Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
June 1, 2017
Before the beginning there was nothing – no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.
From the dawn of the world to the twilight of the gods, this is a dazzling retelling of the great Norse myths from the award-winning, bestselling Neil Gaiman.
About the Book
From the Amazon Product Page: The great Norse myths are woven into the fabric of our storytelling – from Tolkien, Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff to Game of Thrones and Marvel Comics. They are also an inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s own award-bedecked, bestselling fiction. Now he reaches back through time to the original source stories in a thrilling and vivid rendition of the great Norse tales. Gaiman’s gods are thoroughly alive on the page – irascible, visceral, playful, passionate – and the tales carry us from the beginning of everything to Ragnarok and the twilight of the gods. Galvanised by Gaiman’s prose, Thor, Loki, Odin and Freya are irresistible forces for modern readers and the crackling, brilliant writing demands to be read aloud around an open fire on a freezing, starlit night.
Hardcover length: 279 pages
I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, so when I heard he was bringing out a modern retelling of the Norse myths I couldn’t wait to get my eager little hands on a copy. Once I’d stopped lovingly (and enviously) stroking the stunning cover, I dived straight into the introduction, which opens with Neil recalling where his lifelong fascination with the Norse Gods first began:
My first encounter with Asgard and its inhabitants was as a small boy, no more than seven, reading the adventures of the Mighty Thor as depicted by American comic artist Jack Kirby, in stories plotted by Kirby and Stan Lee and dialogued by Stan Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber.
It was from this love of comic book stories and reading other stories like Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green that sparked Neil’s interest in mythology and would inspire many of his later works of fiction including,The Sandman and American Gods, the latter of which was recently adapted into a TV series. After recently reading all 736 pages of American Gods, (which, if you haven’t read yet, is disturbing and gritty and weirdly good!) I was intrigued and more than a little excited as to how he would approach these classic and much-loved Norse tales.
The book comprises of fifteen short stories drawn from the 13th century Icelandic Prose and Poetic Edda sagas, originally written by Snorri Sturluson. Personally, I had hoped Neil’s version would bring a new dish or two to the mythological table, but in all fairness, you can only work with what you are given. Sadly, very little of the original Norse myths exist. Like other ancient folktales, many of these untold stories and poems were destroyed or simply became lost in the mists of time.
However, unlike some of the older and more academic translations of the Norse myths, some of which can be hard to digest, the narrative in this retelling is simple and straightforward, making it more accessible to a broader audience. What this modern version lacks in depth and originality, it more than makes up for in the fresh and unpretentious way it is told.
The collection of stories follow the adventures and misfortunes of the Asgard gods from their frozen origins to their fateful destination at Ragnarok – the end and rebirth of all things. Whether this portends an ill-fated future or an apocalyptic event from the past, it’s probably best not to ponder too heavily. Though it certainly makes for a gripping ending.
That is how the world will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice. That is the final destiny of the gods.
Odin the all-father, Thor the thunderer and Loki the sly one of course lie at the heart of many of these absurd, violent and tragic stories, but we are also introduced to some lesser known gods such as Tyr, the one-handed god of war, Balder’s brother blind Hod, Njord, god of the wind and sea, as well as a few significant enemies.
As we journey with the gods across the nine worlds, we get to meet many of its diverse inhabitants, including some cunning dwarves and shape-shifting giants, who seem to have a habit of ending up on the wrong side of Thor’s mighty hammer. Along the way, we also learn about the world-tree Yggdrasil, the origin Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent and the fate of Fenrir the wolf. While some of these tales are highly entertaining, such as how a giant was unfairly tricked into building Asgard’s wall and why the handle of Thor’s mighty hammer Mjollnir is on the short side, others like The Death of Balder and The Last Days of Loki leave a more profound impression.
Neil’s astute and somewhat comedic depiction of the Norse Gods gave me a fair few chuckles throughout, though you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the skin of these supreme beings to glimpse something darker, uglier and inherently human. Apart from Balder the Beautiful and Kvasir the Wise, (whose innocence sadly brought about their untimely demise) the rest of the gods are characterised as arrogant, petty, vengeful beings, prone to envy and quick to anger, especially Thor who seems to thrive on smashing giants’ skulls. And while it hardly seems conceivable that Odin, who gave his eye for wisdom, is taken in more than once by Loki’s scheming, it’s exactly those relatable human flaws that makes these stories so immensely appealing.
Compared to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Penguin Book of Norse Myths and Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen, this book doesn’t add anything more to what has gone before it, which is why seasoned scholars of folklore may find it of less interest. But what Neil’s Norse Mythology does offer, is a simple, honest and fresh retelling of these classic stories for a new generation of readers to cherish. Who knows, perhaps it will even inspire other curious seven-year-olds to pick up the storytelling baton. Now wouldn’t that be a gift more precious than Idunn’s immortal apples?