From Asgard to Valhalla is an intriguing survey of the history of Norse mythology and its impact on culture, history, politics, literature and art from the early middle ages to modern day. O'Donoghue traces the mythology from the history of its creation and preservation to its later employment by the early romantic movement, its politicization by nationalist, racist and fascist movements, and its imaginative manifestation in modern culture, literature and art. She does an excellent job of summing up Norse mythology for those unfamiliar with it and, for the most part, writes in an engaging and entertaining style. Especially delightful (with one major exception, detailed below) is Chapter 8 where she covers creative representations of the myths in modern culture, tracing its influence on modern poets, heavy-metal musicians and science-fiction and fantasy writers.
However there are two things which mar this otherwise well done study. First is the rushed feeling of the text. Some of the subjects she touches upon could have used a bit more treatment. This is, of course, inevitable in a survey of this sort, but weighing in as it does at 200 pages of large type, further development here and there would not seem excessive. In addition, at times her asides become the main subject and the original subject is lost and never followed up upon. I don't know if this text was part of some tenure track necessity, but some more development and editing would probably have made a good text a better one.
The second and most troubling aspect of the book is O'Donoghue's simplistic treatment of the neopagan movement inspired by Germanic culture, Heathenry, of which this reviewer, after a fashion, counts himself as a member. The problem stems from the author's failure to properly distinguish between racism, nationalism, heritage and ancestry. These concepts are certainly related, but they are not synonymous. O'Donoghue, however, juxtaposes them in ways which, at times, makes them indistinguishable. For instance she claims that "groups such as Wotansvolk, Odinic Rite, Asatru and Forn Sed, while being very different in their beliefs and presentations, are all based on some sort of Nordic or Germanic nationalism." Since Germanic culture spanned across a wide swath of Northern Europe and predates the modern nations on the map, how can an interest in this culture be considered "nationalism"? I am proud of my English ancestry, but this does not necessarily make me an advocate for the nation of England, its current politics, or its imperial past. Nationally speaking, I am an American, and I am proud of that, too, though not uncritical of my own country when I feel it has done wrong. Perhaps the most telling confusion in this part of the book is when O'Donoghue states "to go back to 'the old ways' (a literal translation of the Swedish name Forn Sed) or to worship the Aesir (Asatru means 'of the faith of the Aesir') is to reconnect with one's supposed ancestral origins -- or race." Now, I happen to agree with O'Donoghue when she reminds us that "race" is not a scientific fact but an "ideological construct," however a person's heritage and culture are a question of history, certainly not untouched by ideology, and pride in one's cultural background and a wish to honor it is not the same thing as belief in race or racism. After a wonderfully complex look at the threads of Nordic culture, romanticism, racism and fascism in English and German history, O'Donoghue glosses over modern heathenry's complex issues of identity, heritage, culture, race, faith, and theology, and presents a rather simplistic portrait of modern heathens that falls just short of characterizing us as racist crack-pots. She also portrays "anti-Christian" elements in the heathen community as a form of racism, completely ignoring the possibility that these elements may have more to to do with fascinating phenomenon of the rise of polytheism in opposition to monotheism in postmodern psychology and theology. She concludes her treatment of this subject with the absurd idea that modern heathenism is largely inspired by the legitimate and fraudulent "Nordic" archaeological finds in America. The riduculousness of this claim does not even deserve a reply.
This glaring faux pas aside, I would recommend this text to fellow heathens. It reminds us of the romanticism and unsavory ideology and politics which are a part of the history of our path, and against which we must be continuously vigilant, as well as the origins of the spurious occultism woven through the understanding of the runes presented in many modern texts.