Norse Mythology

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5 out of 5 stars
By Jefferson on 02-24-17

A Comedy-Tragedy of Gods Giants Dwarfs & Monsters

Near the end of the only romantic happy ending story in Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology (2017), Gaiman makes a brilliantly ironic aside: "Their wedding was blessed, and some say their son, Fjolnir, went on to become the first king of Sweden. He would drown in a vat of mead late one night, hunting in the darkness for a place to piss."

In his introduction, Gaiman says that "I've tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can. . . . I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time" of "long winter nights" and "the unending daylight of midsummer," when people "wanted to know . . . what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from." He achieves his aims.

Gaiman also explains what fascinated him as a boy about the myths: they are full of tragic heroes and villains "with their own doomsday: Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, the end of it all." In both Norse and Greek mythologies the gods and goddesses are powerful, flawed beings who embody human traits or forces of nature and give appropriate justice or unexpected trouble, and who appear in stories that feature origins, metamorphoses, and ethical messages on hospitality, oath keeping, and the like. But in the Greek myths, the main gods and goddesses just keep going.

Gaiman first introduces the three main "players" of the myths: Odin ("highest and oldest of all the gods," the wise, far-seeing, "all-father"), Thor (the thunder god, son of Odin, strongest, simplest, and most violent of the gods), and Loki (blood-brother of Odin, the supreme trickster, father of monsters, maker of an interesting but unsafe world). He relates the creation of the nine worlds and gods and giants. And then he tells thirteen stories. (Though they should be read in sequence, each story can stand alone, for Gaiman repeats a few details when referring to something in a later story that he's already introduced in an earlier one.)

The first two tales ("Mimir's Head and Odin's Eye" and "The Treasures of the Gods") detail how Odin got extra wisdom and how Loki staged (and interfered with) a magical artifact competition between two teams of dwarves. Then follow an assortment of violent comedy fantasy stories like "The Master Builder" (a reckless bargain, an amazing builder, and some cross-species conception), "Freya's Unusual Wedding" (the theft of Thor's hammer and some comical cross-dressing), and "Hymir and Thor's Fishing Expedition" (an outrageous tall tale). Interspersed among those are an origin story "The Mead of the Poets" (war + spit + blood + honey + dwarves + sex + eagles = mead and bards), an ominous story "The Children of Loki" (the fates of Loki's monstrous kids), and a love story "The Story of Gerd and Frey" (even a god may fall in love with a giantess). Ending things are a tragedy ("The Death of Balder"), a punishment ("The Last Days of Loki"), and an apocalypse ("Ragnarok").

Before Norse Mythology, I read the beautifully illustrated D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths (1967) for children. I found that the humor, violence, imagination, pathos, and plots are essentially the same in both, but that Gaiman gives more emotional, psychological, and physical detail. For example, what the D'Aulaires write in one sentence ("The mead made the gnomes feel so grand that they recklessly killed an old jotun, and when his wife came looking for him, they slew her too"), Gaiman develops for pages. Gaiman adds to the myths his own vision and "joy and creation."

Gaiman writes more violence, scatology, and sex than the D'Aulaires do, as when he recounts Thor doing what he does best ("Methodically, enthusiastically, one after the next, Thor killed all the giants of the waste, until the earth ran black and red with their blood"), or Odin escaping as an eagle ("Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung's face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin's trail"), or Odin seducing a giantess (nude bodies and nuzzling). His renewal finale, when golden chess pieces representing the gods, Loki, and the giants are found lying scattered in the grass, is more numinous and less Christian than the D'Aulaires'. He also belongs to the contemporary villain revision trend, making Loki and some monsters (like his children Hel and Fenris) a little more understandable and sympathetic than do the D'Aulaires.

In dialogue Gaiman writes a few jarring modern idioms, like "The temperature was all over the place" and "What kind of woman do you think I am?" And he tends to overuse fairy tale superlatives (e.g., "the gods drink the finest ale there ever was or ever will be" vs. the original Poetic Edda's "And now the gods/drink good beer").

But his writing is wonderful. His style features rich Norsy alliteration and description, like "a murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily." He writes apt and evocative similes, like "She laughed as loudly as a calving glacier." He's often funny, e.g., "He tossed them [a pair of nefarious dwarfs], still bound and soaking, into the bottom of the boat, where they wriggled uncomfortably, like a couple of bearded lobsters." He writes a terrifying apocalypse: "The misty sky will split apart with the sound of children screaming." He's a master of the neat parenthesis, like, "(that was Naglfar, the Death Ship, made from the untrimmed fingernails of the dead)."

Gaiman is in fine fettle reading his audiobook. His Loki, Thor, Fenris, giants, and ogre lord are great. His wit, enthusiasm, and pauses and emphases are engaging. When a pretty giantess says to Odin, "my father would get quite irritable if he thought that I was giving away his mead to every good looking stranger who penetrated this mountain fastness," Gaiman pauses archly after "penetrated" to make us expect "penetrated his daughter." He paints aural illustrations the equivalent of the D'Aulaires' wonderful pictures. Listening to Gaiman's audiobook was a pleasure.

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234 of 256 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By David S. Mathew on 07-22-17

Welcome to Valhalla

I didn't know much about Norse Mythology, aside from Marvel comics, so I decided this would be a good crash course. Suffice it to say, I got my money's worth. The stories collected in here are absolutely glorious. If you at all like mythology, you owe it to yourself to check out this volume.

As a bonus, Neil Gaiman is just as fantastic a narrator as he is writer. What more could you want? Beyond highly recommended!

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117 of 134 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By William Taylor on 05-10-18

As good as it gets without the old texts

Neil Gaiman nails the old tales in this book. If you're looking for great stories, impressive mythical storyscapes and a good time stop here and spend some time with the Norse Myths. Dwarfs, fallen gods, heroes, Thor's hammer, loss, sorrow, triumphs - it's all there.

Love the Gaiman not only provides a forward where he explains his love of the Norse Myths, but that he narrates this one himself - his passion comes through in the telling. Also, as someone who has read direct translations of the original codex I'm pleased to report Gaiman stays true to the best records we have while updating the telling to be compatible with modern English - the old language can be very difficult to follow when translated literally. You'll thank Gaiman for bringing the language up to contemporary standards for you.

If you are interested for either educations purposes (i.e what are the real myths, not the pop culture versions of Thor, Odin or Loki) or for the love of some good stories you won't be disappointed.

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11 of 12 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Jim "The Impatient" on 05-08-17


I am a big fan of fairy tales, mythologies, tall tells and fables. Just like reading the Arabian Nights, it is important to me to get an idea of what goes on in the minds of different cultures and histories. This is even more fun than most, because of Loki. He is a trickster and is always causing mischief. The stories, as a whole, have a beginning, a middle and an ending. There are also several comparison to the bible that could be made. Did you know that Odin, sacrificed himself to himself on a tree and he was pierced in the side? Ragnarok has several similarities to Revelations.

I will admit that there were times in which my mind wondered, but all in all some of these stories are excellent, and as a whole shouldn't be missed.

Neil Gaiman
I have never been a huge NG fan. I have even wondered at his popularity. I am glad he took on this project and helped to make these stories understandable and entertaining to the modern age. His narration is top notch. He is good enough to read for other authors.

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178 of 214 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Wingznut on 02-08-18

Really really good listen!

I have to say, I wasn't completely sure what I was getting into with this. Neil Gaiman not only wrote an excellent book but his narration takes it too the next level. He has different voices and tones for each character that allows you to connect with the characters and figures beyond the pages. Really well done and I thoroughly enjoyed what I think is a history lesson but could also be a wonderful work of fiction. Great stuff here!

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9 of 11 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Michael Barrett on 02-05-18

Great intro

Not really sure sure of this is an accurate rendition of Norse mythology, but you have to love the way in which the characters are developed and put on display for us. Wonderful

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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