IT’S HERE! IT’S HERE!! IT’S FINALLY HERE!!!
Apologies, but I have a lot of feelings about Neil Gaiman’s books, and it seems like this one was announced 742 years ago. However, I got my hands on it a week and half before the official release date, because I’m bullshit lucky and someone at my local bookstore put it on the shelves early.
One of my favourite books in recent years was Philip Pullman’s retelling of some classic fairy tales, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, and I was hoping this book would take a similar approach – namely, staying true to the source material, while letting the author’s style infuse it with new life. And holy shit did Norse Mythology deliver. I will try to outline the myths and stories contained therein with any major spoilers, but if you want to jump into this book completely fresh, then it’s probably best to go read it immediately, then come on back to discuss!
Growing up, I went through the requisite mythology obsession stage, but my addiction was focused on Greek and Roman myths, with some Egyptian thrown in for good measure. Sadly, my knowledge of Norse myths does not go much farther than what Marvel has taught me, with the exception of some Googling during my first read of American Gods. Clearly, I was missing out because apparently the Vikings might even have been more fucked up than the Greeks…
The book begins with an introduction, where Gaiman sets the stage, explaining why Norse myths have always spoken to him, and lamenting that so few of the tales have survived. It then jumps right in to the main players – Odin, Thor, and Loki – giving a brief backstory for each of the Asgardians that will feature most prominently in the following pages. Naturally, the first tale is the story of the creation of the world: of the mist world and the flame world, of the giant Ymir who was created where fire and ice met, of the giant cow who nurtured Ymir and licked blocks of ice until a person was revealed – Buri, the ancestor of the gods. The story continues all the way through to the creation of mankind from two trees.
There are two additional chapters of set-up (the descriptions of the nine worlds, and an explanation of how Odin gained such wisdom), and then Gaiman really starts to flex his storyteller muscles with the tale of how the gods came to receive their most prized possessions, including Thor’s hammer Mjollnir. From there on, Gaiman definitely shows his mastery –weaving stories of giant serpents and wolves, of blood-based mead that grants the gift of poetry, of truces and bargains, of illusions and betrayals, and so much more. These tales all lead to the end of days, Ragnarok, when the gods of Asgard will go into battle for the last time, and all worlds will end. (Coming to theatres November 2017! But apparently that one has a Hulk in it?)
Truthfully, I had a hard time really getting into the first 50 pages because there was just so much information to process. There were SO MANY names of people and places, none of them easily pronounceable, as well as the relationships between each of them. I imagine for those who are familiar with Norse mythology, it’s probably not very hard to follow (like how I can somehow remember how all the Olympians are related and/or married), but for a newbie it was a bit daunting. Thankfully, there is a glossary at the end of the book with everything you need to know. Once the actual stories start though, Gaiman absolutely shines, and I was completely hooked. I finished this book in one sitting, and then read it again before writing this review. I could probably read it again tomorrow and be totally happy with that.
My main takeaway is that Loki is both the cause of and solution to most of the problems facing the Asgardians. Also, everyone wants to marry Freya, Heimdall is a badass, and Thor is a bit of a doofus – a big strong hunk of ginger man meat, sure, but not the brightest star in the heavens. One thing I found really interesting was the parallels with other forms of mythology. I’m sure there are similarities to folklore I’m less familiar with, but I kept seeing the resemblances to Greek myth, like man being sculpted then brought to life with the breath of Odin/Zeus. I can’t speak to how these retellings hold up to classic versions like Roger Lancelyn Green’s, but to a total novice, this book was a fascinating glimpse into a new world, and I can’t wait to delve deeper.
Overall, Norse Mythology was completely enthralling and informative, with Neil Gaiman managing to make complex myths fresh and engrossing. His greatest strength was in making magical immortal beings somehow relatable, especially in dialogue (Loki constantly telling Thor to shut up is my favourite example). I would love if Gaiman chose to continue down this path, giving us retellings of more famous myths and epic tales, starting with that long-rumoured version of “Journey Into the West”. Or he could just go ahead and write a sequel to American Gods – that would be great too!
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