Book Review | Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

While studying English in college I was once (let’s be honest this happened pretty regularly) challenged about the usefulness of my degree. I recall one conversation when I was studying mythology of some kind where I was asked if studying mythology was a waste of time. The person asking me made a living from logging. In other words, he valued practical education and the development of marketable skills.

I responded by asking why this person drove a pickup truck. After all, didn’t those who marketed pick-up trucks to customers do so by invoking something akin to mythology? Certainly, those who need to market trucks to rugged individualists in the American West see the value of myth when it comes to peddling trucks. He acknowledged that might be the case, but that wasn’t why he bought the truck. He bought it because he needed it for work. I then asked him why he chose the career that he did. Why was that even an option? He said it was because people need wood. This is true. People do find wood to be useful. But there are cultures where they get by without much wood. The point I was getting at is that mythology is the bedrock of all the cultural narratives that end up informing who we are and what we spend our lives doing. At some point, if we don’t understand mythology, we fail to understand ourselves.

I am an equal-opportunity consumer of mythology – and a casual one at that. I have never been particularly drawn to Norse mythology, but it had been a while since I had read anything that could be labeled as straight-up mythology. I saw Neil Gaiman’s new book at Costco, and I picked it up since I was looking for some light beach reading.

After reading some of the other reviews on Goodreads, I learned that the author has quite the following of groupies. There are a lot of five-star reviews there. Some of these were less reviews and more like reverse marriage proposals. I liked the book well enough, but I can’t say that I am a Gaiman groupie yet. I suspect with the cable television adaptation of American Gods coming soon to a living room near you, he is an author who will become a common fixture in the collective cultural mind. Expect to find more of his books for sale at Costco in the near future for $7-8. If this is the case I might pick up a few more.

Why should you read Norse Mythology? This is a good question, and the most immediate answer is that you will appreciate your Tolkien, your R.R. Martin, your Marvel comics, and your Led Zeppelin a little bit more for having read it. Becoming familiar with the raw materials that were used to create beloved works makes reading those works more like learning to appreciate paella prepared with authentic calla sparra rice, Spanish saffron, and fresh seafood after having eaten a steady diet of Rice-a-Roni skillet.

Our popular culture wants to take beloved works and reduce them to something formulaic, which makes them more marketable for mass-consumption. Exploring the intertextual antecedents that make beloved works worthy of our affection in the first place is an additive process that makes them more layered, nuanced and profound. For this reason alone, Norse Mythology was worth the read.

It also succeeds on its own merits. The Norse gods are every bit as colorful and dynamic as anything you find in Greek, Yoruban, or all the different varieties of Native American lore. The stories are enjoyable to read. Gaiman writes them well, and he does so in a way where the author is very much effaced from the work. The more I think about this stylistic decision, the more I am convinced that this was the stroke of genius that made this a deserved bestseller for Gaiman.

Mythology has a tendency to rear its head through literature and we find it popping up all over the place in various cultural narratives from advertising to popular music. After all, it is so vulnerable to intertextual appropriation.

Nevertheless, perhaps the study of mythology is at its most useful when it finds itself transcending the fantastical bounds of imagined worlds and actually bears down on the real world itself.

For example, in Norse Mythology, Gaiman recounts a myth titled The Master Builder. It is the story of how perceived threats to Asgard by various sources of external menace lead the gods, led by Odin their charismatic if not flawed leader, to decide to build a wall around Asgard. With the help of Loki, not only do the gods get this wall built, but they also trick the builder into providing all the materials for the wall and building it for nothing.

If I would have told you two years ago that someone would take the raw ingredients of this myth and turn it into a winning platform for a presidential campaign, you probably would have justifiably laughed me out of the room. But that’s the thing. Just because the myth makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean it is not True, and here we are 100 days into the presidency of Donald Trump.

If this is the case, then we have to ask ourselves how silly is a March for Science, fact checking, or traditional journalism as a vehicle for protest against a man who sees himself as something akin to a god who is, unwittingly or not, playing his hand at myth-making?


Norse Mythology Book Cover Norse Mythology
Neil Gaiman
Mythology
W. W. Norton & Company
February 7, 2017
304

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.

 

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.

 

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.

 

Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.