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Many authors have attempted to re-tell well known myths and classic stories ranging from the interpretation of the Arthurian legends by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Mists of Avalon) or Stephen Lawhead (Pendragon Cycle) to the more recent retelling of the Odyssey (The Penelopiad) by Margaret Atwood. However not many writers have attempted to retell the Nordic legends which is why it was refreshing to find this book Rhinegold by Stephen Grundy.
'Rhinegold' attempts to merge some of the characters of Germanic/Nordic mythology in to a reworking of the Wagnerian Ring Cycle story that is itself loosely based on Nordic Mythology.
The Rhine gold of the title is a great horde of Roman gold that lies at the bottom of the Rhine river protected by magical spells and creatures. This gold is however cursed and when it is stolen by the God Wodan in human form and given to Hraithmar in payment for the death of his son it starts a cycle of damnation and destruction for Hraithmar and his family. Eventually the gold finds its way to a cave where ends under the protection of a mighty dragon, here it is kept hidden from human eyes. The story then follows the generations of Hero and demigods who through many years mostly unwittingly by the will of the gods, strive to recapture the gold. In order to do this a mighty sword is forged by the master dwarven smithy to help in this and other quests.
As you can tell the story is a familiar one and there are echoes of it in Tolkien as well as others in the fantasy genre.
At first I found the book a little off putting, the initial chapters dealing with the capturing of the gold by the god Wodan and Loki is rather rushed and so many characters are introduced and then killed off that I found it difficult to properly engage with the story. It wasn't until the second main part of the book with the story of the twin brother and sister Sigilund and Sigimund that the story really took off. The pacing picked up at this point and the characters were more colourful and better fleshed out that those before and this trend thankfully continued for the remained of the story. One problem that I faced throughout the novel is the fact that many of the characters have similar names; Sigi, Sigimund, Sigilund, Sigigairar, Sigifrith, Sinfjotli...you get the idea... although a useful family tree in included at the beginning of the book for reference.
As with all good fantasies Rhinegold included plenty of magic, blood and gore with a little bit of sex thrown into the mix for good measure. The magic used in Rhinegold is not of the 'Lord of the Rings' style we don't see powerful bolts of energy coming out of wizards staffs a more subtle magic is used; shape-shifting, illusion, incantations, spells, transmutation, farseeing and manipulation of the elements are all in evidence. It is also important to note that the violence and other adult themes (infanticide, incest and rape) would make this book unsuitable for younger readers.
Gods, superhuman heroes and fantastical creatures like dragons, wargs, witches and spectral horse riders, populate the story. Like in the Greek myths the role of the gods is not all that clear and they don't always have the interests of their Heroes at heart. Very often the gods actions are mischievous and their motives selfish. The human characters even those that are descended from the gods own flesh are merely pawns in a higher game. All this adds an uncertainty to the fate of the main characters and a general unpredictability to the story.
Overall Gundy has done a good job re-telling the story, the characters especially in the second half of the book are well defined and engaging although It's dangerous to get too emotionally attached to them since they do come to rather sticky albeit heroic ends with great regularity.
The magical world of the gods is skilfully mixed in with the historical one. We are made aware that the story is set at a time when the Romans by know a Christian Empire are staking their claim to the Northern Germanic lands at the edge of their empire and this struggle between Roman and non Roman, between Christianity and paganism even though in the background does set the fantasy elements of the story into a historical context I suppose you could describe it as 'mythical magical realism'! The narrative is well written but did fail to really evoke the setting and landscape in the way for instance that Tolkien or Gemmell do although the descriptions of ceremonies and the many beer swilling celebrations in the various great halls did help to illustrate aspects of the culture of the time.
At over 830 pages this is not a quick read but once you get over the rather turgid beginning the stories of the great warriors and heroes take off and the second part of the book may well be described as 'unputdownable'.
The author an academic with a special interest in the literature of the period described apparently got the inspiration for writing this version while watching a performance of Wagner's ring cycle. His knowledge of the genre does add a sense of authority to the tale and you never feel like questioning the validity of this version.
Grundy has since gone on to write other myth based stories including 'Gilgamesh' and 'Wodans Fluch'.
In short this is a good read which will keep fantasy fans entertained on many sun-drenched beaches or on cold winter evening in front of open fire.
If you have any sort of interest in fantasy novels or the northern European myths then this book will be of interest to you... Recommended.
'Rhinegold' by Stephan Grundy published by Mass Market Paperback (830 pages)
ISBN-10: 0553569457 / ISBN-13: 978-0553569452
© Mauri 2009