Norse Mythology is a short-story collection that charts the many weird and wonderful stories that make up Scandinavian folklore and mythology, featuring well-know deities such as Odin, Thor, and Loki. The influence of Norse mythology on Gaiman’s work is apparent to his readers, and it therefore seems like a logical step for Gaiman to retell some of the well-know myths for himself. For fans of mythology or, indeed, the contemporary portrayals of said deities on-screen, this book provides an insight into a rich mythological background which is often contradictory or confusing, but a great ride, if you’re willing to go along with it for the duration.
“Do you wonder where poetry comes from? Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell? Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great, wise, beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on as poetry to the world, to be sung and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane? Have you ever wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales, and some of us do not?”
I adored Norse Mythology, I knew I would, because I enjoy mythology (though I’m more familiar with Greek myths and legends) and I’ve briefly dipped my toes into various Norse mythological tales – but who hasn’t heard of Mjollnir, for example, in this day and age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Admittedly, I do enjoy learning about the intriguing character of Loki, so it’s not a leap that I would adore hearing more of his antics via one of my favourite authors’ retelling of the wily trickster’s shenanigans. Familiar tales of the creation of Thor’s hammer, the various lands branching off Yggdrasil, the tree that connects the nine worlds, and Ragnarok, the apocalyptic battle at which several major deities will fall.
” ‘Because,’ said Thor, ‘when something goes wrong,
the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.’ “
I am under no illusions that if I wished to gather a fuller, more comprehensive view of Norse mythology, I should go read the Edda – I know this and I accept this, but as far as brief (and fun) introductions go, I can (and will) recommend Norse Mythology in the future. As the stories range from an explanation as to why Odin sacrificed one of his eyes, to Loki’s (unusual) children, to the source of mead, they are wide-ranging and accessible to even those who only have a very cursory knowledge of the lineup of Norse deities. Nothing is presumed knowledge, instead Gaiman initially introduces a cast of characters who then pop up in their own adventures and misadventures as he weaves his stories right to the proverbial end that is Ragnarok. You see, gods can be alarmingly “human” in that they can be idiots, because they’re full of their own self-importance and think that the world should play according to their rules. As they are gods, the world often does, but there are always consequences of the gods’ whims and these consequences are often (literally) world-changing. Some of the action of Norse Mythology may seem unbelievable or overblown, impossible or ridiculous, but that is because the characters Gaiman is playing with really are above normal “rules”, if you like.
“In their huge bedroom that night, Tyr said to Thor, ‘I hope you know what you are doing.’
‘Of course I do,’ said Thor. But he didn’t. He was just doing whatever he felt like doing.
That was what Thor did best.”
Likewise, “normal” rules of time and place do not really apply to the narrative(s). Mythological stories occupy a wonderful liminal space – they are neither past nor present nor future, but somehow all three at once. You can think of the Gods as having existed, or existing, currently, presently, looking down on us in Midgard and having a chuckle at us silly Midgardians. On the surface, it may seem overblown or fantastical but look a little closer and the stories retold in Norse Mythology do not just chart an ancient or irrelevant folklore that has no bearing on today’s society; I would not be surprised if Loki, for example, was looking at Midgard and grinning in glee at our contemporary political and social climate. Similarly, the rules of cause and effect are a little more skewed – it isn’t easy to chart a chronology or timeline of any of the stories in Norse Mythology in relation to each other, and that again contributes to a reading experience in which you must suspend disbelief in order to get the full enjoyment from the stories. Sometimes you just have to give up trying to figure out the logistics or motivations surrounding the tales of mythology – and be okay with doing that.
“The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own”
There are some criticisms I have seen floating around from people who felt like aspects of Neil Gaiman’s typical writing style was entirely non-existent in Norse Mythology. I would, respectfully, disagree. If you wanted a Neil Gaiman novel, you should read American Gods or Neverwhere or Anasi Boys… and so on and so forth. Retellings, to me, are an entirely different kettle of fish, especially when what you are retelling is something from mythological texts and sources. Was I mildly disappointed in the first few pages not to hear the same narrative voice apparent in Stardust or The Graveyard Book? Honestly? Yes, a little, but as I settled into the feel of the book I realised I was wrong to expect that in the first place. Gaiman is weaving together fragments of complex and often contradictory accounts of the figures found in the Norse canon and he is doing so in a narrative voice which emulates a mythic folk-tale tradition – it is very much a story where God A did this thing, and then this happened, so then God B did this, you can’t expect much flowery language. As Gaiman himself highlights, the joy of retelling is in the telling, it is in hearing a story and then passing it on. It is in learning of the forging of Thor’s hammer or the end of all days in Ragnarok and then recounting the events to others. It is easy to see where Gaiman draws inspiration for his own work from Norse mythology, and that is what you should read if you want a more “imaginative” or “developed” look into some of these weird and wonderful characters and settings.
So, yes, Norse Mythology is “ridiculous” and it does seem confusing at times, because you have to suspend your disbelief from the off – if you don’t, you end up getting hung up for hours on how on earth Loki can give birth to an eight-legged horse and, trust me, it’s best not to try to imagine the logistics of that conception. Enjoy Norse Mythology for what it is, a collection of short stories penned by someone who is infinitely invested in the (re)telling of the tales which are deeply woven into our culture and literature, even if we may not entirely realise it.
“This will be the age of cruel winds, the age of people who become as wolves, who prey upon each other, who are no better than wild beasts. Twilight will come to the world, and the places where the humans live will fall into ruins, flaming briefly, then crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation.”