While I am somewhat familiar with the Norse pantheon, I must admit before reading this book I had barely any depth to that knowledge. I knew facts. Bullet points. Odin had one eye and had ravens on his shoulders. Thor had a hammer and kicked butt. Loki is a trickster and when played by a certain English actor makes women melt and swoon. Men too.
What I lacked, however, was any real sense of story to their characteristics. What little I had read was dry and encyclopedic. Still more facts. Odin sacrificed himself on the world tree to gain knowledge. Thor once dressed as a woman to get his hammer back. Loki shaved Thor’s wife’s hair because he thought it was funny. It was like I was cribbing notes for an exam.
But that’s was my fault, for not seeking out a proper telling of the tales.
What Neil Gaiman does with Norse Mythology is tell those stories as stories. They are meant to be enjoyed, not studied like a textbook. These are not dry translations of the original sagas, nor are they an authoritarian analysis of the myths and their significance. These are stories, told as accurately as possible, the way one might tell them around a campfire on a cold winter’s night.
In the introduction, Gaiman makes no bones about his love of Norse myth and how he grew up with it, and it shows in the telling. Hell, I would argue it shows up in his writing in general. Forget American Gods or Anansi Boys, I’m talking about the general style in all his work, which plays in the dark, but still has an inner light to it.
If there is one word you can use to describe these stories, it’s fun. I often found myself laughing out loud at something Thor might say, or what Loki might do, and wonder about how the gods would find their way out of this mess or solve that puzzle.
Of course, being an accurate retelling means it hasn’t been whitewashed either. This is no Disney or Marvel vision of the gods. They keep their spots and do less than noble things. They’re not unlike the Greek/Roman pantheon in that sense, embodying human qualities rather than a sense of divinity. This is a world where a loved one’s death can be atoned for with a bribe, and where the righteousness of a god’s actions is based in strength rather than virtue, and where if you don’t have a proper name you’re probably going to end up collateral damage.
Come to think of it, having a name isn’t much protection, either…
More than once I found myself groaning or shaking my head at how scenes of carnage unfolded. It kind of reminded me of how some people play video games or RPGs, in the sense of general selfishness and a lack of concern for NPCs. Thor starts one story trying to get his wife’s hair back, but ends up far more interested in his brand new +12 Hammer of Ultimate Smackdown. That about says it all, really.
This is another instance where I can highly recommend the unabridged audio version, read by Gaiman himself. He’s a gifted storyteller, vocalizing the various gods clearly and in a way that brings out their personalities well. Oddly enough I actually picture a bit of the Marvel movie versions in his portrayals. A bit of Chris Hemsworth in Thor, a bit of Tom Hiddleston in Loki…
It’s a bit of a complement to those superhero movies that you really can imagine those actors transplanted into this book and seeing it work somehow. On more than one occasion it became clear that despite being their own thing, the Marvel writers MUST have read the source material. It comes through in many subtle ways.
The one thing I came away with after reading Norse Mythology was a love of those stories, and a desire to share them. I already know I’m going to re-read this book, much as I do Lord of the Rings every so often. And maybe, on a cold winter’s night, I’ll gather my nephews around a campfire, and tell them the story of what Thor did when a frost giant stole his hammer…
…okay, it’ll probably be in a nice warm house during a power outage and they’re complaining about the PlayStation not working, but the principal is basically the same, right?
Originally published in KODT #244