Neil Gaiman wrote a book of Norse mythology. There is perhaps no one more perfect for the job of modernizing this body of myths. The Sandman series that put him on the map is one long love letter to mythology, and American Gods, my favorite novel of his, specifically digs deep into Norse tales, exploring how deities might fit into the rough-and-tumble of today, cutting them up or down based on their merits, and watching how they navigate the world. It is fascinating. He also just loves these myths, ever since they inspired him as a child reading Marvel’s Thor comics.
So when I heard Gaiman was dedicating time exclusively to these fragmentary stories, lovingly shaping them into a coherent book, I immediately pre-ordered it and began my months-long wait. His dark imagination, narrative deftness, and deep understanding of the perfect, powerful cadences of storytelling are wonderfully suited to this undertaking. Gaiman is steeped in the ancient tales of humanity, and his joy is reshaping them and bringing them to us. His deep respect for myth strengthens his credentials for this project, and he succeeds beautifully.
He’s not working from whole cloth here — he is restitching stories that already exist. The problem is, they exist fragmentarily, across multiple sources. The two biggest sources are The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda. One is (surprise) prose, the other is (surprise) ancient Norse poetry. Both come from Iceland, and there’s not much because on the one hand, people who worshipped these gods didn’t write much, and on the other hand, Christianity eradicated a lot of what they did write as pagan heresy. So Gaiman takes them, makes them his own, and makes them ready for contemporary readers to absorb easily. Why should we absorb them at all? Why is Norse mythology appealing?
The first part of the answer to that question has to do with the gods themselves, Odin especially. Next to Odin, Zeus looks like a dumb, sex-crazed jock. Odin is not just strong, he is wise, he understands the power of information, and he is wily. He works for what he has and is on a constant mission to find out more information about Ragnarok, never fully giving up on stopping it. He sacrifices himself to himself to gain the knowledge of runes, and sacrifices his eye to Mimir for a drink from the well of wisdom. These two things make Odin what he is — the wisdom to lead the gods, and the power to enforce his leadership. The runes he learns are many. One rune can blunt the weapons of his enemy, another can free him from any fetters, another can put out fire consuming a hall, yet another can calm the fire in an angry man’s breast, bringing all to a peaceful conclusion. He knows a battle rune that brings courage and strength to those who follow him to war, and another that can give life to the dead. It’s not so much that he has these powers that makes him appealing, it’s that he had to earn them. Hey Neil, show us how:
[F]or knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself.
He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.
He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of agony, he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.
Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.
Odin has to fight to maintain everything he has, and he knows that, in the end, no matter what he does, he will lose it all in Ragnarok. The world will end, and when it resurrects, he won’t come back with it. This grimness makes these myths meatier than their Greek or Roman counterparts: underlying every single telling of every single story of the Aesir is the certain knowledge of future death.
There’s so much more to talk about than just Odin and Ragnarok. There’s Thor, who is so extraordinarily powerful but not too smart. When wearing his belt of strength and holding Mjollnir, there is very little Thor cannot destroy, but when doing anything whatsoever requiring subtlety, such as when he pretends to be a bride in order to sneak into a giant’s house, he fails. An entire ox, seven salmon, and three casks of mead disappear under the dainty bride’s veil before the giant gets suspicious. Luckily, Thor is able to just kill him with his magic hammer. Problem solved!
There’s Skidbladnir, the huge ship that always sails under a fair wind and can be folded up like a handkerchief and put in a pocket. There’s Gungnir, Odin’s spear, upon which the gods swear unbreakable vows, and which can pierce anything and will never miss. There’s Draupnir, the gold ring that, every ninth night, drops eight perfect copies of itself, thereby increasing the wealth of its owner indefinitely.
The myths of the Aesir stand on their own, but what Gaiman does for them is consolidate them, package them in a contemporary style, and add his own spice and talent to the whole. Perhaps the best thing Gaiman does is weave them together in an accessible way, where everything is clear and tied together. I’ve read some of The Poetic Edda, and great as it is, it’s full of references to other events and incomplete descriptions of people, places, and things, because the audience for those poems absorbed those stories with their mother’s milk, and millennial skalds in Iceland didn’t write for an audience almost completely ignorant of them. Gaiman organizes a collection of the best-known stories from the beginning of the world to its end and resurrection, point A to point B, with full context.
He also modernizes the language, both of the narrator and of the gods. The book loses something in this, but it’s like what a steak burrito loses by not being steak. It doesn’t mean the burrito isn’t delicious; it just isn’t steak, and it isn’t trying to be. Take for example the following descriptions of Ragnarok, the first from Gaiman’s work, the second from the Seeress’s Prophecy.
Brothers will fight brothers, fathers will kill sons. Mothers and daughters will be set against each other. Sisters will fall in battle with sisters, and will watch their children murder each other in their turn.
Brother will fight brother and be his slayer,
sister’s sons will violate the kinship-bond;
Hard it is in the world, whoredom abounds,
axe-age, sword-age, shields are cleft asunder,
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world plunges headlong;
no man will spare another.
There’s a certain heft in the words from The Poetic Edda, but I mean, if you’re not here for the kennings, Gaiman’s interpretation is great. He finds the balance between majesty and accessibility.
He also modernizes the dialogue of the gods. In the following example, Loki has just shaved Sif’s head. Sif is Thor’s wife, and, none too happy, Thor is threatening Loki:
“No!” said Loki. “I can’t put her hair back. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Today,” mused Thor, “it will probably take me about an hour to break every bone in your body. But I bet that with practice I could get it down to about fifteen minutes. It will be interesting to find out.” He started to break his first bone.
As with the Ragnarok example, this is a trade-off. On the one hand, Gaiman brings relatability to the gods. On the other, hearing gods say something as simple as “It doesn’t work like that” somehow lessens their majesty.
The majesty of the gods might suffer when they talk like you or me, but Gaiman’s understanding of the heart of storytelling, of the cadence and pacing that creates fiction, is unparalleled and more than makes up for it:
They dug a pit and built a fire of wood in the pit, and they slaughtered an ox and buried it in the bed of hot coals, and they waited for the food to be done.
They opened the pit, but the meat was still raw and bloody.
Again they lit a fire. Again they waited. Again the meat had not even been warmed by the heat of the fire.
All that’s happening here is the gods are failing to cook beef. That’s it, but the cadence here, the sentence structure and the repetition shapes the story perfectly. Read it out loud and pay attention to how it flows. It seems so simple, but it’s flawless, and demonstrates how Gaiman is not just some guy who likes Norse myths. It’s not just his talent that’s clear; his love of the stories shines through as well. It’s hard to explain the exact effect this has on the book, but all I can say is Gaiman deeply respects and loves his subject matter, and the effort this pulls from him makes the book better.
The final question you have to ask whenever an author takes the time to rewrite stories that already exist is, was it worthwhile? Should they have done it? In this case, the answer is yes. Gaiman’s retelling is straightforward and clear. The language is polished and fitted together as only a writer with decades of practice could do it. The book walks a perfect line between faithfulness to its source material and modification for a modern audience. The only possible half-criticism that even exists for it, that the book just isn’t as majestic as the poetry, is invalid. It’s like someone who orders sushi leaving a bad review on Yelp because *gasp* it was raw fish! The book is what it is, and it’s unfair to criticize anything for not being what it was never meant to be. Besides, choosing to land on the side of accessibility might be Gaiman’s best decision here. If this book inspires some kid to be the next Neil Gaiman, it will have more than justified its existence.