants” Thor faces actually could be Jötunn, in the sense that they are natural spirits, rather than natural forces disguised as giants, which gives the story quite a profound edge, in my opinion.
I do apologise for mangling the grammar of the word, though, which I am sure I have done throughout the story. Find some weird legends over here.