Marvel has brought a certain strain of Norse mythology to the mainstream through Thor, Loki, and Odin’s family drama. And in a way, the franchise does justice to these three characters. They’re key players throughout traditional Norse stories, their original mannerisms not far off from how they’re portrayed in pop culture. Odin is the all-father, ever-questing for knowledge; Thor offers the gods incredible strength without much brain power; Loki is a master manipulator, as often out of favor with the rest of the gods as in it. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology introduces readers to a deeper world, rooted in the traditions of northern storytelling. And what most of us know of Norse mythology only scratches the surface.
Gaiman’s not reinventing the wheel, but simply offers his modern take on the ancient tales. Unfortunately, that means it starts slowly, in the tradition of biblical writings, recounting characters, their relationships to one another, and the creation of everything. It is a tedious front-loading of details, but in fairness Gaiman, he works to adjust the worldview of his reader to that of ancient times with lines like, “The world is a flat disc, and the sea encircles the perimeter.” It helps to remember this when encountering the second and third times characters try to negotiate the goddess Freya’s hand in marriage in exchange for getting out of trouble, or when Thor is playing the role of meathead, dressing as a woman to get back his hammer.
Once the busywork is out the way, though, Gaiman hits his stride. The first significant story is “The Treasures Of The Gods,” which, most importantly, tells us how Thor got his hammer, Mjollnir. From there on out, Gaiman offers quick, easy reads. He plays into the folkloric traditions of the Norse tales, keeping lines straightforward but incredibly vivid.
The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again.
He embraces Norse mythology as a whole, rather than shying away from some of the elements that could make it more difficult for readers. The gods are not always the type of characters you root for. They can be cruel, as cruel to each other as they are to mortals. The tales are rife with violence. At one point, Loki—having used his shapeshifting powers as part of a scheme—has sex with and gives birth to a horse.
But Gaiman is consistently engaging in these chapters. The tales range from funny to tragic, and Gaiman wisely foreshadows Ragnarok—the end and rebirth of all things, for the gods—to give the book a narrative arc. And while he could have modernized the old Scandinavian naming conventions, he doesn’t, preserving this part of the tradition even though English readers might stumble over the difficult words. An alphabetical glossary at the end of the book serves as a helpful quick reminder for those who get lost in the material.
Gaiman’s name on Norse Mythology is as much a stamp of approval as anything else. Gaiman is paying tribute to some of his influences, even as he joins the ranks of the storytellers who have passed along these tales over hundreds of years. But his name also serves as a welcome point of entry—as does the wickedly cool cover featuring Mjollnir—to a new generation of readers who may not otherwise have taken up this tradition. And as Norse tales have not received quite the same attention as, say, the Greek myths, it is nice to see someone passing these stories along to inspire another generation.