Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This would be a cool book to own. In hardback, of course.

We have wanted to listen to this one since it came out. It was, however, quite popular, and we had to wait for that to die down before we could listen to it. It was worth the wait.

At the outset, it is good to set proper expectations. This is not a complete book of Norse myths. It is not poetry. It is not scholarly. It is not particularly adult oriented. Rather, it is an elegant, spare, focused, retelling of the most important myths, at the level of a late elementary school reader. If you look at it that way, it is a fine work.

This isn’t my first exposure to Norse mythology. I own and have read the entire three volumes of Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology, which devotes a couple of chapters to those myths. This book is still my go-to reference for Western mythology. I know I have read more detailed accounts of at least some of the myths elsewhere. And, of course, there is Wagner. I have a beloved 1895 first edition of H. A. Guerber’s Stories of the Wagner Opera, which has been a great resource. The Norse myths are also a part of our culture, and part of our storytelling - even our days of the week. Both Tolkien and C. S. Lewis drew heavily on the myths at various times in their writing, as did many authors since that time. And now, of course, they have been resurrected for comic book and movie franchises.

So these stories are familiar...but not entirely. Many of us know Odin (Wotan), Thor, Loki, and Freya. Some of us also think of Frey, and Frigg, and Baldur; Heimdall, Hel, and Fenrir. And then the giants, both mountain and frost. And the “midgard” or “middle earth” residents such as dwarves, humans, and elves.

As I noted, Gaiman selects the best known - and most complete - stories. In his delightful introduction, he mentions a number of story threads which are incomplete, characters whose back stories are alluded to, and so on - but their stories have been lost somewhere in antiquity. There is no doubt that Gaiman loves the myths: these are truly loving retellings.

Adding to the experience is Gaiman reading his own stories. Seriously, he is so good at his reading. I think this is one reason he ended up as kind of a literary superstar. It is definitely worth seeking out his audiobooks for this reason alone.

My kids greatly enjoyed the book. In particular, any scene when Thor eats to excess was popular. The favorite had to be Thor in drag, pretending to be Freya so he can kill the giant who stole his hammer.

Also funny, of course, is just how much of a lunk Thor is, and how too-clever-by-half-for-his-own-good the ever-scheming Loki is. After all, he is the source of most of the problems for the gods; and also the only guy who can get them out of those problems. I have joked before that Loki is the God of Lawyers. I’m only half joking. He was the master of the loophole centuries before we switched to Due Process as a replacement for Trial By Battle. Thor may be the brawn behind the law, but Loki is the one who gives Thor’s hammer its legal cover.

And then there is poor Freya. Cursed with beauty, she is constantly desired by giants and ogres. And, of course, because she inhabits a patriarchal and sexist Aasgard, Thor and Loki (and the rest) are more than willing to use her as a bargaining chip. One wonders if the poets who first told the tales realized that she seems smarter than the gods combined, and that the deities would be far better off if they let her run things? It seems possible. Poets have tended to both support and subvert the established order.

I was also intrigued by the dichotomy of gods and goddesses, and the giants. They are actually fairly evenly matched in many cases. Sure, Thor and his hammer are pretty badass. But the doofus keeps losing it. And without their magic apples and magic castle, the gods can be a bit helpless. More often than not, it seems that the main advantage the gods have over the giants is that they are just a little bit smarter. They can plan and not just react. Which is why it takes Loki to end the world.

When it comes to ancient stories, there is no one right way to tell them. Myths live because we retell - and reinvent - them. For someone who grew up reading the Fitzgerald translations of Homer, there are times that Gaiman’s prose seems less, well, epic and poetic than it could be. It isn’t Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf or Robert Pinsky’s Inferno. But Gaiman is a skilled storyteller, and his prose flows beautifully in its own way. It is perfect for kids, honestly, and an adult can appreciate its simple beauty. Perhaps, as Sibelius said about his own music, others may offer exotic cocktails, but he serves cold, clear water.


Yes, I have read or listened to a lot of Neil Gaiman lately. My second daughter is a huge fan, and I try to read stuff she is interested in too. Here is the list of other Gaiman stuff we have read over the past few years:

Odd And The Frost Giants


This post definitely calls for some Wagner. We can certainly quibble with the fact that Wagner really means Asgard, not Valhalla, but the music is still fantastic.

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