Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Published in 2017
Genre: Mythology, Norse mythology
“It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on).”
The above sentence is probably not what one would expect to introduce a collection of Norse myths. Those intimately familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work will not be surprised that he jumped at the chance to retell the myths he loves most from Norse Mythology. The aptly titled Norse Mythology is his love letter to the tales of the Vikings, which feature not only action and suspense, but love, lust, poetry, and shapeshifting tricksters. In an attempt to pay homage to the stories that so deeply affected him, Gaiman succeeds in creating an accessible book to guide a new generation of readers into the nine realms.
Norse Mythology begins with an introduction by Gaiman that describes the intention behind retelling these myths. He details the process by which he intentionally chose to not read other, favorite retellings, but to go to the genuine source of the remaining Norse myths themselves. Gaiman provides context for the myths and emphasizes their scarcity in comparison to those of the Greeks. He pushes the need to retell these stories in the manner of those who originally shared them in order to keep them alive. Gaiman encourages the reader to take the myths in the book and retell them in their own way to friends and family in order to continue the oral tradition inherent to the tales.
Gaiman gives an overview of the three principle characters in the book: Odin, Thor, and Loki. They are the only ones mentioned in the specific section, but other gods and giants play their parts and are fleshed out accordingly when they pop up in the tales. As is appropriate, Norse Mythology beings with the creation of the world and moves into the more interesting myths, though it doesn’t mention the war between the Aesir and Vanir until it is absolutely necessary in the tale of the Mead of Poetry.
The myths are presented in such a way as to lead eventually toward Ragnarok, the end of the world. Each myth showcases the temperaments of specific gods and foreshadows how their actions will set up the fall of the gods and the rebirth of the world. There are also story connections that set up plot points which add further payoff in the stories. One such example is the story of the gods going to the land of the giants. Thor, Loki, and a human named Thialfi face off with Utgard-Loki; an imposing giant who challenges the three to feats of skill that test their abilities of strength, speed-eating, and running respectively. These attributes are showcased by each of the characters earlier in the story, so their recurrence in the hall of Utgard doesn’t seem so sudden.
Gaiman addresses the reader in the second person, adding a quality of being told a tale by a genuine storyteller in Nordic times. This gives the story a more intimate and immediate feel than being a historical retelling of tales from another time and place. Gaiman also uses more contemporary language in the dialogue of the gods and other characters, which makes the stories more accessible to a modern audience. His voice is present and supplements the levity and profundity of the myths he chooses to retell, which speaks of the love he holds for these stories and their affect on him. I think of this book as a primer of Norse myths for those who are curious, but don’t know where to begin. Where Norse Gods is a visual spectacle of an artist’s personal version of the characters, and The Norse Myths takes a more in-depth approach, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology focuses on the storytelling itself and the characters that make them great.
Verdict: 3 violent gods of thunder out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Neil Gaiman, novice Norse mythology enthusiasts, those interested in Norse mythology but afraid of the Eddas, fans of the newest God of War video game, and people looking to learn the core stories in Norse mythology.
Not recommended for: Norse mythology purists (is that a thing? I don’t know), people who dislike Neil Gaiman, people who only care for the Marvel version of Thor, or people looking for a comprehensive collection of stories in Norse mythology.