Now that excitement is starting to ratchet up for the April 30 premiere of the Starz network’s television adaptation of American Gods, I thought I would take a moment to talk up Mr. Gaiman’s most recent work, which also has to do with gods, albeit in the non-fiction arena.
Norse Mythology is exactly what you hope it will be: a ‘simple’ retelling of some of Mr. Gaiman’s favorite tales of the Norse gods of legend. While most of the stories involve the “big three” – Odin, Thor and Loki, who have enjoyed a pop culture resurgence -there also are tales centering around some of the lesser known but no less intriguing Norse deities: Balder, Tyr, Freya, to name a few.
The book also relates some of the myths that many of us may know fragments of, but not the entire tale: he touches on how Odin sacrifices himself to himself by hanging from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, until the runes of power are revealed to him and he understands magic. He tells of the forging of Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir, which was one of the gifts given to the gods in a competition by the mightiest dwarven crafters in the land (with the winner claiming the right to cut off Loki’s head, as Loki had tricked them into competing in order to have one set of dwarves make locks of golden hair to replace the hair of Syf, wife of Thor, after Loki had taken hers one night on a lark, because he was drunk…). Then there is the myth of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, when all the gods go into battle knowing they all would die.
There are many other tales, besides, and almost all of them contain trickery, revenge, death and elements of vanity and egoism. They are not pretty tales. As Mr. Gaiman says in the introduction to Norse Mythology, “The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.”
And who else to tell these tales than Neil Gaiman? A master storyteller, he knows how a twist of phrase can invoke a twist of fate, and how sometimes a simple telling is the far more adept one. He relates these tales in straightforward terms, sans explication or rationalization, with the occasional wry humor to punctuate the fecklessness of the gods.
For those looking for the magnificent, principled Thor and the mischievously malevolent Loki of Marvel fame, you are going to be disappointed. These gods are vindictive, easily manipulated, and sometimes downright clueless. But if you enjoy myth and fable at its most elemental, then Norse Mythology is a book you are going to want to experience.