With a title that obscures nothing, Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is a 2017 collection of old Norse myths, retold by the author, a longtime lover of these old stories and heavily influenced by them in his own writing. Using the best primary sources available to him, such as the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, he regales readers with tales including the creation of the universe, the nature of the World Tree, the adventures of powerful gods like Thor and Odin, the misadventures and mischief of the giant Loki, and many more, weaving each tale into a loose narrative arc that starts with the beginning of all things and ends with their destruction.
I’ll never forget when I first tried getting into Greek mythology when I was only 17 years old. I had picked up a small hardcover book of Greek myths, to read as a primer for a university course I knew I’d be taking in the Fall. By the time I started learning about the mythology more formally, I realized I had remembered none of the stories from that book. While I’m sure my inexperience had much to do with that, it became a sticking point from then on that any new resource I picked up to learn about a new mythology must be as accessible as possible.
Norse myths are of a type that feel ubiquitous, yet not fully understood. It is thanks to certain video games, Marvel films, and books/series like American Gods that I have a basic understanding of certain figures and concepts, but not anything all that deep. In the vein of accessibility, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology serves as a great primer for the uninitiated. Not only does it do a great job of introducing the reader to this mythological world, easing in names, concepts, and figures gradually, but it also teaches a little about our limitations understanding the mythology itself.
Gaiman’s talents as a storyteller are a big part of what made these tales easy and fun to get into. I found it most striking with how bizarre many of these tales can be, following a logic that feels very removed from contemporary thinking. The way he conveys these ideas to the reader are joyously matter-of-fact, making them easy to just accept in context. He’s not here to tell us why a Giant and a cow, both cosmically large, formed in the waters where fire and ice met at the beginning of all things, he’s just telling us how it was. In this way the tales did feel detached from traditional prose, which made it a little more difficult to empathize with the characters, but also felt more faithful to their nature as myths.
I came away from the book with a sense of greater understanding of some of the more foundational stories, but something vexing that I came up against was not knowing what I don’t know. Something Gaiman outlines in his introduction is how much has been lost to us. The way he put it, it’s as if the only myths to come down to us from ancient Greece and Rome were those of Hercules and Theseus. The limited primary sources he is able to pull from are themselves by Christian writers. All the same, I can only presume this book isn’t a complete abridgement of the Norse myths known to us, so I have no idea what is known.
For instance, is it known how Odin and Loki became blood brothers? It’s possible a passing reference was made that I’ve forgotten or didn’t stick out to me, but I suspect not. Loki causes more trouble for the gods than he seems worth, yet constant reference is made to the fact that he helps as much as he hinders. The collection would’ve felt more complete had a story of the start of their partnership been included, but I don’t even know if it could have been. This applies to a number of other details, but this stood out the most to me.
Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of myth in Norse Mythology strikes a great balance, reading like folklore with a style that is easy to get into and fun to read. It’s hard not to recommend this book. Conversely, with writing that reads like folklore, it was harder to engage with the characters than more standard prose, and the writing’s entertainment value felt a little at the expense of my desire to learn from the text. In more than one case I was left with questions that the book didn’t have answers for. It was also a little too focused on the gods and giants for me. If other myths of monsters and men are available to us, which I assume they are, I wish they could have been included somehow. Nevertheless, whether it’s in passing or the beginning of something deeper, if you have an interest in learning about Norse mythology, this book is a great place to start.
My Rating: 4 out of 5