Neil Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology is a retelling of many of the classic stories of the pantheon of Norse gods. One might ask, why? Why bother with old stories of forgotten gods. Well, dear reader, apart from the obvious answer, which is why not? The answer is that they are quite important, culturally speaking, but mostly our contact with them is much removed from the actual stories themselves.
Germanic myths were of course important to Wagner. The Nazi’s were a little partial to them as well. Hollywood would actually have to let script writers come up with original ideas for action-adventure screenplays if they weren’t currently raiding every Marvel storyline possible, including Thor, Odin, Loki and the rest of the cast of Asgard. Led Zepplin just wouldn’t be the same without Robert Plant’s erogenous intonements about the ‘hammer of the Gods.’ (As an aside, would you mind mentally envisage yourself in spandex, assuming a wide-legged stance and caressing a microphone, every time ‘hammer of the Gods’ is written? Thank you.)
There are, of course, more intellectually stimulating reasons to take a deep interest in Norse myths. Not that Thor’s mighty hammer of the God’s isn’t stimulating enough. For example, much like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Norse myths underpin the cultural foundations of much of our storytelling traditions. Tolkien, George Martin, Terry Pratchett and Neil himself, to name only a few, are heavily influenced by Norse mythology. Heck, even Jaws is just a retelling of Beowulf. Reading the stories they are based on or influenced by gives us greater insight for the craft of those writers.
Similarly, like the Greeks, the Norse Gods aren’t the perfect, all powerful type God of the Abrahamic religions. There are limits to their powers. They are bound by certain laws, some to do with the metaphysics of their universe others to do with the cultural importance of oaths, often to dramatic effect. Fealty to oaths tends to get them into a bit of trouble, particularly when it comes to Loki, the trickster. The gods of Norse myth are often charismatic, and just as often they are fickle, brutal and flawed. Different gods have different personalities and they make mistakes. They have relationships and are complex. Theirs is a world full of adventures with dwarfs, elves and frost giants. There are magical artifacts (such as Mjollnir, Thor’s hammer of the Gods). There are quests, and there are sacrifices. There are births, marriages and deaths. In short, they are like us, or at least us dressed up and ready for a good game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Now, you don’t have to go and rummage for the original runic stanzas, or take a bit of undergraduate Old Norse, or read Beowulf in the Old English, because Mr Gaiman has done most of the hard work for you. Neil Gaiman’s retelling is drawn from several academic sources, some prose others poetic translations. He has not tried to tell them all but rather has put together a very digestible and fun primer, which gives the reader a comfortable arc from the origin myths of the Norse through to Ragnarok, the end of days. We get all the main players and significant adventures, and we get a metaphysical overview of the Gods, their powers and what they gave to humanity, be it the mead hall of Valhalla for the valiant dead or Hel, Loki’s daughter, to watch over the shameful dead. Of course, they gave us Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. (Saturday was the Roman’s, but apart from that, what did they ever do for us?) The Norse also gave us thunder and the thunder God’s Mjollner, the ‘hammer of the Gods’ (strike a pose). While by no means comprehensive Norse Mythology is satisfyingly coherent, fun, and educational.
One thing I found especially interesting about these stories is just how un-Neil Gaiman they sounded. There were only a few glimpses of the authors tell-tale authorial cadence. He has a specific timing to his sentence construction. But that shibboleth was barely evident. Not that this was to the stories’ detriment, rather it perhaps speaks more to Gaiman’s mastery of his craft and respect for the source material, to which he refers in the introduction.
The metaphysics of the Norse mythology is similar to metaphysics of many of Gaiman’s most loved stories, and more generally a key influence on the imagination of Neil himself. For example, the relationships between this world and other parallel worlds evident in Neverwhere, American Gods, Coraline, Stardust, and The Graveyard Book. Journeys into underworlds, or worlds in between, are key features of all these stories: the other London between the cracks in Neverwhere; the parallel ‘other’ world in Coraline; Bod’s journey to the underworld of the ghouls in The Graveyard Book; the quest and magical artefacts of Stardust.For those who enjoyed American Gods and to an extent Anansi Boys, there is much in here to add to your appreciation of those books. Most obviously, Wednesday and Loki in American Gods, as well as its plot centering on a hustle by flawed, self-interested Gods, drawing on the specific Norse myth of the all-father, Odin, on the Yaggdrasil, the world-tree.
I greatly enjoyed reading Norse Mythology. It was both an easy read and an immensely satisfying and educational one. I laughed out loud a number of times; while at other times, I felt annoyed, perplexed or intrigued at the behaviour of the Gods – all things good writing achieves. Not only did I enjoy it, I thought how fun these would be to read to my seven-year-old at bedtime.
In short, Norse Mythology is an expert retelling of stories which remain culturally important to us. It is told with care and skill, with the power to make you frown and chuckle, whether you are seven or seventy. And if nothing else you’ll know all about ‘the hammer of the Gods’ (strike that pose).
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Neil Gaiman is the author of the New York Times best-selling A View from the Cheap Seats, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Neverwhere, and the Sandman series of graphic novels, among other works. His fiction has received Newbery, Carnegie, Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Will Eisner Awards. His novel American Gods will be a TV series airing in 2017. Originally from England, he lives in the United States, where he is a professor at Bard College.
Norse Mythology was published by Bloomsbury Publishing on 7th February 2017.
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Review by Daniel Soule
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