Review published on September 24, 2017.
Norse mythology and it’s meaning can be opaque for the modern reader, so this insightful and clear reworking by Neil Gaiman, faithful to the spirit of the original, is a welcome new interpretation. Highly entertaining, the author’s love of these beguiling stories shines through.
It doesn’t matter what kind of literature you read, all stories have their roots in mythology. I doubt many serious writers are not steeped in the ancient legends. Obviously fans of Game of Thrones and other fantasy works will recognise the influence of these legends of yore instantly (they influence Tolkien’s novels and of course Gaiman’s own writing). Perhaps British readers are more familiar with Celtic and Greek legends but Norse mythology, a rich and rewarding tradition, feeds into our mythical traditions too. So this is an excellent opportunity to become more familiar with it directly, not just through British legend and modern allusion. Many readers will be familiar with “the myths” from childhood, they are a part of understanding our world just like nursery rhymes and they are often more serious than they first appear. Unless you have studied Nordic literature, you will rarely come across it as an adult. So it is refreshing to have an intelligent and intelligible adult retelling by Gaiman. He is a student of many myths but professes a fondness for Norse myths above all others. Like Gaiman I read Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green as a small boy and have been fascinated since, but that reworking was very much aimed at a young audience, a simplified and less nuanced work, this is definitely the grown up version. Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is wider in scope than A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok (the Norse word for Armageddon), but it is equally literary.
I have never read any Neil Gaiman before this, I’m too old for children’s books and I’m not a big reader of science fiction or fantasy. However, he is clearly a talented writer with an easy style and a profound understanding of the Norse myths. Gaiman has a fine knack for storytelling. He has managed to enrich the original stories making them less opaque but equally retaining the bloody, visceral, passionate quality.
In 16 chapters, from origin to Armageddon, Gaiman tells his tales as if the narrator to a campfire audience. In the beginning there is Niflheim, the world of mist and fog and extreme cold and Muspells the land of fire and heat. At the edge of Muspells stands Surtr with his sword of fire, he will only leave his station at the time of Ragnarok when he will slaughter the gods. Life begins with Ymir, where fire meets ice and waters melt, a creature is formed – neither male nor female. Odin hangs from Yggdrasil the ‘world-tree’ to acquire the power and knowledge of magic to rule the world. Odin is the highest god, Thor his son, the good-natured defender of Asgard, and Loki, Thor’s lustful, dark hearted, brother. We learn of Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir, the lightning maker, of the death of Balder, of Freya’s unusual wedding and finally Armageddon – Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, the final battle yet to come.
The characters are beautifully drawn and nuanced. Loki, for example, is a mischievous character and a trouble maker but he is not pure evil, he is complex. The question for the gods – where does his loyalty lie?
Gaiman brings the profound elements of the story to the fore. Questions the Norse people asked themselves about the beginning of life and what existed before that dawn, also the end and what comes after the end? These myths demonstrate their depth of thinking about the world around them. I really enjoyed this book.
Paul Burke 4/3
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Bloomsbury Publishing 9781408886816 hbk Feb 2017