Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The past twenty or thirty years of fantasy and science fiction have seen an increased mining of world mythologies for story material. Some of this entirely derivative, some of it informative, some inquisitive, some exploratory, some combinative, and some of it just looking to update the style for a modern audience, regardless, its increased presence on the market is clear. In what is clearly a tribute to his love for the Norse myths and a desire to bring said stories to a contemporary audience in a modern voice (much the same as John Steinbeck did with The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights), Neil Gaiman pulled together his version of the old stories in Norse Mythology (2018).

Odin, Thor, Loki—the names are familiar to most people with only a little knowledge of world mythologies and legends. And in Norse Mythology they are front and center—alongside a fair number of giants, trolls, ogres, elves, other gods, and the like. But where most may assume the trio spent their time battling these creatures in the mythology, nothing could be further from the truth. Engaged in battles of wit would be a better summary. Norse Mythology defines a handful of those battles.

Thor has his might hammer, everybody knows that. But in Norse Mythology it is found bashing heads only as a lead in to the real story, or as a sidebar while other action takes center stage. Much more often he, as well as Odin and Loki, are locked in mental combat, trying to outwit, outsmart, and trick others. The stories thus have much more resemblance to Coyote or Anansi than comic books or Hollywood. How Thor earned his hammer. How Odin tricked the giants. How Loki almost lost his head. Ragnarok, and others. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings may be a resounding echo of Norse myths, but it holds little in common to the relatively everyday concerns of food and drink, marriage and property found in Norse Mythology.

In the end, Norse Mythology puts the unique stories of old northern Europe back in the public eye. Less a companion to contemporary media featuring stylized versions of the Norse gods and more a baseline of where such material was derived, readers looking for action and violence will find subtler tales emphasizing that Vikings were likely more appreciative of wits than brawn in their fireside mead sessions. In the same vein, readers looking for Gaiman's fluid authorial voice will find something a bit more standard, middle of the road.  The stories holding significantly more in common with Native American tricksters, Australian Aboriginee cosmologies, or African folk tales, the book should be appreciated as such.  What Gaiman is bringing new to the table, I'm not entirely sure, save the power of his name to re-generate interest in Nordic heritage...

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