Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
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Synopsis via Goodreads: 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 fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.
I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. His imagination and passion for his craft are addicting and he writes in a voice so unique that I can easily tell him apart from another author from a single sentence alone. His 2001 novel American Gods will forever be credited as the book that officially got me back into reading during the overwhelming trials of university. I expect big things from him, which has let me down in the past (sorry, Stardust!), but the majority of his work is considered among some of my favourite books. And there are still a few I haven’t read yet! So when he announced a re-write of various Norse myths, I was obviously extremely excited.
I’m happy to say that I found Gaiman’s Norse Mythology to be an addicting, exciting, and educational read. Centring primarily around Thor, Loki, and Odin, Norse Mythology is split into 16 episodic tales leading up to Ragnarok. Keeping the myths separate instead of attempting to blur them into a more traditional novel format allowed each individual story to shine instead of being swallowed up by a larger narrative. This also kept the myths more in tune historically within oral tradition, like campfire stories. I’m already a fan of short stories (especially Gaiman’s) and appreciate a good collection that can be read in quick spurts during downtime throughout the day. Despite keeping the myths separated, Gaiman still presents each story in a chronological fashion that leads towards a climax and a conclusion to the shenanigans, battles, and (attempted) romance scattered throughout.
I would argue that Loki is the particular star of the majority of the stories, even when he exists more as a pesky character floating around the background. Gaiman’s presentation of Loki is hilarious and conniving and I found myself much more interested in how he was about to screw up a plan than what the plan was meant to achieve in the first place. I’ll certainly be looking into more author’s interpretations of this character in the future. Thor was a bit two dimensional, which I think is the point, but his ‘all I want to do is eat’ attitude doesn’t necessarily make him entertaining to read about. The rest of the gods, goddesses, and mythological beings were generally colourful and diverse, especially Loki’s peculiar children. I hope Gaiman writes a follow-up book which focuses on the stories of these other characters, especially with more myths involving the Titans.
In terms of the myths themselves, my absolute favourite was Freya’s Unusual Wedding. I love Thor and Loki attempting to work together with Loki mucking everything up (purposefully) along the way. Gaiman really highlights the conflicting relationship between the two gods along with the contrast between Loki’s intelligence and Thor’s ogre-like qualities in a continuously entertaining fashion. Unfortunately, The Mead of Poets was my least favourite of the stories and, while I’m sure a charming tale to some, was a bit of a bore for me personally. Gaiman’s voice worked well with the majority of the myths, but I’m sad to say that this one fell a little short and dragged on a bit longer than I would have liked. However, I had a very positive experience reading this book overall and will likely pick it up to re-read some of my favourite myths in the future.
I won’t pretend that this book is for everyone, not even for those who generally enjoy Gaiman’s novels. If you like reading mythology, or if you’re willing to be a bit open-minded and let go of contemporary forms of storytelling, then you might enjoy a read of Norse Mythology. If short stories or campfire tales of gods and titans isn’t quite your cup of tea then you might want to give this a pass. Thankfully, Gaiman does include a Glossary of names, places, and objects for those of us new to Norse myths, making a quick glance at the back of the book an easy way to follow along. The joy of Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is that there might just be a myth within these pages for everyone, even if the rest of the book isn’t quite what you were looking for.