Neil Gaiman charms and frightens his wide readership with this welcome and memorable compendium.
A prolific and popular fabulist retells the legends he first loved. As an English boy, Neil Gaiman took inspiration from stories set in the Northern lands. He credits Roger Lancelyn Green and Kevin Crossley-Holland for their compilations of its lore. What Gaiman contributes to this short shelf, beyond name recognition, is wit and verve. His Norse Mythology compiles brisk chapters revealing a cosmology’s creation, and the fulminations and machinations of its gods until its destruction.
We retain few sources about this venerable treasure-trove. Gaiman’s brief introduction surmises: “It is, perhaps, as if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived were of the deeds of Theseus and Hercules.” Similar to the 85% of classical literature lost, a fraction of the Northern corpus survives. From these fragments, Gaiman, in everyday language which children and adults will both enjoy, invigorates a wise and worthy chronicle of exploits—often tricks, schemes and brawls.
“I was surprised, when I finished the stories and read them as a sequence, to find that they felt like a journey, from the ice and the fire that the universe begins in to the fire and the ice that end the world.” Gaiman’s admission prefaces an exciting episode of the dawn of his frozen setting. Inside Ymir’s skull, readers see how the Norse sky shines as stars, as sparks “that flew from the fires of Muspell.” Clouds pass as the remnants of Ymir’s brains, “and who knows what thoughts they are thinking, even now.” Gaiman’s simple prose allows readers to enter into a mindset of primeval awe.
Odin’s plot to build a wall may remind audiences of another land of fire and ice, in A Game of Thrones. As fans and writers, today’s fantasists turn to George R.R. Martin as they long have to his predecessor J.R.R. Tolkien, whose scholarship and passion for the sagas enriched his mythology. Trolls and giants, elves and the dead, humans and dwarfs and demons loom large in Norse Mythology, too. Action does not falter in Gaiman’s performance (also issued as an audiobook). This collection flows, caught up in primal energy. As a towering figure takes on Thor, the narrative suddenly veers to his rival’s perspective. “The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again. ” A piddling pair outwitted flail in a rowboat “like a couple of bearded lobsters.”
Such imagery and control show Gaiman’s affection for his material. Frey from Odin’s throne looks out over the four points of the world. “And then he looked to the north and saw the thing that was missing in his life.” Echoes of oral tradition linger on the page. Drama and love enter, and then tragedy.
A terrifying climax pummels the reader. Ragnarök, as doomsday, dominates an apocalyptic morass. Within it, Naglfar arrives. “This is the biggest ship there will ever have been: it is built out of the fingernails of the dead. Naglfar floats upon the flooded seas. The crew looks out and sees only dead things, floating and rotting on the surface of the sea.” Poe or Conrad, Melville or an account of Noah (or whatever “perfect storm” rivals or heirs to these primordial tales may invent) could not improve on this scene. Given storm surges and “sunny-day flooding” pepper our news lexicon now as common phrases, this conclusion to Norse Mythology remains relevant. Neil Gaiman charms and frightens his wide readership with this welcome and memorable compendium.