Neil Gaiman makes no secret of his love of Norse mythology and folklore. It shows up over and over in his fiction (Sandman, American Gods, Odd and the Frost Giants to name a few); and he has mentioned his love of the stories in interviews and essays. In Norse Mythology (2017), Gaiman puts his distinctive narrative voice in service to this mythological cycle and tells us the tales of the beginnings of the Norse gods, all the way through to beyond their ending, the dread battle of Ragnarok.
Norse Mythology is not a scholarly work or an analysis of these stories; it is not a literary retelling or a retelling set in the modern world. Gaiman simply takes a number of the myths, some familiar, some less so, and tells them in his voice with his sensibility. The effect, even when events are terrible or tragic, is somehow cozy. It’s easy to imagine yourself on a long winter’s night, sipping a pint of ale next to a glowing hearing these words in Gaiman’s own voice.
This sense of coziness makes the book difficult to review in some ways. This is not original work so there’s little to discuss about plot. I’m going to stick to discussing voice and some of the choices Gaiman made in retelling these epic tales.
For those who have grown up on the Marvel Comics version of Thor the Thunderer, Loki may come as a surprise. He is not Thor’s adopted brother. He is blood-brother to Odin, and full-blooded giant. Loki, consummate trickster, is also a shapeshifter and quite comfortable in female form, be it human or animal. In human form, he has a scarred mouth, where an opponent stitched his mouth together after Loki tried to wiggle out of a bet. It sounds cruel, but things would have been better for all the Aesir (the Norse gods) if Loki’s mouth had stayed shut. Similarly, Frey and Freya, well-known names from our grade-school books about mythology, were not of the Aesir. They were Vanir, and they were fostered by Odin as part of a diplomatic agreement with the Vanir. The Aesir were not the only beings with magical or superhuman abilities, and many of their powers were not intrinsic to them but came from magical artifacts crafted by dwarves (for example, Mjollnir, Thor’s hammer, the iconic Norse artifact).
In his foreword, Gaiman discusses the dearth of stories about numerous goddesses whose names are now lost to us.
There are many Norse goddesses. We know their names and some of their attributes of power, but the tales, myths and rituals have not come down to us. I wish I could tell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was a Norse goddess of marriages… Not to mention Vor, the goddess of wisdom.
A female character Gaiman does devote some time to is an interesting one, Angrboda. She is a giant and has three children with Loki, children who play their parts in the myth cycle and at Ragnarok.
Like gods in many human stories, the Norse gods are capricious and cruel. They break their word or try to get out of bargains they have made. What makes them a little different from other deities is how bumbling they are at it; and that makes for some of the fun of the lighter tales.
Many of these tales are familiar to readers of mythology. The story of how the giant Skrymir tricked Odin, Loki and Thor was traditional. Some, like how the blood of a god became the mead of poetry, were new to me. “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” a story based on that staple of entertainment in all-male enclaves, cross-dressing, must have had the beefy warriors in the mead-halls guffawing in historic times, and Gaiman does it justice, as Thor dresses up in maidenly-drag, imitating Freya, to get back his stolen hammer. (One thing about the Norse gods: they weren’t careful with their stuff.) Loki’s attempt to trick Idunn out of the golden apples of immortality was familiar, as is the story of Loki’s three children. His daughter Hel becomes the goddess of the underworld; his son Jormungundgr is the Midgard Serpent; his son Fenrir will become the Fenris Wolf. Gaiman places the story of Loki’s children, with the interaction between Fenrir and the god Tyr, in Norse Mythology in such a way that it foreshadows a later betrayal of family with devastating consequences.
I didn’t know that Loki had two other sons with his wife Sigyn, who “had been happy and beautiful when Loki courted and married her but now always looked like she was expecting bad news.”
Gaiman handles the interactions between Thor and Loki as you would expect; Loki is witty and twisty, Thor wants to hits things, and one of the things he wants to hit the most is Loki. Loki persuades the gods, time after time, to embark on a terrible plan or a ruinous mission; the gods themselves seem to wonder why they listen to him, but they do. Such is Loki’s power.
Loki is brave and a fighter as well as a trickster, but the envy and cruelty in his heart make him dangerous. One of the saddest retellings in Norse Mythology is “The Death of Balder.” Everyone loves Balder, and Odin and Frigga fear losing him to death, so they go to everything in the world and ask it to pledge not to kill Balder. Frigga overlooks the mistletoe plant because it seems so minor and powerless. Loki does not even try to master his envy at Balder’s popularity. The bitter sting in this story is the way Loki manages to kill Balder. There is a deliberate and terrible change in tone in this scene; Balder is basically impervious, and the gods, including Balder, are having fun trying to kill him because they know they can’t, until that moment when he falls dead. Gaiman places this tale of betrayal in such a way to usher in the end of Loki and the beginning of Ragnarok.
Readers who like Gaiman and know a little or a lot of Norse mythology will enjoy this book, and I think it would make a good introduction for people who don’t know much and want to learn. Despite a lot of humor (much comes from the original stories) Gaiman is not diminishing these stories; he treats the material with respect. There are gruesome deaths and gory scenes but the fireside-tale tone of the book makes it less disturbing than the subject matter would indicate. I think Norse Mythology would be a great gift for an advanced middle-grade reader or older… or for anyone who loves these dark and crazy gods.
As a long-time fan of Neil Gaiman, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’d written a book on Norse mythology. The deities of this particular pantheon have frequently popped up in his previous works (especially American Gods) and with this volume he goes back to the source of his inspiration.
Sixteen chapters translate into sixteen stories, detailing the Norse legend of the creation of the world and its destruction and rebirth. In between are the stories of the gods: usually Odin, Thor and Loki, but also Freya, Sif and Tyr. There are giants and dwarfs, treasures and curses, shapeshifting and competitions, laughter and tears.
In his introduction Gaiman discusses some of the source material he went to for inspiration (largely Snorri Sturluson‘s Prose Edda and Poetic Edda) and how he chose elements of those stories for retelling. He writes with clarity and a sly sense of humour, and many of the more outlandish elements of the mythos are captured in prose that helps to visualize such things as a sky made from a giant’s skull, or a horn that can hold all the seawater of the world.
At times he addresses the reader directly, to point things out or to share his own thoughts. The characters feel grounded despite their godhood, with very human foibles and shortcomings. Especially interesting is how Loki goes from a lovable trickster to a much darker, eviller individual. As Gaiman puts it: “you resented [Loki] even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”
There is a certain sense of randomness that you’ll find in any mythology: certain characters disappear without warning, objects of grand significance are never mentioned again, and there’s certainly no overarching plot. But the Norse myths are some of the most influential body of stories in the world: you can see their echoes in everything from Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS to Marvel’s Thor comics.
Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a worthy collection of stories from this particular time and place. In his hands, it’s easy to see why they’ve been so persuasive, and have continued to be so popular up to the present day.