Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, several important figures in Norse mythology have entered the popular conscious. Although the MCU does not represent these figures very accurately, their names still spark curiosity in several people, myself included. In fact, it was thanks to the MCU that I took a Norse Mythology course my junior year of college, and it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life (I mean, we did get the see the freaking Tolkien Archives at Marquette University, not to brag).
Because Norse mythology contains hundreds of figures, not all of them get the MCU treatment, one such figure being the witch Angrboda. The Witch’s Heart is her story.
Angrboda is a witch, gifted with powerful magic that she taught to the Aesir, the main pantheon of Norse gods. But the gods are a greedy, cruel bunch, and they burn her three times over trying to gain her prophetic knowledge. The third time Angrboda burns, she wakes up in a forest with her heart missing from her body. Loki, the god of mischief, discovers her and returns her heart to her. With another chance at life, Angrboda makes her own home and family. But soon, her magic shows her a terrible vision with her and her new family at the center of it.
I wrestled with whether or not we talked about Angrboda in college. Either way, after reading this story, I felt bad that I did not remember her. Angrboda is a wonderful character. She is alone in her power and the gods torment her for knowledge of what’s to come. She is capable and determined, but she is broken from what she’s endured.
In fact, I’d argue she is a great example of a strong female character. She has amazing skills that she puts to practical use, but she does not angrily grit her teeth about how the gods wronged her. Rather, she puts her head down and carries on as best she can, despite her pain. In short, despite her great power and attitude, she is not perfect.
And boy, does Angrboda go through it. Loki, who she falls in love with, is the world’s flakiest husband. The children that Angrboda bears through him are more monster than human. And all the while, the gods, Odin in particular, torment her and treat her with the utmost disrespect. Great lengths of time go by where Angrboda is completely alone, and you find yourself waiting anxiously for her to catch a break.
The book was also an amazing refresher of my class. There were names and events that had long since left my mind, but then I heard their names and I was back in my classroom, rapt with amazement at the stories. Anyone with the slightest interest in Norse mythology would find something to enjoy in this book.
But most importantly, the book humanizes a figure that would have probably been villainized in the old stories. After all, Angrboda becomes the wife of Loki, who is most despised among the gods, and she mothers two monsters that feature in Ragnarok, the end of the world. But here, Angrboda gets her own voice and you are on her side every moment. You feel her love for her children, however monstrous they may be, and her desperation to prevent any harm to her family.
It reminded me a little of Circe, which also humanizes a villain from an old story of gods and witches. Both stories are effective in making us feel bad for women villainized for their magic or beauty. Although they might have done wicked things in the original stories, there might have been something deeper going on that another author could tap into. After all, any forward-thinking person would know that magic or beauty are not all there is to a woman.
Like I said, if you like Norse mythology or stories showing another side to a villain from a centuries-old tale, The Witch’s Heart is worth a try. Who knows if it might also jog your memory of Angrboda’s existence?