One day Thor and Loki set out for Jotunheim and along their journey added the humans Thjalfi and Röskva as traveling companions following some mischief of Thjalfi’s. We’ve already been through that story; feel free to take a moment to refresh your memory.
After accepting the human brother and sister into his traveling party, Thor continued on foot to Jotunheim because one of his goats was now lame and he had adventure to pursue. The group’s travels took them east out over the great deep sea, and after landfall they came to a large forest of incomparable size. They continued eastward and traveled all day.
At the end of the day they came across an unoccupied hall with a doorway about as wide as the hall itself. They decided this hall would be a good place to take their rest, and made their camp for the night. It was a fateful decision.
In the middle of the night they were shaken awake by an earthquake as the ground trembled and the hall rattled. Thor had his party move further into the hall, where they found a chamber off to the right of the main hall. Thor had Loki, Thjalfi, and Roskva move into this chamber, and he stood guard over his companions for the remainder of the night.
As day broke, Thor was able to see the nearby forest better than at dusk the previous evening and saw a man laying just a short distance. But this was no ordinary man – it was clearly a giant, far larger than Thor and his companions. As the giant continued to sleep and snore, Thor began to understand what had caused the earthquake the previous night. Thor put on his belt of strength and his divine strength swelled. But at that moment, the giant awoke, and perhaps for the first time, Thor was too startled to strike with his hammer. Gathering his wits, he asked the man’s name, and he replied that he was called Skrymir.
Skrymir knew of course who the proud warrior wielding Mjölnir was, and named him Thor of the Aesir. And he asked Thor, “Wait – have you dragged away my glove?” And as Skrymir reached out to put on his massive glove, the realization dawned upon Thor that he and Loki and Thjalfi and Roskva had slumbered that night not in a home or hall, but the glove of Skrymir the giant.
Thor and Skrymir agreed that they would travel together. After the traveling party – now with five members – finished breakfast, they set off again toward Jotunheim, with Skrymir and his lengthy legs taking the lead while also carrying the group’s provisions. As evening approached, Thor found Skrymir under an immense oak tree preparing to settle down for the night. Skrymir gave Thor the food bag and told them to prepare their evening meal, but that the giant was weary from a long day’s travel and was ready for sleep.
As Skrymir nodded off, shaking the earth again with his powerful snores, Thor took the food bag so that the smaller companions could begin their dinner. But he found something unexpected – Thor could not untie the knots on the bag, or even loosen the straps. After great effort, the chief warrior of the gods lost his temper and was blinded by the killing rage. He gripped Mjölnir with both hands, stridently stepped to Skrymir’s head, and struck him with all his rage right on the forehead.
Skrymir stirred in his sleep and, seeing Thor and his companions, asked if a leaf had fallen on his head. He also wondered whether they had eaten yet and were ready to bed down.
Nearly struck dumb by his inability to kill a giant with his blessed giant-killing hammer, Thor meekly acknowledged that they had eaten and were bedding down shortly. The four standard-sized travelers bedded down under a different oak, but could not sleep for fear of the incredibly powerful giant.
But Thor couldn’t shake off his failure. In the middle of the night, once Skrymir snored once again, he went to the giant and this time struck him squarely in the center of his skull. He knew the hammer sunk deeply into Skrymir’s skull. But again Skrymir merely awakened and asked, “What? Has an acorn fallen on my head? Is all well, Thor?” And Thor only said that he, too, had just awakened but that it was still the middle of the night and they had plenty of time left to sleep.
Thor persisted in his efforts, for surely this giant was too dangerous, and had performed some trick with the food bag. After waiting for Skrymir to fall back asleep, he made sure it was a deep sleep and as dawn approached, he decided to strike. Running toward Skrymir, bringing all his might to bear, he struck another blow, this time on the giant’s temple – this time Mjölnir sank into Skrymir’s head all the way to its shaft.
Skrymir sat up, brushed off his head, and asked, “Are there birds in this tree? It felt like some leaves or twigs landed on my head. Are you awake, Thor? It is time for a new day, and we have far to go to reach the stronghold, Utgard. I know you are amazed by how very large I am, but in Utgard, there are men still larger than me. And be sure not to act arrogantly. The retainers of the lord of that place, called Útgarða-Loki, will not tolerate the boasts of tiny men such as you. You may be better off turning back, and I recommend that. But if you continue due east, you will arrive in Utgard soon. I must head off to the mountains in the north.”
Skrymir then took the food bag and headed north into the forest. Thor, Loki, Thjalfi, and Röskva stared after him slack-jawed.
They continued on their journey later that morning… but that tale is for another day.
I’ve stayed fairly close to the story as Snorri tells it in Gylfaginning – the details help animate just how befuddled our brave warrior becomes when faced with a foe of such immense size who is even resistant to Mjölnir itself. And this tale is unique in a couple of important ways. This is the only time in myth that a giant is actually gigantic. In every other story, from the battle with Hrungnir to the contest with the master builder, to Thrym and even including Loki himself, each time we see a giant, they are no larger than Thor or the other Aesir. And since Thor and Loki take on two humans as companions in this story after staying in a human home, for this story at least, we can understand Thor and Loki to be human-sized. Skrymir is immense – much larger than anything we’ve encountered in a story before. If we imagine Thor to be around two meters tall and he fits in Skrymir’s glove, in the thumb of the glove even, how large must Skrymir be? Even assuming some creative exaggeration on that point, clearly Skrymir is the largest being ever witnessed in myth (unless someone bigger does in fact turn up at Utgard, of course) outside of Ymir, the giant from whose body the entire cosmos was created.
And in no other story is Mjölnir wholly unsuccessful in defeating an opponent he wishes to kill. Even in his own death at Ragnarök, Thor kills his foe. He is incredibly successful at killing whatever beings he wishes, and giants in particular. That he cannot kill Skrymir in a single blow is remarkable in its own right; that he cannot do so three times is unfathomable.
To some extent, we should try to understand this story in the context of the one that precedes it and the one that follows. Recall that by adding Thjalfi and Röskva to his traveling party, we discussed how this has been taken by many scholars to represent Thor’s protection of humankind; his fostering of Thjalfi in particular may also represent a warrior’s apprenticeship or other rite. And in the story that follows this one (feel free to read ahead; it’s chapter XLVI of Gylfaginning), Thor and his companions are challenged to face trials that represent key struggles that matter for the myths and for humanity in general.
Here, then, we should probably try to understand this story as the beginning of those trials, but also as an attempt at exploring Thor’s role as protector of humanity and as the animating force of the storm. If, in his chariot, with his mighty hammer, we understand storm clouds and thunder and lightning to be the physical manifestation of Thor as he is fighting against giants, the frightening forces of chaos and destruction that threaten us all, Thor here is exemplifying this role… but in an unexpected way. The gods don’t always win. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, something awful slips through those storm clouds and crops get destroyed, homes get burned down, or people drown in flood waters. Even though we see Thor fighting with flashing lightning and crashing thunder, the giants are just too powerful, perhaps simply too large, for him to defeat. And an especially large giant can be understood in a variety of ways. Even though the giants were typically the same size as the gods, it’s worth remembering that in Thor’s fishing trip, where he fought Jörmungand the Midgard Serpent in the open ocean from a fishing boat, Thor grew so large that his feet touched the bottom of the sea. If a giant is representing something destructive or chaotic, remember that winter can be short and mild or it can be long, difficult, and destructive; rain can cause a few inches of flood water or five feet; disease can be mild and easily treated or it can be highly communicable and extremely lethal. So too might we imagine giants to be of different sizes and temperaments.
That Thor cannot defeat Skrymir may merely be an admission that even praying to the gods and sacrificing just as the rituals demand cannot always result in the best outcome. This would certainly represent the pre-Christian Germanic peoples’ understanding of the world having a great many of what we’d call gray areas – ethics was not cut and dried and black and white, there was no universal good, and things didn’t always work out for “good”.
Whether that’s what this story means can certainly be debated. There may be more to learn about Skrymir in the final chapter of this journey, after all, and we must always remember that stories we take from Snorri’s Prose Edda were cobbled together over 200 years after Iceland converted to Christianity and Snorri himself was a Christian who attempted to explain away these stories as the tales of the descendants of Troy. He had no obligation to be true to the original heathen sources, and he was not necessarily attempting to transmit those older stories to future readers.
But in the end, it’s certainly intriguing to see Thor fail, and not in a game of wits as against the mysterious Harbard, but when he’s at his best, attempting to kill a giant with Mjölnir. Something strange is afoot. We’ll have to figure out what, exactly, that could be at a later date.