Given his past works like the intricate and, let us say, expansive novel American Gods and his groundbreaking comic book, The Sandman, that helped define the nature of the graphic novel when it was first published by DC’s Vertigo imprint back in 1989, it comes as a surprise that Neil Gaiman’s new work, Norse Mythology is, in all actuality, nothing more than a compendium of, well, Norse myths.
As most of us have garnered what knowledge that we have of the exploits or Thor, Loki, old one-eyed Odin, etc., through the pages of Marvel Comic’s reshaping of Thor into something of a superhero, Gaiman, who admits right up front to having been a fan of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s “god of thunder,” educates.
What with Yggdrasil, the World-tree, the Midgard Snake, who is big enough to wrap himself around the whole Earth, as well as a pair of gossiping ravens who revel in creating fake news in order to confuse Odin, and even Thor’s wife, Sif—a goddess who wears a magic wig spun for her out of pure gold by some very talented trolls after “god of mischief” Loki snatches her bald one night as she lay sleeping—among many others, the reader actually comes away with a rather good knowledge of the Old Norse ideas of heaven, “Hel,” and day-to-day life in the Nine Worlds in between.
But as much as it is intellectually pleasing after dipping in to Norse Mythology to be able to tell your Vanir from your Aesir, and Frigg from Feya, the best reason for reading the book is the entertainment value to be had.
Gaiman’s love for these myths is evident in his every sentence, and every sentence serves to remind the reader of just how splendid a writer Gaiman truly is. And the author who has given us Coraline shows us here again just how beautifully he blends the horrible (mother imposters, buttons for eyes) with the sublime and the beautiful.
In telling the myth of the life—and death—of the Norse god most associated with the sun, Gaiman first states flat out that “Nothing there is that does not love the sun,” but then reminds the reader of the “bitter days of midwinter,” when “the sun is cold and distant, like the pale eye of a corpse.”
Gaiman introduces Balder like a member of the Hollywood elite:
“Balder’s face shone like the sun: he was so beautiful that he illuminated any place he entered. Balder was Odin’s second son, and he was loved by his father, and by all things. He was the wisest, the mildest, the most eloquent of all the Aesir. He would pronounce judgment, and all the world would be impressed by his wisdom and his fairness. His home, the hall called Breidablik, was a place of joy and music and knowledge.
“Balder’s wife was Nanna, and he loved her and only her. Their son, Forsete, was growing to become as wise has his father. There was nothing wrong with Balder’s life or his world, save only one thing.
“Balder had bad dreams.
“He dreamed of worlds ending, and of the sun and the moon being eaten by a wolf. He dreamed of pain and death without end. He dreamed of darkness, of being trapped . . . Balder would wake from these dreams in tears, troubled beyond all telling.”
Along with some apocalyptic dreams, in the pages of Norse Mythology, we get frost giants and giant wolves and Norns and angry trolls (of the old fashioned, analog sort) and mean, snippy gods, like Thor, who is only too happy to take out his ill temper like this:
“Thor stood in front of the funeral pyre, and he held [his mighty hammer] Mjollnir high. ‘I sanctify this pyre,’ he proclaimed, darting grumpy looks a the giantess Hyrrokkin, who still did not, Thor felt, appear to be properly respectful.
“Lit, one of the dwarfs, walked in front of Thor to get a better view of the pyre, and Thor kicked him irritably into the middle of the flames, which made Thor feel slightly better and made all the dwarfs feel much worse.”
The myths are timelined as a series of short stories, some interlocking with others, some standing alone.
In introducing his work to his reader, Gaiman comments:
“I’ve tried my best to recall these myths an stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can…As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.
“I was surprised, when I finished the stories and read them as a sequence, to find that they felt like a journey, from the ice and the fire that the universe begins in to the fire and the ice that end the world.”
Who could sum up a creation to destruction myth sequence better than that?
Surprisingly, while these myths are thousands of years old, they do, upon occasion, become quite topical. As when the all-father, Odin, becomes concerned about the possible influx of foreigners into the Norse gods’ stronghold, Asgard:
“’We cannot always rely on Thor,’ said Odin. “We need protection. Giants will come. Trolls will come.’
“’What do you propose?’ asked Heimdall, the watchman of the gods.
“’A wall,’ said Odin. ‘High enough to keep out frost giants. Thick enough that not even the strongest troll could batter its way through.’
“’Building such a wall,’ said Loki, ‘so high and so thick would take us many years.’
“Odin nodded his agreement. ‘But still,’ he said, ‘we need a wall.’”
Perhaps the myth of the Asgardian wall should be required reading at the moment, perhaps not. It all depends upon how you voted. Because the myth shows wall-builders to be a creepy lot.
Neil Gaiman is one of the few authors we have left whose work combines intelligence with unique insight, a fluency of thought, and a deep, rich, wry sense of humor. His are the stories, like the enduring myths themselves that bring out the eternal child in the reader, the youth among many, many others, who gather by firelight to hear once more the tales that imprint themselves within the human mind and upon the human heart, as the firelight twists and flicks against the walls of the sheltering cave.
Is Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman’s greatest work? No. But it is a good enough work to bring joy to its every reader.