So I’ve been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately thanks to the recent release of the Amazon Prime adaptation of Good Omens. I’ve read him off and on throughout the years, and while I haven’t always found some of his characters to have as much emotional depth as I’d like, I’m always carried away by his graceful narration style and the beautifully intricate and distinctly magical worlds that he builds. Something about the way he describes the other home from Coraline, the ethereal kingdom known as The Dreaming from Sandman, or the ghost inhabited cemetery from The Graveyard Book makes these places feel like you could find them right here in the real world. You simply have to turn the right corner, or crawl through that curious little hole in the wall.
It’s distinctly different from the grand-scale fantasy that you usually read from authors like Tolken, Sanderson and Martin. Gaiman rarely indulges in designing worlds that are entirely separate from ours. He prefers to design histories that are entangled with magic, where their world and ours have always been connected and we simply haven’t noticed. This is more similar to authors like Rowling and Butcher, but even among other works of magical realism, his stories stand out. Gaiman’s idea of magic favors subtlety and curiosity over rule-sets and barriers. There are rarely laws or portals that separate Gaiman’s magic from the real world. They usually bleed together, with most of the adult world simply being too distracted with our day to day responsibilities to notice.
Norse Mythology is different, and yet it still plays on many of Gaiman’s established strengths. I didn’t really know anything about the book when I picked it up, other than that it was written by Neil Gaiman and that it probably had something to do with the Norse Gods. I was honestly expecting it to be a novel. So I was surprised and a little disappointed (at first) when I realized that it wasn’t a novel, but Gaiman’s retelling of the original Norse legends surrounding the creation of the world, the gods and Ragnarok, the end of the world.
It’s important to read Gaiman’s introduction before diving into these stories. He explains in it that there isn’t very much documentation of Norse Mythology, and the stories that do exist often contradict each other.
“There are so many Norse stories we do not have, so much we do not know. All we have are some myths that have come to us in the form of folktales, in retellings, in poems, in prose. […] I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.”
This makes it difficult for a scholar to discern the true origins, but it also serves as an opportunity for an artist like Gaiman to fill in the blanks. Don’t get me wrong, he did his research, citing different translations of Snorri Sturlurson’s Prose Edda and A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, by Rudolf Simek, but he was able to take artistic license with the structure, the narrative and which details he would use from which versions of the stories because there was no foundational tomb, no universally “true” version. Only fragments collected from years of retellings.
“Picking and choosing what tales I wanted to retell and how I wanted to retell them, blending versions of myths from prose and from poems.”
This might weaken Norse Mythology as a piece of historical literature, but it actually improves it as a work of art. Gaiman was allowed to tell his version of these legends, influenced by the way he envisioned the frozen Viking hall of Asgard and the larger-than-life gods who lived there. He could take liberties with their personalities, steer the plots toward more satisfying conclusions and add millions of those beautiful, descriptive, little details that makes his words such a joy to read. He could take the playful influences from the Marvel adaptation of Thor that he grew up reading and add them to the monstrously dark versions of the old stories, where men were killed in gruesome ways for daring to disrespect the gods, who are not always good.
He can give these stories that special little bit of magic, where it seems like they’re a part of history that most of us have simply forgotten, or maybe didn’t see because it happened just around the corner. He can make them thrilling and heart wrenching, breathing life and drama into ancient tales of morality.
He can turn them into Neil Gaiman stories.
So if you’re interested in the Norse Gods, but have never heard their stories, or if you’ve heard them before but would like the chance to read a more dramatic and descriptive re-imagining, then this is the book for you. You can hear about the origin of the Nine Worlds, about Odin, who sacrificed himself to himself in order to achieve greater wisdom, Thor, who broke mountains, wrestled Time, drank a third of the ocean and killed the Midgard Serpent, and Loki, who was… complicated.
I very much enjoyed this book, (if that wasn’t obvious,) and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the author or the subject. My only word of warning is that there are parts that are more graphic than you might think. So maybe pick up a copy of Coraline or Stardust instead if you’re squeamish.
Thanks for reading,