Book review

Neil Gaiman almost makes a novel out of Norse mythology

His new book turns the gods into real characters re-enacting the myths.

Myth is a strange thing. Some of it is explanatory – eclipses are caused by a rakshasa’s shadow, echoes are the sad legacy of a spurned lover, spiders are actually cursed maidens fruitlessly spinning their beautiful, deadly webs. It imposes logic on a disordered universe, or did so before the scientific method got on the job.

On the other hand, myths can also be chaotic themselves. Logic, motivation, consistency…these go out the window and things simply happen, simply, well, because. Faith, or tradition, or a strange combination of the two, persuades readers and listeners (for never forget, most of what we know of the old myths has been passed on through listeners) to swallow them. They weave their own versions around the bones later, but the skeleton does not change, only the skin.

It’s the chaotic aspects of myth that make them particularly hard for a novelist to deal with, even one who has the stature and pure talent of Neil Gaiman. In his latest offering, Norse Mythology, a reader-friendly compendium of Norse myths, Gaiman solves this problem for himself by weaving, out of the many shards of tales, something that follows the lines of a novel.

From the chaos of the Viking gods and their exploits, he picks out a series of adventures, chiefly those of Odin, Thor and Loki (arguably the most well known), and lays them out in such a manner that “they [feel] like a journey, from the ice and the fire that the universe begins in to the fire and ice that is the end of the world.” The collection moves from the dawn of creation and the building of the nine worlds to Ragnarok, and the time that comes after.

Been there, done that, but still…

This is not Gaiman’s first time in the land of the Norse gods. His novel American Gods, arguably his best, is structured around their legends and uses characters from the pantheon. It’s good timing and marketing, as much as Gaiman’s personal interest in the myths, that has propelled the book into the world at this time, a few short weeks before the TV series based on the novel comes to a screen near you. Maybe for that reason alone – familiarising oneself with this world – you should pick up this book.

“The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place,” Gaiman writes in his introduction, “with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.” Despite this rather gloomy claim, there’s little of this chilliness in the stories themselves, at least not in the way Gaiman retells them.

A different Odin

His Odin, though forbidding and certainly powerful, comes across as a reserved king who must make difficult decisions for the good of his people and the subjects in his care, rather than being an inherently cruel being. There is almost a sadness to him, a sense of doom that hangs over some of his actions, such as the binding of Fenris Wolf, or the witnessing of his son Balder’s death. This is where Gaiman’s structuring of the tales comes into effect: we can presume that some of this foresight comes to Odin not only because he is king of the gods, the all father, but also because he imbibed of the well of wisdom, and knows all the secrets of the runes, having “sacrificed himself to himself.” This is a concept Gaiman is fond of revisiting, the death of gods, and he has played with it amply in his canon.

If the all father is distant and troubled, Thor, god of thunder and wielder of the mighty Mjollnir, is usually presented in the tales as comic relief. Already familiar to many readers, thanks to the Avengers and assorted other Marvel movies, in Gaiman’s collection Thor is a large, red-bearded warrior, whose primary passions seem to be eating and fighting. There is little more to him than immense strength and appetite, and a tendency to jump to conclusions (albeit correct ones) about Loki’s involvement in a mess.

Loki the star

These are myths, which are not always the best place to find well-rounded characters, but perhaps because they are being told by Gaiman, the one-note tenor of Thor’s presentation jars, especially in comparison to the subtler shades that are given Odin, or the real star of this collection, who is, hands down and spears thrown, Loki.

It is not hard to love a trickster, and for a writer like Gaiman, who has made use of them in so many of his stories, it is almost taken for granted that a figure like Loki would snare him in his net (which, as one of the stories tells us, he actually invented). Loki smirks and capers through these stories, often starring in them, as gleeful antagonist, creative problem solver, even, though rarely, reluctant hero. He helps his fellow Asgardians as much as he harms them, and it’s only at the very end that the “evil” aspect of his personality manifests itself.

Indeed, Norse Myths could be read as a tracker of Loki’s growing darkness and distance from the gods; from the magics of his being able to “walk in the sky with shoes that fly”, to his dalliances with stallions, to finally, his almost demonic orchestration of the death of the beloved Balder, and his ensuing punishment. Gaiman ends his chapter on “The Players” with these rather dark words: “Loki and his children will be there for Ragnarok, the end of everything, and it will not be on the side of the gods of Asgard that they will fight.”

Gaiman’s style is incredibly accessible, making these stories fun and quick to read. Unlike many other compendiums of mythology, he does not saddle the gods with an outdated mode of speaking, making anything they utter sonorous and (if not done correctly) downright ridiculous. In his hands, they all speak in distinctly individual ways, from Odin’s shorter, terse speech, through Thor’s blusters, to Loki’s insidious, crafty spiel. There are giants and elves, and dwarves too, and the stories pay court to them all.

What might seem strange to Indian readers is the near-total absence of humans; the Norse tales seem curiously removed from their realm, and apart from the tale of their creation, and one visit by Thor and Loki to a human family, they are altogether absent. Nor are there many stories about the Norse goddesses. We could put this down simply to those myths no longer being remembered; Gaiman points out that there “are so many Norse stories we do not have, so much we do not know…I can imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales. They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.”

With the stories he does have, though, Gaiman seems to have done well enough.

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, Bloomsbury.

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