‘Norse Mythology’ by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology

I’ve loved mythology, all kinds of mythology, since my early childhood, but always felt like a bit of a fraud pursuing my interest in adult life. Books on myths and legends are plentiful for children, lushly illustrated, simplified and sanitised, they fire the imagination. But a lot of books on the topic for grown-ups are dry and academic. I remember perusing the mythology section of a big branch of Dillon’s bookshop and never quite having felt so much like I didn’t belong; I eventually bought a copy of Myths and Legends of California and the Old Southwest by Katharine Berry Judson, a book of Native American mythology (which is great, I recommend it), but even as I paid for it, I couldn’t help feeling that the sales assistant saw right through me and knew that I was a mere dilettante who wouldn’t know his Ares from his Elbrus.

In his introduction to Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman dispels thirty-some years of paranoia by explaining that, much like me, he first got into the myths and legends of the ancient Norse Gods by reading the exploits of The Mighty Thor in Marvel Comics. Suddenly, I felt okay in admitting that, as a 6-year old, I used to run around my parents’ terraced cottage dangerously swinging my Dad’s hammer with a tea-towel tucked in the neck of my t-shirt, and that’s why I’m still interested in this stuff so many years later. If it’s okay for international best-selling author Neil Gaiman to have an interest in Norse mythology that isn’t formally academic, then it’s okay for a fartabout like me. And let’s make no bones about it, Norse Mythology is not a book aimed at dedicated students of history; it’s an accessible retelling of these stories, aimed at everyone.

In Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman takes 15 of the most interesting stories from the far-reaching exploits of the ancient Norse Gods and relates them as fast, witty and easily read short stories. All of the familiar characters are there, which you will recognise even if your only association with the subject are the MCU Thor movies: Odin, Loki, Hel and of course the mighty Thor himself – plus a wealth of others you might not have heard of. But they’re not quite the characters that you might be familiar with; Gaiman faithfully retains the acts and motivations of the characters from the original myths and they often behave in a way that, from a 21st century perspective, make them look like a bunch of spoilt ultra-powerful kids. Thor, in particular, has some serious anger management issues. Don’t make him look foolish, or he’s likely to pound you into oblivion with his mighty hammer Mjollnir! All this serves to demonstrate that the ancient Norse folk had a far different concept of what served as ‘heroic’ than we do today.

The first and last chapters, detailing the birth and death of the Gods, have that detached feeling that seems to run through all mythologies; as if they were originally conceived by somebody different, or more likely a number of people. The chapter detailing Ragnarok, the final battle, in particular has that ‘this will happen, then this will happen, then this will happen’ quality that you can even see in the New Testament’s Revelation, suggesting that subsequent orators and scribes have added their own little bits until it becomes a shopping list of cataclysmic events. As such, it’s probably the least satisfying of the stories, but Neil Gaiman commendably sticks to the events as detailed in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, which he explains in the glossary are the two main historical documents that he worked from. Of course, it’s churlish to blame the disjointed nature on the beginning and end chapters on the author of this book, as they were documented well over 700 years before he was born.

The more satisfying chapters are all the ones inbetween that tell of the exciting, outrageous, astounding exploits of the Norse Gods in their pomp. Loki is central to most of the stories, as he mischievously transforms himself into woman, man or beast to tempt some poor innocent into doing something unspeakable. He really is an absolute bastard and there’s little sense that what he’s doing is to gain status or power; he’s just a force of nature that commits horrible acts for his own amusement. To call him the God of Mischief often seems like a terrible understatement. His treatment of Hod, one of the sons of Odin, is particularly cruel, as he tricks him into unintentionally murdering his brother Balder; an act for which he is eventually condemned to death. Loki is pretty much the driving force behind this entire narrative, even being responsible for Rognarok, the death of the Gods (spoilers, but y’know, 700 years and all that).

Neil Gaiman has made every effort to make these stories readable for a modern audience, but he’s still retained the sense of surrealism that permeates the original myths, particularly the wildly skewed sense of scale. Characters are established as a certain size in proportion to other characters and then in later stories (or sometimes later in the same story) they’re seen to pick up something that is many millions of times their size! But hey, they’re Gods; they can transform themselves into animals or whatever they please, so it’s easy to imagine that their size might be equally fluid. The giants in these stories are described as truly massive and often with an unseemly amount of heads, but somehow they are able to procreate with the Gods. I’m not sure that I really want to think about the logistics of that. Let’s move on…

These stories are told with real love. A lesser author might have spoofed some of the more fantastical elements in the stories, or gone to tremendous lengths to be achingly post-modern. Not so, Neil Gaiman; he makes the stories accessible to a modern audience but retains every sense of what is truly mythic about them. That’s not to say that it’s dry and humourless by any means; Neil Gaiman inserts a streak of wry comedy where appropriate, but it’s not to the detriment of the original stories. This is a great book and I wish there were more like it. Not everyone’s cup of tea (or should that be horn of mead?) perhaps, but I loved it… and I’m sure that 6-year old me, with his tea towel and (very dangerous) hammer would have loved it to. Thank you Neil Gaiman, I no longer need to feel unworthy in the mythology section of my local bookshop.

This edition of ‘Norse Mythology’ by Neil Gaiman was published in the UK by Bloomsbury Publishing (2017)

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