Welcome to the seventh installment of our ongoing American Gods Reread, a rambling literary road trip through Neil Gaiman’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning novel (soon to be an HBO series). Each week we’ll be following the adventures and misadventures of Shadow Moon and his employer, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, through a landscape both familiar and deeply strange. Please be aware that there will be spoilers in the post and comments.
This week, we reach Part III: The Moment of the Storm, as the old gods and the opposition are forced to take care of some business before they can cry havoc and let slip the dogs of all-out war....
Part Three: The Moment of the Storm; Chapter 14:
In the wake of Wednesday’s death, Shadow, Czernobog and Mr. Nancy are on the lam until the opposition offers a temporary truce in order to hand over the body. In Kansas, at the godless center of America, the warring factions come face to face, reuniting Shadow with the Technical Boy, Media, Mr. Town, and his old cellmate, Loki. Once the exchange is made, hostilities resume, and Shadow volunteers to hold Wednesday’s vigil, tied naked to the World Tree for the next nine days.
Since we’re covering three chapters again this week and there’s a ton to talk about in this chapter, I’ll just jump around from point to point:
• Elvis/Alviss: I’ve read a couple places online that the novel suggests that Alviss is actually supposed to be Elvis…as in Presley. I don’t agree at all—Elvis Presley has come up several times in the book, and there’s nothing to suggest that Shadow thought Alviss resembled Elvis physically in any way. In any case, according to Norse mythology, Alviss the dwarf was an ill-fated suitor who was engaged to Thor’s daughter, until Thor tricked him into exposing himself to daylight, causing Alviss to turn to stone. Given the dwarf’s allegiance to the All-Father, though, Alviss and Odin apparently got along much better than he did with Thor.
• As dark as this chapter is, I love the odd moments of hilarity courtesy of Czernobog and Anansi, from Anansi’s dirty-old-man version of the ending of Carrie to Czernobog’s curmudgeonly reaction to the VW bus Alviss gives them and even his expletive-laden verbal attacks on the Technical Boy.
• Not quite sure why we get a random cameo from Gwydion the Stockboy, aka Gwydion fab Dôn, but you may recognize the name from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series even if you’re not up on your Welsh mythology. Prydain’s Gwydion is more of a chivalrous hero, however—in the myth, he’s a magician and trickster who gets into some seriously bizarre situations and questionable behavior (although a badly behaved god should come as no surprise, at this point!)
• Being a big film geek, I’ve always loved the reference to Louise Brooks in this chapter, but until this reading I never realized that Czernobog was referring to the infamous Bender family when he says she was born “thirty years after they forced my people into hiding.” I just happened to hear a history podcast about the family, known as the Bloody Benders, a few weeks ago, so the light bulb finally went off. The Benders were German immigrants who disappeared just before it was confirmed that they’d been murdering travelers by smashing in their heads with hammers, making it easy to see why Gaiman made the connection between the serial killings and “blood sacrifice” to Czernobog.
• I love that The Center of America is really the idea of the center of America—a belief, not a scientific, geographic fact. As Mr. Nancy says, “It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.” (381). And, of course, after the Wizard of Oz scene referenced in Chapter 13, I’m happy that the first words out of the Technical Boy’s mouth are a paraphrase of Dorothy Gale’s “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Since the center is the opposite of sacred, “of negative sacredness,” the allusion helps drive home what a strange place it must be for the gods, both old and new.
• The Beatles show up once again, here, along with Cary Grant, when Media makes her ham-fisted offer of wealth and fame to Shadow; interesting/amusing that her two examples of ultimate stardom are a British band and a British-born movie star who both made it big in America. I wonder if Gaiman chose them intentionally, or if those examples just sprang to mind?
• Between the Technical’s Boy’s unsuccessful attempts at reciting “The Second Coming” and the quick allusion to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“Hurry up please, it’s time” on page 397), the midnight exchange of Wednesday’s body starts to feel like something out of modernist poetry: a dilapidated motel room full of tired gods and mythic figures who ate cold fast food for dinner and can’t come up with a decent eulogy between them.
• Finally, the chapter seems to keep circling around Shadow and the question of why he’s important, where he fits into everything, in his conversations with the other gods, with Wednesday in his dream, with Loki. And I’m not sure at this point that anyone has any idea how exactly how Shadow fits in…or, at least, they know what role he was supposed to play, but don’t quite grasp what he is capable of. I like the idea that there are two Shadows at this point: one who is finally experiencing what it is to be alive by choosing to go through with the vigil, and one still trying to figure it all out, to see the big picture. It makes sense, since he functions as both in the novel: a mythic hero and the protagonist of a hardboiled detective story, finding himself neck-deep in conspiracies and betrayal. It’s just that the story is about to get a lot more mythic….
In addition to the ponderings about Kansas, I can’t help but think that by weaving the state and the film into so many parts of the story, we’re given the sense that The Wizard of Oz is one of the great American myths. Which makes sense to me on a thematic scale as well as an indulgent one. Why is Kansas a gateway to Oz? It’s the center of the country, of course! Shadow certainly has enough in common with Dorothy, especially when making the previous connections that Bridget did between Professor Marvel/the Wizard and Wednesday. The entire novel is so adept at folding Shadow’s experiences into this tapestry of storytelling that we’re all aware of, making the book a conscious tribute all these things and also its own story at the same time.
Czernobog and Nancy do end up coming off as Shadow’s two awesome uncles by the final act of this book, and it was in this chapter that it suddenly occured to me that we could be meant to think of them as the benevolent versions of Shadow’s own Norse family; both Wednesday and Czernobog are irascible old men who are accustomed to blood sacrifices and violence, and Nancy and Loki are both trickster gods. Yet Nancy and Czernobog are both concerned with Shadow’s welfare, with protecting him rather than using him. (Despite the looming threat of Czernobog’s hammer, he still seems less of a threat to Shadow throughout that book than Wednesday.) I’m not precisely sure what purpose this might serve the novel, other than allowing Shadow to have a kinder sort of surrogate family, but it’s a nice touch in the narrative.
I love that Czernobog gets Media confused with Medea. Nancy making the joke that she’s sort of the “same deal” by killing all her children made me think that Nancy was inadevertantly calling up the truth behind the song “Video Killed the Radio Star,” how forms of media evolve and destroy their predecessors, from silent films to talkies, from radio plays to television, from 2D to 3D animation.
Watching the Technical Kid lose it is one part of this book that always stood out in my mind. He can’t seem to handle being all on his own, and some of the others chalk that up to him being a younger god. To a certain extent that makes sense; the older gods are used to being forgotten, to having to survive on the remanents of worship, but the new gods aren’t accustomed to it. On the other hand, being the god of tehnology amounts to a different sort of relation to the world, the idea of always being plugged in, part of a signal. It reminds me of the studies they’ve been doing lately that show that when people don’t have access to their electronics, they develop withdrawal symptoms. That is very similar to the behavior Technical Kid exhibits, from the apparent self-harm to the emotional instability. I do wonder if his comment about Shadow being gothic type is meant to be a hint at his ancient heritage on potentially both sides.
Part Three: The Moment of the Storm; Chapter 15:
Shadow’s vigil grows more painful and torturous with every passing hour as he hangs on Yggdrasil, the world tree; Ratatoskr the squirrel brings him water, and he dreams of elephant gods and dead children. Hallucinating, he talks with Laura, who later appears in the flesh; dying, he feels more truly alive than ever before. He is also visited by Horus, transforming from hawk into naked madman and back again. Eventually, he reaches the final darkness.
As affecting as Gaiman’s descriptions of Shadow’s increasing pain and discomfort are, what I always remember about this chapter is the flood of different mythologies. There are the Norns, who tied him to the world tree at the end of the last chapter, and were invoked by Wednesday back at The House on the Rock. The Norns are the Fates of Norse myth, and the three most important tend Yggdrasil, the world tree, with waters from the well of fate. Ratatoskr, of course, is the squirrel who scurries up and down the tree, carrying messages between the eagle perched at the top of the tree and the wyrm entangled in its roots…I like to think the fact that the squirrel brings Shadow water is a recognition of his semi-divine status as Baldur, but maybe he’s just a really nice squirrel?
Then there’s the mammoth who becomes Ganesh in his dream/hallucination, telling him not to forget his realization that “it’s in the trunk” (In terms of punny dream logic, I guess it makes sense to have an elephant talking about trunks. And memory.) Horus also appears, in human form, although with all the references to hawks and other birds, I think it’s understood that he’s been following along since Cairo (just like Bast and her cat army). So even alone on the world tree, Shadow is somehow surrounded by gods and figures from all different mythologies...even if some of them are crazy.
Again, I like that even during his self-sacrifice on an epic-hero scale, we don’t totally lose sight of the other half of Shadow’s personality, the one who’s still trying to figure out the nagging mystery in Lakeside and find all the hidden Indians.
There is an interesting connection between Horus and Shadow at this point, and it could be the reason why Horus chooses to show up now (rather than showing up because the war is close at hand). Horus also knows what it is like to lose a father and attempt to make amends following his death—he fought his uncle, Set, after the god murdered Horus’ father Osiris. Again we get solar myth language confusion, the insistence that they are both the sun (meaning the sun and the son), which might also have a bearing on the etymology of Baldur’s name, but I’ll get to that below.
Of course, we get a moment where Laura coughs up what are likely maggots. Maggots are a Gaiman thing, the way that pigs are a Russell T. Davies thing and chickens are a Jim Henson thing. When talking about the division of writing on Good Omens both Gaiman and Pratchett were pretty vague on who had written what, but Pratchett admitted to writing most of the Them sections and Gaiman admitted to writing all the bits with maggots. So clearly the maggots had to make an appearance somewhere in this novel! I’d forgotten it was here.
Part Three: The Moment of the Storm; Chapter 16:
In the starlit darkness of the afterlife, Shadow meets Zorya Polunochnaya, and surrenders his true name in order to walk a path of hard truths and painful memories, finally realizing that Wednesday is his father. Bast takes his heart and sends him on yet another path, which leads to Mr. Ibis/Thoth and Jacquel/Anubis. His good and evil deeds are examined, and his heart balanced on the scale of judgment; allowed to choose his destination, Shadow asks for nothingness, and embraces it happily.
This chapter is beautiful, and intriguing from beginning to end, but it’s also the part of the book about which I have the most questions (not in a critical way, but because so much of the information we receive is open to interpretation). So:
When Shadow surrenders his true name to Zorya Polunochnaya, what exactly is he giving up? Is it his true identity as Baldur, which hasn’t come into play at all? We only know that Shadow’s real name is Baldur Moon because Gaiman confirmed it a few years ago, so it’s difficult to know what he’s losing, if anything, by surrendering it in the afterlife. Bast doesn’t seem too worried about it, since “names come and names go,” and in giving it up, he finally gains the knowledge of who his father is, and his connection to the gods….
Speaking of Bast: if one path makes you wise, and one makes you whole, and one will kill you, which one does she choose for him? The last seems to make the most sense by far (seeing as it leads to the Hall of the Dead), and yet you could make arguments for all three, given how things turn out.
Mr. Ibis tells Shadow that life and death are two sides of the same coin, and when Shadow asks, “What if I had a double-headed quarter?” Ibis tells him that that option is only available to fools and gods (page 428). But he does, of course, make it back, so is it possible he technically falls into one (or both) of those special categories, and no one quite realizes it, yet? On the other hand, we’re also told by Bast that “death is a relative thing,” and that there aren’t any happy endings because “[t]here aren’t even any endings.” Perhaps by choosing nothingness, Shadow is just picking another temporary state; if there are no endings, than both death and nothingness aren’t necessarily as final as they seem to be.
I find it interesting that Bast makes about as big a deal about Shadow’s name as Shadow himself always seems to make of his name. If it’s the name “Shadow” that he gives to Zorya, could it be that he was always aware that this was not his true name, and that’s why he gave it no thought?
So... Baldur. The meaning of the name has never really been pinned down, but some thought it was linked with the word for “light” or “good.” That has connected Baldur with the day in some readings of myth, which would be an interesting crossover, as we get a lot of mixed sun and moon metaphors where he is concerned. Then the question might become, does this make Shadow inherently good? We’re told in no uncertain terms that he’s done awful things, but he does seem to have a very solid sense of right and wrong, even if he doesn’t abide by that sense all the time. Is that part of Shadow’s gift as a demi-god, the ability to know what is good?
Now, Baldur’s death in myth brought about Ragnarok, but what happens to him here is not how he was killed in the mythology... does that mean that Shadow is a new incarnation of Baldur? That the old Baldur, or the original Baldur is still running around in Norse country after being revived, and Shadow is specifically Baldur for this American crew of Norse gods?
The mention of the double-headed quarter brings us back to the story that Sam told when Shadow first met her and tossed her for dinner. It looks like Sam’s relative is a fool (or a god, hm). So is Harvey Dent, I guess. Whoa, that just kinda broke my brain.
One thing that never quite sat well with me; a point is made of Shadow not really being present or “alive,” and then Shadow choses to hold Wednesday’s vigil to sort of prove that he’s alive. And immediately after doing this and dying, his choice is to ignore all afterlife options in favor of nothing? It’s certainly a poetic choice and a jarring choice perhaps, but it also makes it seem as though all that development didn’t mean much, until we get him back.
Obviously, there’s still plenty more to talk about, so please join us in the comments as we try to figure it all out... In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our accompanying American Gods Mix Tape, and we’ll be back in a week to break down the highly climactic events of chapters 17 and 18!
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. Being stuck on a road trip with Czernobog and Nancy figting over the radio might just be her personal vision of hell.
Emily Asher-Perrin wonder if technical kid eventually grows up into some Mark Zuckerberg lookalike.