Norse Mythology

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Neil Gaiman
  • London, England: 
    W. W. Norton & Company
    , February
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his introduction to Norse Mythology, author Neil Gaiman writes, "History and religion and myth combine, and we wonder and we imagine and we guess, like detectives reconstructing the details of a long-forgotten crime" (13). The actual reconstruction of Norse culture offered here is a less dramatic than that, but the romantic (in the older sense of romance's meaning) description is a clue to the reader: what follows is a collection of stories, focused on the doings of “tragic heroes, tragic villains” rather than a critical edition of Norse mythology (12). Gaiman's goal is to "retell these myths and stories as accurately...and as interestingly" as he can (14).

So by his own metrics, let us measure.

Begin with accuracy. There are no original Norse myths, written down when the religion lived and breathed. Our sources are medieval, and therefore Christian. Does Gaiman's retelling follow the customary set of stories we find in the Eddas? Yes, with a few authorial liberties in the ordering of the tales, but also with some serious gaps. Consider: Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths (Pantheon, 1981)has thirty-two myths; Gaiman's volume has fifteen. He has selected the backbone of the Ragnarok story, and a few of the more well-known tales, such as "Freya's Unusual Wedding," which is of course about Thor and Loki and not Freya at all. In what is one of the more jarring authorial choices, Gaiman leaves out most of the goddess-centric tales (the tale of Freya's necklace, Brisingamen, for instance). Even when a goddess figures prominently in a story—as when Skadi weds Njord—the narrative steps back from its intimate dialogue-driven examination of Loki's malice to a mere report of events. Loki, in that tale, even comes off as a bit of a hero for volunteering his genitals for tug-of-war with a goat; Skadi, seeking vengeance, mollified by an offer of marriage, is merely a character whose ire gives Loki a chance to amuse.

Interesting, now that's more complicated. Gaiman is a master storyteller, and he is no stranger to adapting and recasting mythology in his own style with great success (for example, the Orpheus cycle in Sandman; Odin and Loki—and many, many others—in the novel, American Gods). At first, it appears that Norse Mythology will follow along in that American Gods vein. The first chapter is a brief introduction to the pantheon entitled, "The Players." The title evokes both theatre—the gods as actors—and also puns on the more colloquial meaning of player, which suggests that Gaiman's retelling will be a little more twenty-first century, a little more modern, perhaps more focused on the bad-boy elements (Norse mythology is full of sex and violence, after all). Unfortunately the players number only three—Odin, Thor, and Loki—and their introductions are a rather standard report of names, skills, and attributions, as if we are reading entries in a dictionary of myth.

Still, this oddly essentialist framing could work in the subsequent stories if Gaiman had continued with that tone, and if he had given equal weight to those three characters. Instead, most of the narrative burden in the stories falls on Loki. Odin remains largely inscrutable, while Thor remains doltish with the occasional shot of brooding; Loki is definitely the star of the show. And then there is the tone of the writing: we move from the haunting and spare, "Before the Beginning, and After," in which the world is made from the body of a murdered giant (because, Gaiman tells us, "It had to be done. There was no other way to make the worlds"), to the snarky subversiveness of "The Master Builder," where Loki seems more like the Marvel film version and the gods all seem a bit stupid. Either one of these styles, applied consistently, would have worked. But the tone shifts sometimes within a single tale. Much of the sex and violence central to the source material is largely scrubbed away in Gaiman's versions, leaving the reader feeling as if they are reading the abridged version of Norse mythology aimed at adolescent boys with short attention spans. For children-safe Norse myths, one would be better served with D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths (New York Review, 2005), which is more comprehensive and frankly, more interesting to read.

If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman, or a collector of Norse myths, you may want Norse Mythology for your collection. But for a reader who wants a comprehensive collection of Norse mythology, or even a good introduction to the breadth of material, there are more satisfying, accurate, and interesting versions of the myths available.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kat Eason is Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of California, Irvine.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Neil Gaiman is the author of the New York Times best-selling A View from the Cheap Seats, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Neverwhere, and the Sandman series of graphic novels, among other works. His fiction has received Newbery, Carnegie, Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Will Eisner Awards. His novel American Gods will be a TV series airing in 2017. Originally from England, he lives in the United States, where he is a professor at Bard College.


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