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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.
160 of 170 people found this review helpful
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!
40 of 42 people found this review helpful