Norse Mythology: A master storyteller relays the myths he loves

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Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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.

Published in February 2017. Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths. Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki—son of a giant—blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman—difficult with his beard and huge appetite—to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir—the most sagacious of gods—is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people. Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve heard some mixed reviews about this, so I was really interested to read your thoughts! Thanks, Marion!

    • I liked it. It’s not his own work, but the order in which he chose for the stories creates a definite arc. It’s very easy to see reflections of his other work here and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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