Working with mythology is kind of like writing fan-fiction: Some things are spelled out for you explicitly as rules of this particular world or universe, and some things aren’t, and the trick is to create a story that sort of fits in with what’s already there—without making the story unbelievable to readers familiar with the material.
When it comes to retelling myths, I can only speak on the Norse ones. For The Witch’s Heart—a reimagining of Norse mythology centering a very minor character, the giantess Angrboda—I started by asking myself three questions: What do we know about the myths, and how do we know it? What don’t we know? And how can we fill in the gaps in a way that makes sense?
What Do We Know and How?
When you read a retelling of the Norse myths, the storyteller will generally draw on the two main sources we have: the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, both from medieval Iceland (thanks, Iceland!). The collection of poems in the Poetic Edda were first written down by unknown authors in the late thirteenth century, but the poems are thought to be composed much earlier.
So when you pick up any retelling of the Norse myths, there are already several layers to unpack. There’s what the author of this retelling chose to do; then there’s whichever version of the Eddas they used as their source, and how that translator chose to render different words and meanings; then there’s whichever transcription the translator used. The original Icelandic manuscripts are highly abbreviated and sometimes hard to make out, which can leave room for error.
And finally, there’s what the original scribes themselves wrote down and why. Even if we can ascertain their exact meaning from the texts, the people who wrote down the myths were more than two hundred years removed from the Viking Age and their pagan ancestors. They had their own agendas and their own context for these stories, and we can’t assume that they were totally unbiased (looking at you, Snorri).
What Don’t We Know?
The short answer is: a lot. Who knows how many myths, legends, or histories weren’t written out because the authors just didn’t care about them? And how many manuscripts simply didn’t survive to be passed down?
This is lack of information is especially maddening when it comes to the Norse goddesses, many of whom are mentioned once and then never mentioned again. It can be really frustrating to realize how much we don’t know, but at the same time, for creative purposes, it can be a blessing in disguise, because it gives you the freedom to come to your own conclusions.
To use an example from The Witch’s Heart: Angrboda is a character mentioned literally once in each of the Eddas, and both times as the mother of Loki’s children: Hel, ruler of the dead; Fenrir, a giant wolf; and Jormungand, also known as the Midgard Serpent, a massive snake. That’s all we’ve got for her—at least, by name. So…
How Do We Make It Work?
In many retellings, Angrboda seems to be either ignored or maligned—presumably because of the nature of her children, their role in Ragnarok, and their father. But, I wondered, what if there was more to her than that? I love an underdog, and I love a vilified mythical woman, so Angrboda was exactly my cup of tea.
To write a whole story about her from beginning to end—and to try to make it fit into the background of the myths—I had to balance what we do know with what we don’t, check my sources to get some answers, and use my imagination for the rest. I started with my favorite retellings, paid attention to how they talked about her, and chased down where in the Eddas these assumptions came from. It started in a Norse mythology course I took in college, where I was taught how to really dig into this material.
For example, in the poem “Baldr’s Dreams,” the god Odin goes to Hel’s realm to raise a wise woman from the dead and make her tell him of his son’s impending death. Near the end of their exchange, they both realize the identity of the other, and Odin says something along the lines of, “You’re not a wise woman, but the mother of three monsters.” I had it in my head that this might be Angrboda, and Neil Gaiman even stated as much explicitly in his Norse Mythology!
But this had different implications for my own story. Was Angrboda a wise woman? The myths don’t say so explicitly. They don’t even say she was a witch. Also, there are other giantesses in the mythology that have associations with wolves and snakes. It could just be a giantess thing, but I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if they were all the same person?
So that’s the angle I took when writing this story, and took my liberties from there. Some will disagree with how I did it, and that’s fine! The beauty of working with mythology is that we all have different interpretations, and none of us are necessarily wrong.
Even if you know the ins and outs of a mythology like the back of your hand, it can be difficult to balance your research and your imagination. You’re always free to write the story you want, but in the end, it all depends on your goals for the piece, and how faithfully you want to stick to your sources. The important thing is that that these ancient stories still resonate with us, even hundreds or thousands of years later—and it’s up to us to figure out why.