Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Those familiar with Neil Gaiman’s novels American Gods (2001) and Anansi Boys (2005) will know that he is no stranger to mythological concepts, which he has woven together to create original and well-regarded stories of his own. However, his newest book, Norse Mythology, draws the reader into the ancient world of the myths themselves.
And what a world it is. Gaiman’s love and appreciation of these characters is tangible; there is a wealth of detail in each chapter, and the gods are as fleshed out as actual people. Thor is portrayed as powerful and headstrong, if not a little brash; Loki, the mischief maker, is oddly likeable despite his constant antagonism to others.
Norse Mythology is perhaps not a novel in the traditional sense, as Gaiman himself posits, but the tales are meant to be read in sequence: they are the story of a journey the world has taken in eons past—or perhaps is still taking now. The reader will learn of creation, the building of Valhalla, the presentation of Thor’s hammer, the final confrontation with the monstrous children of Loki, and the end and new beginning of the world. The tales tend to the lighter side of mythic fare, making them accessible for new readers of mythology.
The stories of the gods were originally intended to help their audience uncover the mysteries of the world. Why, then, is Norse Mythology being published and mass-marketed today? Gaiman’s book appears at a time when Thor, Loki, and their contemporaries have come to the forefront in popular culture and on the silver screen. In addition, Gaiman’s earlier masterwork, American Gods, is now enjoying renewed life as a television series. At just under 300 pages, Norse Mythology seems to be aiming for the same audience; the reader will find plenty of characters absent from recent Norse mythology narratives and perhaps discover new sides of their old favorites. The book is punctuated by descriptions accompanying each new character and includes a comprehensive glossary, so any reader can easily follow the writing without prior knowledge. This chimes with what appears to be the book's overall intent: to take something as esoteric as the whole of the Nordic pantheon and transpose it into a text that can be placed on a bookstore shelf, read, and enjoyed like any other work of fiction.
One might contend that the book’s novelistic writing style and informal tone make these characters a little too relatable, a little less than superhuman. Indeed, as a serious student of myth, I was initially put off by Gaiman’s asides, such as one that invites the reader to assist the gods in Ragnarok, the climactic battle at the end of the world, by throwing away old shoe leather for them to make into a weapon. But again, this is not a reference book; this is a text suited for the Norse mythology neophyte that also offers enjoyment to the veteran. Gaiman closes his foreword by stating, “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this.” The point of putting these stories in print, he tells us, is for the readers to adopt them and pass them along once again. In doing so, readers will make them their own.