When the giant Geirröd sent a servant after a falcon he saw perching in one of his castle’s high windows, he had no idea that he was about to trap Loki. Loki, for his part, thought that he had plenty of time to flee, and was as shocked as any to find himself at the giant’s mercy. Geirröd knew that the creature he’d caught was no common bird, and when Loki refused to speak, the giant locked him up in a chest and starved him for three months, until Loki admitted his identity, at which point Geirröd realized that he had a golden opportunity: he agreed to release Loki, but first extracted an oath from the Aesir, that he would bring Thor – the greatest enemy of the giants – to Geirröd, without his hammer, and without his belt of strength. A perfect plan, until it all went wrong.
Why do the giants hate the Asgardians? The giants and Aesir have always been at war, but is it just about the death of Ymir and the resultant cleansing of the first giants at the hands of Odin and his brothers? Thor takes great pleasure in killing the giants indiscriminately, and they in turn want nothing more than to overthrow the Aesir and Vanir, but what is the root cause of this enmity? The Asgardians often go to the giants for wisdom, or prized possessions (which the giants, in turn, often obtained from the dwarfs). Within the context of Norse mythology, though – when you think about the various denizens of the supernatural Scandinavian world – the trolls, the giants, the dwarfs, the elves, the Aesir and Vanir – it’s hard not to wonder whether part of what drives the giants’ antipathy is anger and envy born of the central role the Asgardians have in the universe, despite being only marginally different from the giants, themselves (the gods in fact sometimes marry giants, and some giants – when allowed – are accepted as gods). Odin and Thor seem unbeatable – the giants just can’t win. What better reason to long to destroy the gods?
On his way to Geirröd’s palace (without his hammer or belt), Thor stopped at the home of a giantess, Gríd, the mother of Vídar the Silent (a god who would survive Ragnarok). She warned Thor about Geirröd, and equipped him with her own belt of strength, steel gloves, and a powerful, magical staff. Continuing on his way, he forded a mighty river, only to have one of Geirröd’s daughter, Gjálp, make the waters rise in an attempt to drown him that he only narrowly escaped.
The Asgardians seem to get lucky at every turn, not just robbing the giants of their treasures, but being forewarned of their traps. It’s natural to resent those in power, who assume, protect, and defend their unearned position. The Asgardians are the main characters, whose victories are by definition assured. If there are Norse myths that feature dwarfs and giants as the main characters, I haven’t read them, and though the stories of the Asgardians aren’t meant to belittle the giants, by their very nature – by the centrality of the Norse gods and the secondary status of the giants, they do so. Is it wrong for the giants to be angry – to refuse to accept a subordinate status in the universe? By taking their possessions, are the Asgardians stripping the giants of their identities and refashioning them in their own image? Of course, Norse mythology primarily features the Norse gods, and yet…
When Thor arrived at the castle of Geirröd he was given lodging, but there was only a single bench on which he could rest. When he sat down, the bench began to rise to the ceiling; to avoid being crushed, Thor took the mighty staff Gríd had lent him and pressed hard against the rafters – he heard a mighty crack, and then screaming: Geirröd’s daughters, Gjálp and Greip, were crouching under the bench, trying to crush him against the ceiling – in stopping them, he had broken their backs. Geirröd threw a red-hot iron at Thor, but the Asgardian caught it with his steel gloves and hurled it back with such force that it passed through a post before killing Geirröd on its way through the castle wall.
Who do we root for? The default is to root for the Asgardians: they are, after all, the heroes and the main characters, defending their realm. They’re powerful and beautiful, the protectors of humanity. On the other hand, why favor them, just because they are central? Because they are powerful? They did nothing collectively to earn what they have. There’s something unsettling when you take a step back and look at their actions, and see them as sometimes vain and fickle: Thor kills without thought, Odin’s favor can win you a battle – or lose it, at his whim. The gods in many ways, despite talk of their wisdom, seem no better or worse than the giants and dwarfs that they steal from and battle with. There’s no special reason for their centrality, other than that it reflects the vision that their creators had of themselves in relation to the world around them.
If the Asgardians and their tales are aspirational: if they symbolize phenomenon, or a way of expressing the culture and life of the Scandinavian people, is it too much of a stretch to say that the giants, dwarfs, and elves represent those people, as well? Taken in this light, though the Scandinavian people may have appealed to their gods for help, were they themselves at a symbolic level represented as much by the giants as by the gods? Is the story of Ragnarok – of the Doomsday of the gods, when they are overrun by the giants – not just a story of renewal, but a warning, that even the privileged will one day fall, and that despite some sadness at the passing of their glory, a better world will result?