Briefly Noted: ‘Norse Mythology’ by Neil Gaiman

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Those of us who were taught Roman and Greek mythology in school with a smattering of myths from other cultures know the names of some of the Norse gods while remaining unclear about the big picture. In Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman has gone back to original sources–primarily the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda–for his content so that he could re-tell the stories as folk tales without authorial embellishment in today’s language.

In a sense, he has done what Steinbeck did in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights as opposed to the novelization approaches of T. H. White in The Once and Future King or Mary Stewart in her Merlin books, or Marion Zimmer Bradley in her Avalon series. Those authors all wrote masterful and exciting books based on the Arthurian legends. However, each took “authors license,” including the thoughts and feelings of the characters, imagined descriptions of locales, and story lines that were not 100% in accord with the original texts. Some have criticized Gaiman for not writing about Odin, Thor, Loki and the other primary characters via the stunning saga style of epic fantasy.

Gaiman has done those of us who love mythology a great service by not extrapolating from his source material or otherwise using his own wide-in-scope imagination with a Game of Thrones approach. Like Steinbeck, he has told the stories in the simple language of the true folktale (with a liberal dash of wit), and from that, we come away with a new understanding of Asgard and its gods and goddesses.

From the Publisher’s Description

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki—son of a giant—blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman—difficult with his beard and huge appetite—to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir—the most sagacious of gods—is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

From The Guardian

Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.

I found the book to be a wonderfully entertaining adventure into a world I had previously seen in unfinished puzzles of torn bits and pieces.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of folk tales, paranormal, and magical realism stories and novels.

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