When I was younger I found, hidden on a bookshelf in my house, a book of Norse myths and legends. It had lost its dust jacket and no-one had written their name inside. To this day I have no idea where it came from, and in fact now I can’t even remember what it was called, but it quickly became a favourite of mine – I spent hours reading and rereading the stories of Sigurd Dragon-Slayer and Thor in Jotunheim. So you can imagine that I was pretty excited when I heard that Neil Gaiman was writing a book of Norse Mythology.
Neil Gaiman is one of those authors I probably admire a bit too much – he’s had the kind of broad-spanning creative career, from film to novels to comic books, that any writer might envy, and wrote American Gods, possibly the best US road/apocalypse novel ever written (not to mention his extensive humanitarian work). He’s also tangentially responsible for the existence of this blog, which I was inspired to begin after seeing his wife, Amanda Palmer, perform live at the Sydney Opera House (his reading of Leonard Cohen’s poem Democracy was an unexpected, but welcome, surprise in the show). So the existence of a book of Norse myths written by Gaiman felt a bit like a confluence of some very auspicious stars.
The book itself focuses mainly on the stories directly concerning the Norse pantheon – Odin, Thor and Loki, for the most part – and most of those are what might be called creation myths; stories that explain why things are the way they are. Gaiman’s writing reinforces this impression, reading in the style of campfire or bedtime stories, with a blend of wry humour and semi-archaic vernacular that is reminiscent of certain chapters of Anansi Boys. The whole book feels like it should be read aloud to small boys and girls who will not stop asking “Why?”; and yet I hesitate to give the impression that it is a children’s book: child-safe, perhaps, with a few sections that might want to be skipped over: reader beware.
The gods of Norse Mythology are, like many in ancient and classical cultures, all too human. Their stories often have less to do with their all-seeing, all-knowing powers, and more to do with their mistakes (a telling glimpse into how our ancestors may have seen the world). Some stories or elements might seem familiar to readers – creation myths around the world often share similarities – but there is much about the Norse world that is different from other mythologies. What other ancient culture suggested that the tides might be caused by a poor bet? Or that the best poetry is inspired by drinking mead made from a dead god? Gaiman’s collection weaves a colourful impression of the stories that may have populated the northern Europe of the dark ages.
It’s hard to find criticisms for a book like this – certainly I can’t fault the author, since he is retelling rather than creating from whole cloth. Possibly I might suggest that the book is too short, but if the only bad thing one can say about something is that you want more of it, that hardly feels like criticism at all. Overall, if you enjoy myths and legends, Norse Mythology would be an excellent addition to any collection.