Thor made many journeys and had many strange adventures; but there was one journey which was more wonderful than all the others, and which proves, moreover, that the strongest and truest are sometimes deceived by those who are weaker than themselves. The giants in old Norse times were not easy to conquer; but generally, it was when they hid themselves behind lies and appeared to be what they were not that they succeeded for a time. Thor’s strength was a noble thing because he used it to help men; but his truthfulness and honesty were nobler still.
One morning, just as the sun was beginning to shine through the mists that overhung the world, the gates of Asgard opened and Thor’s chariot, drawn by the goats, rattled along the road. Thor and Loke were evidently off for a journey; but Thor was always going of somewhere, and nobody who saw him now thought that he was starting out to try his strength with the most powerful things in the whole earth. Nor did he know it. All day long the chariot rolled across the level stretches of meadow and through the valleys, leaving the echoes shouting to each other from the overhanging mountains as it passed by. At night it stopped at the house of a poor peasant, and Thor stepped down and stood in the doorway.
“Can you lodge two travellers over night?” he asked.
“Certainly,” said the peasant, “but we can give you nothing to eat, for we have nothing for ourselves.”
“Give yourselves no trouble about that,” answered Thor cheerfully; “I can provide for all.”
He went back to Loke, who got out of the chariot; and then, to the great astonishment of the people in the house, Thor killed both his goats, and in a minute, they were ready for cooking. The great pot was soon sending savoury odours through the house, and the whole family with their strange guests sat down shortly to a bountiful supper.
“The more you eat the better I shall like it,” said Thor, as they took their places at the table, “but do not on any account break the bones; when you have done with them throw them into the skins which I have spread out on the hearth.”
The peasant and his wife and Thjalfe and Roskva, their two children, ate bountifully; but Thjalfe broke one of the bones to get the marrow. The next morning Thor was up with the sun, and when he dressed himself, he took the hammer and held it over the goat-skins: and immediately the bones flew into place, and the skins covered them, and there were the two goats as full of life as when they started out the day before. But one of the goats limped; and when Thor saw it, he was so angry that he looked like a thunder-cloud, and his fingers closed so tightly round Mjolner that his knuckles were white. Thjalfe, who had been looking with the rest of the family in speechless wonder, was frightened half out of his wits when he saw Thor’s rage, and would have run away if he could. The poor peasant and his wife were equally terrified, and besought Thor that he would not destroy them. Seeing them in such misery Thor’s anger died out, and he said he would forgive them, but Thjalfe and Roskva must henceforth be his servants. So, taking the two children, and leaving the goats with their parents for safe keeping, Thor and Loke set out again.
Thor had decided to go to Jotunheim, and all the morning they travelled eastward until they reached the shore of the sea. They crossed the wide waters quickly and climbed up on the further shore of Jotunheim. Mists floated over the land, and great rocks rose along the coast so stern and black from the wash of the sea and the fury of storms that they seemed like strong giants guarding their country against the giant-queller. Thor led the way, and they soon entered a deep forest through which they travelled until nightfall, Thjalfe, who was very fleet of foot, carrying the sack of provisions. As night came on, they looked about for shelter, and came upon an immense building with a whole side opening into a great room of which they found five smaller rooms. This was just what he wanted, although they could not imagine why anyone had built such a house in that lonely place. After supper, weary with the long journey, they were soon in a deep sleep.
Three or four hours went by quietly enough, but about midnight they were suddenly awakened by an awful uproar, which shook the building to its foundations and made the whole earth tremble. Thor called the others and told them to go into the further rooms. Half dead with fright they did so, but Thor stretched himself, hammer in hand, at the wide entrance. As soon as there was light enough to see about him Thor went into the woods, and had gone but a little way when he came upon an enormous giant, fast asleep, and snoring so loudly that the very trees shook around him. Thor quickly buckled on his belt of strength, and had no sooner done so than the giant awoke and sprang to his feet. The whole earth shook under him, and he towered as far over Thor, as a great oak does over the fern that grows at its foot. Thor was never frightened, but he had never heard of such a giant before and he looked at him with honest surprise.
“Who are you?” he said, after looking up to the great face a minute.
“I am Skrymer,” answered the giant, “but I don’t need to ask your name. You are Thor. But what have you done with my glove?”
And stretching out his great hand the giant picked up his glove, which was nothing less than the building Thor and the others had spent the night in.
“Would you like to have me travel with you?” continued the giant.
“Certainly,” said Thor, although it was plainly to be seen that neither Thjalfe nor Roskva wanted such a companion. Skrymer thereupon un- tied his sack and took out his breakfast, and the others followed his example, taking care, however, to put a comfortable distance between themselves and their dangerous fellow-traveller. After breakfast Skrymer proposed that they should put all their provisions into one bag, to which Thor consented, and they started off, the giant tramping on ahead, and carrying the sack on his broad back.
All day long he walked steadily on, taking such tremendous strides that the others could hardly keep up with him. When night came, he stopped under a great oak.
“There,” said he, throwing down the sack; “take that and get some supper; I am going to sleep.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before he began to snore as loudly as the night before. Thor took the sack, but the harder he tried to loosen the string the tighter it drew, and with all his strength he could not untie a single knot. Finding he could not get into the sack, and hearing the giant snore so peacefully at his side, Thor’s anger blazed out, and grasping the hammer he struck the giant full on the head. Skrymer opened his eyes drowsily.
“Did a leaf fall on my head?” he called out sleepily, without getting up. “Have you had your supper yet, and are you going to bed?”
In a minute he was snoring again. Thor went and lay down under another oak; but at midnight the giant began to snore so heavily that the forest resounded with the noise. Thor was fairly beside himself with rage, and swinging his hammer struck Skrymer such a tremendous blow that the hammer sank to the handle in his head. The giant opened his eyes and sat up.
“What is the matter now?” he called out; “did an acorn fall on my head? How are you getting on, Thor?”
“Oh, I am just awake,” said Thor, stepping back quickly. “It is only midnight, and we may sleep awhile longer.”
Thor watched until the giant had fallen asleep again, and just at daybreak dealt him the most terrible blow that he had ever given with the hammer. It flashed through and buried itself out of sight in Skrymer’s forehead. The giant sprang on his feet and began to stroke his beard.
“Are there any birds up there?” he asked, looking into the oak. “I thought a feather dropped on my head. Are you awake, Thor? It is full time to dress, and you are near the end of your journey. The city of Utgard is not far off. I heard you whispering together that I was a man of great stature, but you will find much larger men in Utgard. Take my advice, and when you get there don’t boast very much, for they will not take boasting from such little fellows as you are. You would do well to turn back and go home while you have a chance; but if you will go on, take the road to the eastward, —my way takes me to the north.” And, swinging the sack of provisions over his shoulder, Skrymer plunged into the forest and was soon out of sight.
Thor and his companions pushed on as fast as they could until noon, when suddenly a great city rose before them, on a vast plain, the walls of which were so high that they had to lean back as far as they could to see the top. A great gate, heavily barred, stopped them at the entrance; but they crept between the bars. After going a little distance, they came upon a palace, and the doors being open went in, and found themselves in a great hall with long seats on either side, and on these seats’ rows of gigantic men larger than Skrymer. When they saw Utgard-Loke, who was the king of that country, they saluted him; but he sat for a long time without taking any notice of them. At last smiling contemptuously he said; “It is tiresome for travellers to be asked about a long journey; but if I am not mistaken this little fellow, is Thor. Perhaps, however, you are really larger than you seem to be. What feats of strength can you show us? No one is permitted to stay here unless he excels in some difficult thing.”
Hearing these words, in a very insulting tone, Loke answered loudly, “There is one feat in which no one can equal me, and I am ready to perform it at once. I can devour food faster than any one here.”
“Truly, that would be a feat if you could do it,” said the scornful king; and he called to a man named Loge to contend with Loke.
A great trough full of meat was placed in the centre of the hall, and commencing at either end the contestants began to eat voraciously, and so fast that it is disagreeable even to think of it. They reached the middle of the trough at exactly the same moment; but Loke had eaten only the meat, while Loge had devoured meat, bones, trough and all. There was nothing left on his side, and Loke had to confess himself beaten.
Then the king, looking at Thjalfe, asked, “What can you do, young man?”
“I will run a race with any one you will select,” answered Thjalfe promptly.
“If you can outrun any one, I can select, it will certainly be a splendid feat,” said Utgard-Loke; “but you must be very swift-footed to do it.”
There was a noble race-ground just outside the palace, and every one hurried out to see the race. The king called a slender young fellow named Huge, and told him to run with Thjalfe.
There was never such running since the world began. Thjalfe ran like the wind; but Huge reached the goal first, and turned about to meet Thjalfe as he came breathless to the post.
“You must use your legs better than that if you intend to win,” said the king, as Thjalfe walked back; “although you are the fastest runner that ever came here.”
They ran a second time, but when Huge reached the goal and turned around, Thjalfe was a full bow-shot behind.
“Well run!” shouted Utgard-Loke; “well run! a third race shall decide it.”
A third time they were at the starting-place and again they were speeding down the course, while everybody strained his eyes to look at them; and a third time Huge reached the goal and turned to find Thjalfe not half-way.
“We have had racing enough!” cried the giants, and they all went back into the palace again.
And now it was Thor’s turn to show his wonderful strength, but he did not dream that he was going to measure strength with the most tremendous forces in the whole earth.
“Your fame fills all the worlds, Thor,” called out Utgard-Loke, when they had seated themselves on the benches along the great hall; “give us some proof of your wonderful power.”
Thor never waited to be asked a second time.
“I will contend in drinking with any one you may select,” was his prompt acceptance of the challenge.
“Well answered,” said the king. “Bring out the great horn.”
A giant went out, and speedily came back bearing a very deep horn, which the king said his men were compelled to empty as a punishment.
“A good drinker will empty that horn at a single draught,” said Utgard-Loke, as it was filled and handed to Thor; “a few men need to drink twice, but only a milksop needs a third pull at it.”
Thor thought the horn not over large, although very long, and as he was very thirsty, he put it to his lips without further ado, and drank so long and deep that he thought it certainly must be empty, but when he set the horn down and looked into it he was astonished to find that the liquor rose almost as high as when he set his lips to it.
“That was fairly well drunk,” said the king, “but not unusually so; if anybody had told me Thor could do no better than that I would not have believed him. But of course, you will finish it at a second draught.”
Thor said nothing, although he was very angry, but setting the horn to his lips a second time he drank longer and deeper than before. When he had stopped to take breath, and looked at it again, he had drunk less than the first time.
“How now, Thor,” cried Utgard-Loke, “you have left more for the third draught than you can manage. If there are no other feats which you can perform better than this you must not expect to be considered as great here as among the gods.”
Thor became very angry when he heard these words, and seizing the horn he drank deep, fast, and furiously until he thought it certainly must be empty; but when he looked into it the liquor had fallen so little that he could hardly see the difference; and he handed it to the cupbearer, and would drink no more.
“It is plain,” spoke up the king in a very insulting tone, “that you are not so strong as we thought you were; you cannot succeed in this strife, certainly; will you try something else?”
“I will certainly try something else,” said Thor, who could not understand why he had failed to drain the horn; “but I am sure that even among the gods such draughts would not be counted small. What game do you propose now?”
“Oh, a very easy one,” replied the king, “which my youngsters here make nothing of; simply to lift a cat from the floor. I should not think of asking you to try it if I did not see that you are much less of a man than I have always supposed.”
He had no sooner said this than a large grey cat ran out into the hall. Thor put his hand under it and tried to lift it, but the cat arched its back as high as Thor stretched his hands, and, do his best, he could only get one foot off the floor.
“It is just as I expected,” cried Utgard-Loke in a loud voice; “the cat is very large, and Thor is a very, little fellow compared with the rest of us.”
Thor’s eyes flashed fire. “Little as I am,” he shouted, “I challenge any of you to wrestle with me.”
Utgard-Loke looked up and down the benches as if he would call out someone from the two rows of giants. Then he shook his head, saying; “There is no one here who would not think it child’s play to wrestle with you; but let someone call in Ellie, my old nurse; she shall try her strength with you. She has brought many a stronger man than you to earth.”
An old woman came creeping into the hall, bent, wrinkled, and toothless. Thor seized her, but the tighter his grasp became the firmer she stood. Her thin arms gripped him like a vice, her strength seemed to grow as she put it forth, and at last after a hard struggle, in which Thor strained every muscle to the breaking point, he sank on one knee.
“That is enough,” said Utgard-Loke, and the old woman crept feebly out of the hall, leaving Thor stunned and bewildered in the midst of the silent giants. There were no more trials of strength, and Thor and his companions were generously feasted after their defeats.
The next morning, after they had partaken of a bountiful breakfast of meat and drink, they started on their journey homeward. Utgard-Loke went with them as far as the gate of the city, where he stopped.
“How do you think your journey has turned out?” he asked Thor; “and have you met any men stronger than yourself?”
“I have brought shame upon myself,” answered Thor frankly and honestly, after his nature, “and it vexes me to think that you will hereafter speak of me as a weak fellow.”
“Now that you are out of the city I will tell you the truth about these things,” said Utgard-Loke. “If I had known how mighty you are I would never have allowed you to enter the gates, and you may be very sure you will never get in a second time. I have beaten you by deception, not by strength. I have been deluding you from the start. In the forest I tied the sack with a tough iron wire in such a way you could not discern the secret of the knot. Thrice you struck at me with your hammer, and the first blow, though the lightest, would have killed me had it fallen on me; but each time I slipped a mountain between myself and the hammer, and the blows made three deep clefts in its stony sides. I have deluded you, too, in all the trials of strength and skill. Loke was very hungry, and ate voraciously, but he contended against fire itself, which goes like the wind and devours everything in its path; Thjalfe ran as man never ran before, but Huge, who raced with him, was no other than my thought, and what man is so swift as thought? The horn which you strove in vain to empty had its further end in the sea, and so mighty were your draughts that over the wide sea the waters have sunk to the ebb. Your strength was no less wonderful when you lifted the cat; when we saw one foot raised from the floor our hearts sank in terror, for it was the Midgard-serpent, encircling the whole earth which you contended against, and you held it aloft so near heaven that the world was hardly enclosed by its folds. Most marvellous of all was the wrestling with Ellie, who was none other than old age itself, who sooner or later must bring all things to the ground. We must part, I hope never to meet again; for I can only defend myself against you by spells of magic such as these.”
Thor was so enraged when he heard these words that he swung his hammer high in air to crush the lying Utgard-Loke, but he had vanished, and when Thor turned to look for the city, he saw only a beautiful plain spreading its blossoming meadows to the far mountains; and he went thoughtfully back to Asgard.