Certainly I read "The Little Match Girl" and "The Snow Queen" with the little robber girl I loved so and the piece of ice in little Kay's eye that even then I understood to be a symbol, in other words over my head.

There was a good deal of that in Hans Anderson --- the feeling of morals lurking like fish eyes peering out from between stones in the depths of clear water. Except in "The Snow Queen" where the furs and the sleigh and the reindeer and Gerda and the robber girl made up for everything, I disliked these lurking morals; I hated "The Little Match Girl." And I was not fond of "The Ugly Duckling" either; I sensed a pious cheat there --- not all children who were "different" grew up into swans.

How, then, while still in Minneapolis, did I learn about Loki and Balder the Beautiful and Frey and his golden sister Freya, goddess of love and beauty? That was not the kind of thing the Sisters of St. Joseph taught, and there were no comic books then to retell myths in strip language with balloons coming out of the mouths of helmeted gods and heroes. Probably the answer lies in The Book of Knowledge, a junior encyclopedia that someone finally gave us --- proof that prayers were answered --- and that our guardians for some reason let us keep and even use. Yet this suggestion leaves me unsatisfied. It does not account for the intimacy I formed with those scenes and figures of Norse mythology: how Thor lost his hammer, Odin's raven, the bad dreams of Balder, Sif's hair.

Nor can I altogether account for the hold this material, however, acquired, had on my imagination, for my so much preferring these gods and goddesses to the "sunny" Greek ones. For a juvenile half enamored of the dark principle, fond of frightening herself and her brothers with the stories she made up, there was a disappointing lack of evil in Greek mythology. Obviously they did not tell children about the banquet of Thyestes, and all we knew of Jason was the Argo and the Golden Fleece, yet the crimes and horrors that were kept from us "till we were old enough" (like the watches my brothers received from our Seattle grandfather) were the work of mortals and titans, not Olympians. Even in his worst moments, no Greek god could approach the twisted cunning of a Loki. I hated his very name, and yet in a way he "made" the story of the Aesir for me.

In fact the notion of a thoroughly evil creature sharing in the godhead was thoroughly un-Greek, and I suspect that it did not sit well with me either at the age of nine or ten despite the spell of intrigue and danger he cast on those tales. I could not quite fathom why Loki should go virtually unpunished even for the awful act of plotting the slaying of Balder. You would think that the least he deserved was permanent expulsion from Asgard, and yet he crept back, assuming new forms. The weakness of the Æsir (even Thor) in dealing with him was mystifying; they seemed to treat him and his relatives as fixtures of the establishment --- his deathly daughter Hel ruled over the nether world. Being already a "confirmed" Catholic, I associated gods with goodness and could not take a standpoint that identified them simply with power --- as sheer power of evil, Loki merited worship certainly.

Yet now that I consider it, I can see that the appeal of Freya, Balder, Loki, and company was, precisely, to my Catholic nature. The Prince of Darkness, despite his large handicap, was a power for us, a kind of god even if we avoided the Manichean heresy of picturing him as dividing the world in equal shares with God the Father. The only surprise is that Norse cosmogony should have felt so congenial to me given the prejudice against real Norsemen --- the "Scandihoovians" of Minnesota --- that Irish Catholics learned at their mother's knee. Evidently I made no connection between the great battle of Ragnarok that was to end the world and the local Olsens and Hansens. In the same way, my grandmother, old Lizzie McCarthy, who was "not over-fond" of Jews, never appeared to notice that Jesus was one, at least on His mother's side.

So it fits, I suppose, that when I left the house in Minneapolis, and, before very long, the faith, the gods of Asgard lost their hold on me. I have scarcely thought of them since. Looking them up now, to reaffirm my memory, I am amazed to learn that Balder had a wife (Nanna); I had imagined him as a bachelor like Our Lord or Sir Percival. Otherwise, the Northern pantheon has remained surprisingly fresh in my mind, as though deep-frozen in a snow-slide, untouched by any process of wear or tear. My passion for them was a crush, which I got over so completely that the cure has left me with a perfect immunity to Wagner. Though The Ring has been "in" twice during my life, I have never had any interest in it.

--- From "How I Grew ---
A Memoir of
The Early years"
Mary McCarthy
© 1987 Harcourt Books
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