In the first part of this post (read here) we saw how Thor, Loki and Thor’s servants Thialfi and Roskva met the annoying giant Skrymir on their way to Jotunheim.
The four companions woke up early after spending the night without access to their provisions, in a likely insult from the giant. No sooner they awakened, Skrymir pointed to the direction of the Utgard (Útgarðr) Castle and left, “forgetting” that the group’s provisions were still in his haversack. With little alternative, the four companions left the forest behind and began to follow the path Skrymir had shown them.
They walked for a full morning, before seeing the massive stronghold on the horizon, with walls so impossibly high that they had to throw back their heads to see the top of the buildings. The journey has been hard and tiring, and Thor and his companions were happy to be near their final destination. They hurried along a well-worn track that led up to the great castle gates, fashioned from wrought iron. Peering through the iron bars, they were marveled at the size of the halls inside the stronghold, but the solid iron gates barring their way were locked, and no one attended them.
The group had not traveled all this way to be held back by a closed gate, and Thor immediately began to strike at the iron bars with his Mighty Mjollnir, but the bars remained strong, resisting all attempts to pry them open.
At this point, we can almost imagine Loki rolling his eyes as he merely slipped between the bars into Utgard. Following Loki’s example, Roskva and Thialfi crossed at once, with Thor following suit, having to squeeze himself to fit between the bars.
Having crossed the gates, the travelers made for the huge hall before them. The door was open, and so they walked in unannounced. A large number of giants, male and female, old and young, most of them as vast as Skrymir had described were lounging on the benches lodged against the walls. They stared at Thor and Loki and Thialfi and began to sneer; they ogled Roskva and began to leer. One giant sat alone in a chair at the end of the hall and, judging him to be Utgard-Loki himself, Thor and his companions courteously greeted him.
The giant king seemed oblivious to their presence, making no move and saying nothing. With all his might, Thor again bellowed his greetings, but this time he was rudely interrupted by the giant, who asked if he was mistaken in taking this “whippersnapper” to be Thor the Charioteer.
Appraising Thor as one would appraise a piece of meat, the giant immediately challenged the God of Thunder, asking him in which skill he and his companions would excel, for the giants never allow for anyone to stay in their hall unless he is master of some craft or pastime.
While Thor was momentarily lost for words, Loki stepped forward and asserted that no one else in this castle could eat food faster than he could. Utgard-Loki challenged him to prove this boast by entering a contest with one of the men there, whose name was Logi (Old Norse Logi, “Fire”).
A trencher of meat was set before them, with Loki at one end and Logi at the other, and they were to see who could reach the middle first.
They did meet in the middle at the same time, but while Loki had eaten all of the meat between the end and the middle, Logi had eaten the meat, the bones, and even the trencher itself! Loki had clearly lost.
Loki narrowed his eyes and viewed Utgard-Loki with deep mistrust, beginning to suspect that something was awry.
Next, Utgard-Loki turned to Thialfi and asked about his skills. Thjalfi was an extremely swift runner, and offered to race anyone in the castle. Utgarda-Loki led him out to a race track and appointed one Hugi (Old Norse Hugi, “Thought”) to compete with him. On a sign front the giant king, Thialfi and Hugi sprinted on the castle grounds as fast as their legs could carry them. However, by the time Hugi reached the finish line, he was so far ahead of Thjalfi that he doubled back to meet his contestant. They raced a second time, and once again Hugi beat Thjalfi by a bow shot. Still, they raced a third time, but Thjalfi fared even worse, as he was still at the midpoint of the track by the time Hugi finished.
Turning to Thor, the giant then asked what could he do, to which Thor challenged anyone in the castle to a drinking contest, something in which he was quite experienced.
The four travelers and all the giants made their way back into the cavernous hall, and Utgard-Loki asked his cup-bearer to fetch the sconce-horn used by all his followers. The cup-bearer put the brimming horn into Thor’s hands.
Utgard-Loki announced that someone who can drain this in one draught would be recognized as a good drinker. Some may take two draughts to empty it, but no one in his hall was so feeble that he cannot finish it off in three.
Grabbing the horn, Thor was not impressed for, despite its massive size, he thought to have seen larger ones. He was also very thirsty, for the giant king had not offered him or his companions so much as a drop since they first reached the hall. He raised the horn to his mouth, closed his eyes, and began to swill the liquid down in enormous gulps, with a certainty that he would drain the whole horn in a single draught. But Thor ran out of breath before the horn ran out of liquid. He raised his head, looked into the horn, and was startled to see that the level of the drink was only a little lower than before.
So he gave it a second try, straining to gulp and gulp until his breath failed him. This time, the level had gone down appreciably, but the better part of the horn still remained. His third drink was even more formidable than the previous two, but in the end, much was still left. By that point, however, Thor could drink could no more, and gave up.
With a disdainful air, the giant then proposed that, since Thor could not complete the drinking challenge, he could show his strength by lifting the giant’s cat from the ground.
As if it had been waiting on its master’s words, a massive grey cat came from under the giant king’s throne.
Thor stumped forward, put one arm under the cat, and began to lift. As he lifted, the cat simply arched its back. Thor then used both hands and, with a mighty effort, he heaved at the cat. But the animal only arched its back still more so that its body formed a steep rainbow over the god’s head, with its four paws firmly planted on the ground.
All the watching giants laughed at the way in which the cat, with its effortless movement frustrated Thor attempts to lift it. Changing tactics, Thor positioned himself under the cat, between its front paws, and rocked forward on to his toes in an attempt to lift it. When he stretched his hands as high above his head as he could, the cat was finally obliged to raise one paw. That was as much as Thor could manage.
Thor felt defeated. He was beside himself with his own failures and the giant king’s string of taunts and abuses. In a rage, challenged anyone in the castle to wrestle with him. Insultingly, Utgarda-Loki called out to his foster mother, an old woman called Elli (Old Norse Elli, “Age”).
After a short while, an old crone hobbled into the hall and made her was towards the throne. The giant king got up to greet her and asked if she would consider coming to grips with Thor.
Elli agreed and threw away her stick, and Thor fairly hurled himself at the old woman. But the moment he laid hands on her he knew she was far stronger than she seemed. Thor heaved and strained and grunted and the old woman stood firm and unshaken; the greater his pressure, the more easily she withstood it.
Elli quickly got the upper hand, taking Thor by surprise. She caught him in a lock and threw him off balance. He tried to take her down with him, but after a struggle, he was forced on to one knee. He had lost.
Thor was crestfallen. He and his companions had lost every single challenge the giant threw at them.
After the eating and the running, the drinking and the wrestling, it was late in the evening. For a strange turn of events, the giant king Utgard-Loki became a perfect host, and he himself found places for Thor and Loki, Thialfi and Roskva on the crowded benches, where they were brought as much food and drink as they wished and were made most welcome. Then the floor was padded with bedding and pillows. In that high hall, the four weary travelers and the concourse of giants lay down and fell asleep.
By next morning, Thor and his companions were the first to wake. They dressed and made ready to leave Utgard. But then the giant king stirred. He picked his way over the trunk-like bodies of his sleeping followers and set up a table beside the travelers. Then he woke his servants and, in a little while, Thor, Loki, Thialfi and Roskva were regaled once more with food and drink.
Now there was no limit to the giant king’s courtesy. He made his way past the sleeping giants and out of the hall with his guests, showing them through the massive gates of Utgard.
For a time they walked across the green plain in the early morning sunlight. The giant king was as genial as can be imagined, but after the previous night’s experiences Thor was still chastened and Loki was unusually silent. Thialfi and Roskva, on the other hand, were glad to be away and alive – their spirits rose and they chattered gaily.
After showing the group out of the castle, Utgard-Loki decided to confide to them what had actually transpired in their contests, saying to Thor, “Now that you have left my castle, I shall see to it that you never enter it again. It was I who met you in the forest. The knot on my provision bag that you almost succeeded in untying had been wrought in iron. I deflected the blows you attempted to inflict on me with your hammer; instead of my face, you hit the mountainside, and carved three gaping valleys into it. Had you struck me with Mjollnir, I would have been killed then and there.”
Realization dawned on Loki that his suspicions were correct: they were being deceived by a master magician. Meanwhile, Thor listened to Utgard-Loki’s explanation with mixed feelings of wonder, relief, frustration, and slowly rising anger.
“Loki held his own remarkably well in his eating contest, since his opponent was none other than fire itself. So it was with Thjalfi, too – he raced against thought, which nobody could ever hope to outrun.
The far end of the horn from which you drank was connected to the sea, and we were actually greatly afraid that you were going to drink it all. When you cross over the sea again, you will see how much you have lowered its level. My cat was actually Jormungandr the Midgard serpent itself, whom you succeeded in raising out of the ocean and into the sky. And it was a marvel, Thor, that you withstood Elli for so long, and even then only fell on to one knee. Elli is old age. Even if his life is not cut short by the sword or illness or by some accident, no one can withstand old age in the end.”
“Now, for your sake and for ours, leave, and never come back.”
Thor was so angered by this humiliating trickery that he raised his hammer and prepared to slay Utgarda-Loki and smash his castle to pieces. But when he turned to do so he saw no giant and no castle – just a vast, empty plain.
Thor turned to join his companions. The four of them slowly made their way back to the sea, and crossed it into Midgard. Thor retrieved his chariot and goats from the farmer and his wife. Then, with Loki, Thialfi and Roskva, he returned at last to the green and gold fields of Asgard.
Lee M. Hollander (1962) The Poetic Edda. 15th. edition. Texas, USA: University Research Institute of the University of Texas. ISBN 978-0-292-76499-6
Simek, Rudolf. 2008. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. BOYE6. ISBN-13 978-0859915137
Jesse Byock. 2005. Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2
Anthony Faulkes. 1995. Snorri Sturluson, Edda. 3rd. edition. London, England: Everyman J. M. Dent. ISBN-13 978-0-4608-7616-2