“And the Master-Poet painted…”: Neil Gaiman Revisits Old Gods in Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman’s newest book, Norse Mythology begins before the beginning with Surtr and his flaming sword in an empty, mist-choked universe and ends after the ending with the sons of gods and a game of chess. It tells the stories of creation and destruction, birth and death, life and cataclysm and everything in between. The ancient Norse lived in hard lives in a frigid, unforgiving land. Their cold and unyielding gods mirrored their world and worldview, and the Norse treated them with fear and reverence in equal measures.

It was Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s reworked God of Thunder from The Mighty Thor comics that first caught Gaiman’s interest and another retelling, Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen, that set him off on a lifetime of mythological fascination. Gaiman brings all of that awe to Norse Mythology, and you’ll be hard-pressed to finish it and not feel just as inspired.

Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of Norse myths. This isn’t a modern update or a narrative monograph. If it’s not in the original stories, it’s not in Gaiman’s retelling. That’s not as simple a task as it seems. Very little of the original stories exist; most were destroyed, forgotten, or euhemerized by early medieval Christians. All that remains are the Prose Edda, Poetic Edda, Gesta Danorum, and scattered runic inscriptions, charms and amulets, Scandinavian/Germanic occultism, and place names. Because of that there really is no cohesive, interconnected account. We have only bits and pieces scattered across a few millennia-old documents, all of which were created long after the end of the golden age of the Vikings.

While the stories are ancient, Gaiman makes them fresh and lively, as if the antics of the gods and giants only just happened. He revives the myths not as stories to be read but as tales to be told, read aloud to rapt listeners just as they would’ve been done long ago. We are meant to hear, to feel, to imagine Freya’s wrath at being married off without her consent, Thor in a wedding dress, Loki eating an entire banquet. The gods should be experienced, not dryly recounted as if they no longer matter.

And because gods are generally inscrutable and lack real emotional growth, the character development is more or less non-existent. Gaiman shades the gods out a bit, enough to give his stories enough emotional heft to connect. Even still there’s a distance there that readers expecting the heady emotions of Stardust, expansive yet intricate arcs of Sandman, or the depth and weight of American Gods may have trouble with. Those familiar with the storytelling techniques of traditional folklore and myths will immediately get where Gaiman is coming from. Norse Mythology deftly blends ancient and contemporary literature styles, paying homage to the former with the flair of the latter.

Ancient folklore rarely fits contemporary models of story arcs, character growth, and tacked on moral lessons. Take Loki, for example. Despite what pop culture tells you, we don’t really know that much about him. In some accounts he’s a god, in others a jotun. Some theorize he’s an aspect of Odin, others that he’s a trickster figure. Regardless, his role in the Norse myths seems to be one of discord. He never learns from his errors or changes his tactics. He is who he is, whoever that is, from his creation to his death. I grew up on African folklore stories, and they function similarly to Viking ones in that the supernatural beings are repetitive creatures who seem to have been created more as an outlet for human creativity, frustrations, curiosities rather than moralistic debates or ethical ideals. Ananse will always get caught in his own trap and have to talk his way out of punishment just as Loki will. Prescribing morals to their stories ignores the stories’ original intent.

It’s easy to get lost in the grandeur and excitement of the myths, but we must also stay anchored to why the Norse told these stories. True, the Norse needed ways to explain the inexplicable and impose order in a society growing ever more complex. But they also needed ways to connect with each other during the perpetually sunny summer days and frostbitten winter nights, and telling stories is one of the oldest human bonding techniques. We’ve been doing it ever since the first hominid dipped their hand in red paint and pressed it to a cave wall. Whether or not the Norse literally believed mediocre poets acquired their poor inspiration by drinking from “a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead” released by Odin in eagle form isn’t the point. The point is simply that they told the story. And now Neil Gaiman has told those stories to us.

As per usual, Gaiman’s text soars. Just look at this hauntingly vivid description of Hel, Loki’s daughter and queen of those who die unworthy deaths:

[Odin] stared at the girl: on the right side of her face her cheek was pink and white, her eye was the green of Loki’s eyes, her lips were full and carmine; on the left side of her the skin was blotched and striated, swollen in the bruises of death, her sightless eye rotted and pale, her lipless mouth wizened and stretched over skull-brown teeth.

“What do they call you, girl?” asked the all-father.

“They call me Hel,” she said, “if it pleases you, All-father.”

“You are a polite child,” said Odin. “I’ll give you that.”

Hel said nothing, only looked at him with her single green eye, sharp as an ice chip, and her pallid eye, dull and spoiled and dead, and he saw no fear in her.

“Are you alive?” he asked the girl. “Or are you a corpse?”

“I am only myself, Hel, daughter of Angrboda and of Loki,” she said.

If that doesn’t make you want to call your local library or independent bookstore right now, then I don’t know what will.

When I first picked up Norse Mythology, I only planned to read a few chapters, but the deeper I got the more I felt like as if I was sitting in a Viking longhouse by a roaring fire and a cup of mead listening Gaiman recite mythic poetry. In my head I could hear Gaiman’s deep, mesmerizing voice reading along with me. (Side note: those who haven’t yet experienced the joy that is hearing Neil Gaiman read a story aloud, start with him reading The Graveyard Book and Coraline, and next time he does a book tour get thee a ticket!) Norse Mythology is a book I plan to re-read just to experience the rush again. In all honesty, I can’t find a single flaw in it except that I wish it were longer – which, again, not his fault.

Really, you shouldn’t need a review to help you decide whether or not to buy this book. If Neil Gaiman writes it, then you need it on your shelf. Norse Mythology has the breadth of Mythology by Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch. It’s the Prose and Poetic Edda by way of Gaiman’s own American Gods. This evocative and lyrical book is a must read, and not just for mythology nerds and Gaiman obsessives. Like Oceans at the End of the Lane, Norse Mythology makes a stunning and welcoming entry for newcomers. It is quite simply a breathtaking novel that is as matchless as the Norse gods themselves.

Norse Mythology is available from W.W. Norton & Co.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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