I’ve long been a skeptic about the entire Neil Gaiman “phenomena”. I’ve met plenty of people who love his books but his revisionist takes on series like Sand Man, Good Omens, Miracle Man and American Gods never sparked my interest. My thoughts on his script for his Beowulf film are also on record. I have seen Coraline and I do like that but that’s about the extent to which I’ve given him his due.
I did however give one book of his a chance. His 2017 book Norse Mythology peaked my curiosity as a stand-alone work of mythic fiction drawing from one of the most popular mythologies in the world!
As far as I can tell, this is an excellent primer on the basics of Norse Mythology. I say “primer” because Norse Mythology has long been a rather intimidating subject to dive into. I’m familiar with Greek, Christian and Arthurian mythology but Norse mythology is a special challenge. Unlike those mythologies, we don’t have a lot of surviving works detailing.
Most of what we do have of the mythology comes out of 900 year old texts like the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. As it stands, these surviving works are incomplete.
As Gaiman writes in the introduction:
“Some stories and poems tell of other stories or imply other stories that we simply do not have. It is, perhaps, as if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived were the deeds of Theseus and Hercules. We have lost so much.”
Norse Mythology functions as a streamlining of the challenging and opaque world of Viking Paganism and massages them into Just So Stories that read like children’s fairy tales, but with the benefit of sex and violence.
The book is a fairly comprehensive take on the material as well. The book functions as an anthology that tracks the stories of Thor, Loki and Odin across millennia and through most of their greatest legends. We get a primer on the creation of the nine realms, we learn about the creation of Thor’s hammer, we get to experience the Gods’ misadventures and conquests against the frost giants and other monsters, we get to experience the death of Balder, hear about the bindings of Fenrir and Loki and hear the prophesied end of the world at the fields of Ragnarok.
Between all these major mythic events, we get a lot of downtown to enjoy scenes of drinking, feasting, traveling and laughter. The book never feels like it’s rushing through these events. It’s a brisk read but it never feels too short or lacking in detail.
If anything, I wanted more stories!
One of the interesting things about the Norse Gods is just how much antipathy and carelessness they exhibit. The universe lives and dies by their petty whims, much like the Greek Gods, but the Nords feel actively more aggressive than other pantheons.
That’s not necessarily surprising. Most Pagan gods, prior to the rise in Christendom, were not virtuous gods. Gods were forces of nature to be bribed and respected much like a Hurricane or an ocean. You don’t negotiate with them.
Many of the best stories in Norse Mythology capture this relative antipathy. The Gods are inconvenienced by a human, a frost giant, a dwarf or a wolf and they go out of their way to find the most aggressive or passive aggressive way possible to turn the situation on their favor.
In one early story, Freya’s Unusual Wedding, Thor’s hammer is stolen by the Lord of the Ogres. In order to get it back, Thor and Loki dress as women to sneak into the Ogre’s wedding and get the hammer back. The moment Thor gets it back, he proceeds to murder the entire party’s worth of Orges.
It’s even clear by the end that “Ragnarok” is even somewhat caused by the God’s brutality and carelessness. The instigators of the end of the world are Fenrir, Loki and Loki’s children who all have deep grievances against Odin and the other Gods. The destruction of Earth and all of creation will merely be an afterthought in the Gods’ epic drama. At worst, Earth’s destruction will bring them joy.
Norse Mythology is a wonderful and engaging retelling that I thoroughly adored reading. Like the best of literature and entertainment, it left me wanting more and wanting to delve into the subject matter more deeply. Gaiman’s passion for mythology is on display here like gangbusters! For the first time, I viscerally GET why people love his writing!