June 15, 2017

Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology Review, By Amanda Bergloff


Norse mythology has been enjoying a pop culture revival lately both in theatrical films and on television. Marvel Studios movie,
Thor: Ragnarok, (to be released in November of this year), the History Channel’s, Vikings, (now in its sixth season on television), and the critically acclaimed cable TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods, (featuring an incarnation of Odin, the All Father) are examples of these tales working their way into our modern storytelling narratives. When I saw Neil Gaiman’s latest book, Norse Mythology, at Barnes and Noble, I thought it was a good time for me to familiarize myself more with these myths.

The book was not what I expected, but that’s not a bad thing. Quite frankly, I thought Norse Mythology would be all new stories, featuring Gaiman reworking these tales into new takes on the characters in the Norse pantheon. What I found instead were straightforward, traditional retellings of the original myths. Gaiman notes that he went back to the oldest source material for Norse myths, contained in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, which were compiled and written in the 13th century. Using different translations of these, he blended the prose and poetic versions to create the tales in the book.


The style of writing seemed odd at first, since it contrasted with books I’ve recently read, but once I got used to Gaiman’s traditional storytelling style with a light sense of humor, I found myself caught up in the Norse world of Odin the All Father, his son Thor, and Odin’s blood brother...the predecessor of all modern anti-heroes and my personal favorite, Loki, along with the other gods and goddesses that cross paths.

Norse Mythology contains the tales of the gods ranging from their origins to their final end at Ragnarok. It’s a world of gods with weaknesses and strengths, light elves, dwarfs who know how to make ever-growing perfect golden hair, and giants. So many giants. I had no idea giants played such a part in Norse myths. Sometimes these giants trick the gods, but many of them unfortunately fall under Thor’s hammer.

And then, there’s Loki, the one god that cannot be easily defined. Here are stories that show his great intelligence, wit, sense of humor, and fallibility. He’s a catalyst in these myths for both good and evil.

All the iconic symbols are also here and how the gods got them: from Thor’s hammer to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight legged horse, to the mead of poetry and the reason why there are bad poets in the world.

I particularly enjoyed any mention of the Norse goddesses in stories, such as Loki’s daughter, Hel, ruler of the realm of dead that did not die nobly in battle. I wished the book contained more about them, but Gaiman himself laments this in the introduction by pointing out that although their names and powers are known, the actual tales have not been passed down and are lost. He did what he could with the fragments he had.

And thank the gods there was a glossary at the back of the book, which I found extremely helpful in keeping track of all the different, strange Nordic names, places, and relationships that are woven throughout the tales.

By the end of Norse Mythology, I felt a twinge of sadness at reading of the gods’ deaths, but with that came a specific Gaiman twist, that I won’t give away here, but I especially liked.

It was clear that Gaiman has a true love and understanding of these myths and a joy in telling them. In fact he encourages us, as the readers, to find our own joy in these myths by retelling them ourselves “on a summer night when the sun will not set...tell your friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods.” After all, sharing folklore and myths with others in our present day is what connects us with all the storytellers of our past...

“And the game begins anew.”

(By the way - I did picture Tom Hiddleston from the Marvel Thor films as Loki in my mind whenever I came across the character in the book.)


Amanda Bergloff is the contributing editor and art director here at Enchanted Conversation.


Cara L McKee said...

I've not read this yet but am familiar with many of the stories you talk about. I am particularly fond of the one where Thor's hammer gets stolen. 😄

Angie said...

This is a great review! I didn't know what to expect out of this book and hadn't placed it high on my reading list, but I'm ready to go find it and start reading now. I'd love to have a fuller knowledge of Norse mythology, and I love Neil Gaiman's writing. It's exciting to me that he put such thorough research into this project, and I'm intrigued to find out what his unique twist will look like. Thank you for the thoughtful review!

Guy S. Ricketts said...

I was sold already on the Gaiman name, and the image of Mjölnir on the cover. I'm not as big a Neil Gaiman fan as you (who the heck is???), but your review here pushed this book into my shopping cart. I've loved fairy tales and mythology since I was a little boy. It was much easier to find books on Greek and Roman myth (at least for me) than Norse myth. The Thor comic book is what originally got me to seek Norse legends out, and I enjoyed reading the original stories of the gods and giants. Luckily, there was a book or two at my library and I devoured the stories up!
Like you, I assumed also that Neil Gaiman was writing new stories about these legends, but also like that he is retelling established myth instead. Unlike your picturing Hiddleston as Loki whenever seeing him mentioned, I still picture the 1920 Loki by illustrator Willie Pogany when I see him mentioned in text. With all the imagery from the comics and movies, I guess the Pogany version is deepest ingrained in me.
Anyway, you wrote a review worthy of the gods, Amanda, and gave a solid idea of what to expect and enjoy in this book. I look forward to reading my copy. Wonderful review indeed!

M Delaney said...

Honestly, I struggled through American Gods. The concept was great, but I found Gaiman's style to be dull. It's made me reluctant to pick up any of his other books, but knowing this is is based on the Eddas makes it less daunting, and as said above, he clearly loves and truly understands these stories. There will be a lot less driving anyway.