Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
|Book Name:||Norse Mythology|
|Publisher(s):||W. W. Norton & Company (US) Bloomsbury Publishing (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Mythology|
|Release Date:||February 7, 2017|
Mythology is meant to be told and retold, down through the generations. Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman, is the latest telling. As Gaiman recently described it in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, this collection is his version of a “cover song” or his take on the role of Hamlet. It’s a clever metaphor because this collection isn’t about being pure or accurate or scholarly. It’s about delivering a modern, contemporary take on these ancient stories for 21st-century readers who may only know Odin, Thor, and Loki through comics, the Marvel movies, or Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s a Norse mythology primer for those new to the subject and a familiar mix of stories for those who want to revisit the pantheon—all delivered in a mix of modern and traditional language.
This slim volume is not a novel. Think more along the lines of Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, or D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (or their book of Norse myths).The book begins with the creation of all that is and ends with Ragnarok, the destruction of all that was (and hints at the rebirth that will follow). And in between, we learn about the creation of Thor’s hammer and how Odin traded his eye for wisdom. We learn about a giant ship that can collapse and fold like a piece of cloth. We learn of the gossipy squirrel who lives among the branches of Yggdrasil, the giant tree that connects the nine worlds. There are jokes, feats of strength, tricks, lies, magic, and sacrifices.
For those who have only seen the Marvel movies, Gaiman’s somewhat simple and straightforward Thor might seem more like the Hulk (“Mjolnir smash!”). Gaiman’s Loki lies and cheats, but he comes off less devious and more chaotic—most of the time barely managing to stay one step ahead of his lies. Sometimes he gets away with it, and sometimes he suffers for it (he doesn’t get smashed by the Hulk, but there is a scene involving a tug of war using a rope tied to a goat’s beard and Loki’s….well, let’s just say the rope is tied a little lower than his waist). And here, Loki is a nasty drunk. His darkest side comes out, and his troublemaking becomes more malicious, giving us a glimpse of that side of him that fathers three children who will eventually follow him to war against the gods in Ragnarok.
Like the Greek gods, the Norse gods can be petty, envious, lusty, and spiteful. There are some golden apples that cause discord, and there is a river to cross before entering the land of the dead. But overall, these stories are separate and distinct from their Greek cousins. Perhaps that’s to be expected in stories that originate in a land of winter darkness and harsh seas instead of the temperate Mediterranean climate. Here frost giants threaten and giant wolves are eager to swallow the sun and the moon. Here the mead flows like, well, wine. Here people hope to die in battle instead of in bed after a long life well lived.
But to prevent these stories from being too harsh or too alienating, Gaiman does soften the language a bit by adding his own flourishes and putting slightly more modern words into the gods’ mouths. And it is interesting that modern readers will bring new expectations to meet Gaiman’s new telling. Readers will be happy to see a more prominent role for the goddesses, who are more than just prizes to be won or traded. And modern readers might smile when they read about Odin deciding to build a wall around Asgard and then debating about how to pay for someone else to build it.
Of course, this is not the first time Gaiman has written about the Norse pantheon, and it is not the first time he has modernized them. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that this book comes out just ahead of the television show based on his novel American Gods. But I will leave it there to avoid spoilers.
Instead, I will close by saying that whether this is your first time visiting Valhalla or your fifth, fans of Gaiman and mythology will find something to enjoy in this book, especially during the last few—and often harshest—weeks of winter. There may not be many lessons to be learned, but I think readers will have quite a lot of fun spending time with these stories and these characters.