Neil Gaiman first turned his pen to Norse mythology in his Sandman comics, using gods like Odin, Thor and Loki in his intricate plots.
Then came the award-winning 2001 novel American Gods. While it was assembled from bits and pieces of mythology – Norse as well as others – the story was entirely Gaiman’s, a world unto its own. In it, characters like Odin and Loki may owe their conception to Norse mythology but are undeniably their author’s creations.
In his latest book, Norse Mythology, Gaiman consciously inverts the process. Part homage, part passion project – in his introduction, he calls the Norse stories his favourite among all myths – this isn’t the book you should pick up to look for the author’s twisting plots or unexpected characters. Instead, Gaiman lends his considerable storytelling skills, often with the lightest of touches, to tales that have existed for thousands of years with the intention of passing them on.
Norse mythology isn’t as widely-known as its Greek/Roman counterparts, but thanks to Marvel comic books and the Avengers movie franchise, they have lately seen a surge in familiarity. At the very least the general audience is more likely to recognise the hammer-wielding Thor, one-eyed Odin, and duplicitous Loki.
These elements, however, are merely derivatives of a much larger and wilder body of stories, and it is these that Gaiman is interested in telling. He himself came to Norse mythology through Thor’s adventures in Jack Kirby’s comics, and says he was both delighted and puzzled when he was later introduced to the originals.
And so Gaiman writes this collection as both storyteller and listener, revelling in the re-telling of stories that have embedded themselves deep into the cultures of many parts of the world.
It is an approach that initially feels a little antithetical to the unbridled imagination readers have come to expect from him. The book begins with a rundown of the major players and then sets up the beginnings of the mythic Norse world. While an enjoyable read, it feels expository, a bit like reading an encyclopaedia.
But read it again and one begins to see glimmers of Gaiman: in the deliberate choice of words, in the pacing, in the subtle suggestions of things unsaid. Gaiman is resolutely faithful to his source material, the collections of Old Norse writing in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, but he also gets these stories on an instinctive level. And so reading these tales told in his words, even the ones we might already know, allows us to experience these myths in new and thrilling ways.
The Norse myths can often seem inherently mournful. The gods are cold, selfish, and not very likeable. It is also a collection of stories ultimately about destruction. As Gaiman says: “I learned, the Norse gods came with their own doomsday: Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, the end of it all…. It was the fact that the world and the story ends, and the way that it ends and is reborn, that made the gods and the frost giants and the rest of them tragic heroes, tragic villains.”
Many of the stories might be familiar: how Odin lost his eye, how Thor got his hammer, Mjollnir, the murder of Balder.
Gaiman, however, finds the humour in these tales, and the heart too. The story of Thor being forced to disguise himself as a virginal bride sparkles with comedy. Conversations between Thor and Loki are often amusingly reminiscent of frat bros. As for the story of how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods, just wait till you find out where bad poetry comes from!
Meanwhile, when telling of how the gigantic wolf Fenrir was tricked into being bound by the gods, he layers the bitterness of betrayal into the tale. Loki’s final treachery and punishment are horrifying not just in act, but because like so much of wickedness, we simply can’t comprehend it.
And in the end, when Ragnarok happens, it is vivid, dark and terrible, but Gaiman also carefully preserves for us the sliver of hope this particular tale has always contained.
Stories, they say, grow in the telling. What a privilege to have them told to us by such a storyteller.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Bloomsbury/Norton, fiction