It is clear to a Neil Gaiman reader that the Nordic myths have given him decades of enjoyment and inspiration. Now, Gaiman has finally written down his version, his retelling, in Norse Mythology. From the complete nothingness at the dawn of time to the twilight of the gods come Ragnarock, with relish and respect Gaiman recounts their quarrels, battles and beauty.
Gaiman has drawn on the Nordic myth tradition several times over his career. From a childhood reading the Marvel adventures of Thor and Loki, he has re-woven these tales into our contemporary consciousness in several of his works, including American Gods and The Sandman series. These characters feel as much a part of the Gaiman universe as they do of our historical cultural universe. Their reoccurring but diversified presence emphasise both their ageless relevance and quality of creation. Particularly with Loki, there is a lot to play with here.
Despite the fact in this collection the stories are all self-contained understatedly epic tales, a storyline throughout the book emerges. From even before the beginning of time, to the future of Ragnarock and beyond, we have not just the same cast of gods but events that build upon one another. This is all narrated in a very self-conscious story telling style. This may have been inherited from Gaiman’s sources, or a deliberate act to invoke a tale-teller feeling; and while it feels appropriate for the genre, it also feels a little dull at times. We know these stories and we know the act of them being told: both these elements can be played with more.
But. The writing is suffused with love: Gaiman’s love for these stories, and his ability to share them.
“Do you wonder where poetry comes from? Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell? Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great, wise, beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on as poetry to the wold, to be sung and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane?…It is a long story, and it does not credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit.”
And ultimately the stories themselves are ageless. The way he tells them they do not feel distant and historical relics to be examined; but instead both simultaneously present and timeless. These tales have lasted for a reason.
My only real complaint here is that there is simply not more Gaiman in these tales. Hearing him read a short excerpt, his own zeal and pleasure is apparent, but the tone of the narration on the page doesn’t quite capture his cheekiness, doesn’t quite surprise you in that Gaiman way. Perhaps here it is because he is too respectful, too aware and in awe of these stories that have lasted the centuries. All delight and astonishment here comes not from his inventiveness or ability but from the tales themselves. This is fine – but we already have many mythological anthologies; I think I was expecting a bigger subversion of our expectations, a slightly greater departure from the known.
Like Gaiman, I love these myths too, and I also have known them since childhood. These stories have been a part of childhoods for centuries, informing understanding how we know the world to be, as well as how we tell it to each other. Here in Norse Mythology these ageless tales feel exactly that: current and vital, designed for sharing. It is classic, storytelling time, this time with Gaiman at the helm.