Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Having listened to many of Neil Gaiman’s books on audio and seen him perform live a great number of times, I can tell you for certain: there’s no other way to read Gaiman than by hearing Gaiman. If you don’t know what I mean, then let me introduce you to his honeyed tones the same way I first heard them. Here he is, reading In Relig Oran, his poem about the violent death (well, sort-of death) of St. Oran at the hands of St. Columba.
It’s OK. I can wait. I don’t have anywhere to be until Ragnarok.
So, now you know the magic of Gaiman’s voice. Now imagine him telling you telling you about Thor battling Jörmungand, all fierce and calm, all dark and sweet as winter mead.
That is, essentially, my pitch for the Audible version of Norse Mythology, Gaiman’s latest publication, which I had the pleasure of listening to earlier this week.
“We have lost so much,” Gaiman laments in the forward, and it’s true. We get what is more or less an arc of Odin, Loki, and Thor, the three heavy hitters of Norse mythology. That arc extends from the creation of the world and unto Ragnarok. But that’s really it. Many of the tales that we currently have on this very blog are included in this tome, so if you’re an avid follower of us, you won’t find many surprises. Unfortunately, as Gaiman talks about in the forward, we just don’t have enough primary source material to know more. We might have mention of the name of a certain god (or goddess, which Gaiman indicates, is an area that is sorely lacking) in a single line of one of an edda, but then never hear from them again.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine that the prevalence of available tales is the only reason Gaiman narrows his focus to the big three. After all, his novel (which is my personal Great American Novel) American Gods focuses in a big way on both Odin and Loki (and, *spoiler alert* Baldr, who has a very heart-breaking and gorgeous story devoted to him in Norse Mythology). But, those are the American Odin and Loki. These are the Norse. They’re different, but if you’re a devoted Gaiman follower, have fun picturing Mr. Wednesday trying to seduce the giantess, Gunnlod.
This version reminds me of what Christopher Tolkien is currently doing with his father’s Silmarillion stories: taking old tales that are hard to connect with for the casual reader, slowing them down and making them easy to digest.
That translate over to Gaiman’s use of language. One of my first thoughts about halfway through the first chapter was, “This sounds like it was written for a nine-year-old.” Which– don’t get me wrong. Neil Gaiman’s childrens’ novels (such as Coraline or The Graveyard Book) are breathtakingly haunted and just as delectable and nuanced as his adult work. But this wasn’t what the dark, adult-looking cover (bedecked by Mjolnir) implied. It was simpler, purer.
But myths are best when they’re told simply. Let’s not forget– these are stories that are meant to be told around the fire to children and adults alike. They’re meant to teach lessons and impart wisdom. They shouldn’t be burdened with complex language or syntax. These are stories meant to be heard, not read. The entire time I listened to this audiobook, I thought of myself as a nine-year-old, listening to the man himself around a fire. Try it. It’s relaxing. It will make you feel so utterly human.
And the humor in these stories, where it can be found, is simple, too. These are the jokes of children, so if you’re expecting anything more complex than a fart joke (Gaiman can be very funny), you’ll be a little disappointed.
It is an EXCELLENT fart joke though. I won’t spoil it here. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you might find those moments jarring and they might take you out of the story. Be warned.
But when Gaiman gets good, he gets mead-of-poetry, Blood of Kvasir kind of good. His use of tone and pacing turn the myths into something (as he describes Odin Allfather), “brilliant, unknowable, and [most importantly] dangerous.”
This will be the age of cruel winds, the age of people who become as wolves, who prey upon each other, who are no better than wild beasts. Twilight will come to the world, and the places where the humans live will fall into ruins, flaming briefly, then crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation.
Then, when the few remaining people are living like animals, the sun will vanish from the sky as if eaten by a wolf and the moon will be taken from us too, and no one will be able to see the stars any longer. Darkness will fill the air like ashes, like mist.
So here’s my final breakdown:
- If you’re a casual fan of Norse mythology but you have a rough time reading the Prose Eddas, you’ll be delighted for Gaiman’s help in making sense of the stories.
- If you’re a Gaiman fan who has never delved into any Norse myths before in your life, this will open up a whole new world for you.
- If Norse mythology is in your blood (literally because you’re an actual viking or just because you’re a big ol’ nerd like me) and you know these stories backwards and forwards, you’ll find Gaiman’s re-tellings quirky, beautifully poetic, and dramatically haunting in all the right places.
- If you are able, listen to it on audiobook. Honestly, I think his voice in the clip above speaks for itself (hurrhurr). And the fact that Gaiman owns his own audiobook production company (Neil Gaiman Presents) should be proof enough that the guy knows his business.
As Gaiman reiterates, the fun in myths comes from the retelling. No matter where you are in your Norse journey, this book is the mead of poetry you’ll want to wet your tongue with. Listen (or read) and then find someone who will listen to you retell these tales.
Norton. 293 pp. $25.95