Author: Neil Gaiman
Publication date: February 7th 2017
Category: short stories
Genre(s): fantasy, mythology
Series or standalone?: standalone
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Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
In an arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants, Gaiman stays true to the myths which envision the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, incredibly strong but perhaps not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and Asgard’s perpetual trickster.
Through deft and witty prose emerge gods with fiercely competitive natures, a susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and a tendency to let passion ignite their actions. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, he must disguise himself to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people. Long inspired by ancient mythology, Gaiman brings to life a distant world for a brand new audience.
Neil Gaiman’s tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Norse myths announced itself with unsurprising bombast. The built-in thrill of this being the new Neil Gaiman project was used to full effect. It reached me in autumn with glossy confidence, some rather overzealous cover copy, and titled simply Norse Mythology, as if to declare well, this is it. The only one you need. Why on earth would we call it anything else?
And it is often brilliant. It’s a tremendously enjoyable book. The prose is distinctive, the tales are memorable, the pacing is clever. The mythology is rich, splayed across the pages like a hoard of jewels. It is vivid and varied. There are some fantastic story choices, each broken into bite-size short fiction-style pieces, which illustrate a wealth of long-ago myth and legend. There is loyalty, betrayal, injustice, punishment, reward and achievement. This is a veritable cacophony of courage and cowardice, magnificence and misadventure. And of course, these were once the beliefs, the foundation even, of entire peoples and societies. There is acknowledgement that what we know of them now is just a fraction of what has been lost, but there’s plenty of keep up with and get your teeth into.
The gods and goddesses of Asgard – Thor, Sif, Loki, Odin, Freya – are joined by allies and enemies alike. Many leap into life with distinctive flair and personality. They are given histories, as with the creation of the tree, Yggdrasil, on which the nine worlds rest; backstories, as with the recounting of how Odin lost his eye; families, as with Sif as Thor’s wife. I particularly liked tales in which lesser known gods played a starring role alongside more familiar figures. They’re not exactly real as characters (they’re very fond of superlatives, these gods) but that’s not the point. These are not tame gods. They are larger-than-life even in their imperfections. Several have fatal flaws. Some are just troublemakers. If you take them for what they are then you can experience this collection for what it is: lush, sweeping, flamboyant, brutal, ridiculous, entertaining.
Full of magical objects, strange creatures and dangerous quests, it has the unmistakable air of folktale – the bardic style, the recognisable characters, the stylised numbers – but wrapped in crisp white paper, a glittering cover and straightforward prose. It is at once both old-fashioned and modern. It takes liberal creative licence, but this isn’t supposed to be accurate summary or academic collection of Norse myths. It’s pure storytelling, crammed with detail but trimmed down so only the good bits are left. There are flashes of fantastic humour, too: “When something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is: it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”
It’s a little light on the world-building (slightly ironic given that a sizeable chunk is dedicated to, you know, the actual building of worlds) and description. Some readers may find the style grating. It’s definitely more retelling than guide. I would’ve liked more on goddesses, or a longer work generally. And for a time, I couldn’t quite figure out who the audience was supposed to be. It’s simple enough to be shared with children, except for the gore. It’s too consistent for connoisseurs of the short story anthology. It’s too contained for audiences used to sprawling high fantasy. And then it clicked: this book doesn’t need a target age range or style, because its target audience is simply fans of Neil Gaiman. And why not? A man who is fiction’s favourite genre-hopping novelists, SFF’s favourite multi-talented medium-dextrous contributor and television’s go-to drama scriptwriter at once has his pick of the projects, and this isn’t a bad one to have chosen.
Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a retelling of myth and legend from one of literature’s most versatile writers. It’s lush, entertaining and brutal. t’s not the most earth-shaking or unprecedented of collections but it’s a very enjoyable read.