If you count The Sagas of Icelanders, which you might or might not, this is the fourth work of Norse mythology I’ve reviewed on this blog! It practically deserves its own tag! I’m obviously drawn to this kind of literature — so much darker and weirder than Greek or Roman mythology, which is saying a lot. And Neil Gaiman’s version is fun in its own way and in its own direction, which you might expect.
Gaiman’s Norse Mythology isn’t anything new, by which I mean that he is not creating his own myths or creating new characters or anything like that. He chooses a set of Norse myths, mostly from Snorri Sturlusson’s Prose Edda, and retells them: the creation of the world, licked into shape by a giant cow; Yggdrasil, the world-tree; how Thor got his hammer; several stories of Loki’s deception and how he wriggles out of being punished for them; the death of Balder the beautiful; the horrors of Ragnarok, the end of the gods, with its ship made of dead men’s fingernails. There were only two stories here that were unfamiliar to me: the story of the mead of the poets, made from the blood of a murdered god, and the story of Hymir and Thor’s fishing expedition.
The thing that makes this version fresh is that Gaiman writes these stories as if they were the arc of a novel, with dialogue and character. He’s got his own inner idea of what these gods and giants are like, and they speak from the pages. Some bits of this are more successful than other bits, perhaps because these are not actually his characters. But Thor, for instance, jumps out at you as the genial, not-very-bright god, who wants to solve everything by smashing it. Loki — male and female, of the gods and not of them, weeping and laughing — is… complicated. Freya, whom everyone wants to marry because she is so beautiful, is fed up to here with that business.
This is a very quick read — I finished it in about three hours — and enjoyable if not very unpredictable. I liked A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods better, because of the way it weaved her own autobiography in and the way it complicated the reader/reading relationship. But this book was a good reminder of how strange and faraway that world was.