Welcome to the final 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). In our previous installments, we’ve following the adventures and misadventures of Shadow Moon and his employer, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, through a landscape both familiar and deeply strange. Having reached the end of the novel, we thought we’d share some concluding thoughts on the world of American Gods and take a look at Gaiman’s 2004 novella “The Monarch of The Glen,” which picks up with Shadow in the north of Scotland, about two years after the events of the book…
As always, please be aware that there will be spoilers in the post and comments.
“The Monarch of The Glen”: An American Gods Novella
First published in 2004, “The Monarch of the Glen” appears in Neil Gaiman’s 2006 collection Fragile Things. The collection also includes an earlier story, “Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story,” featuring Smith and Mr. Alice, characters from London’s dark underbelly who travel to the wilds of Scotland in this novella, and get more than they bargain for in their dealings with the big American tourist from the local hotel.
Hired as extra security for a weekend party at an isolated castle, Shadow finds himself at the center of an ancient battle between men and monsters…but it’s not at all clear who the real monsters are. With some help from Jennie, the barmaid/hulder who’s taken a shine to him, Shadow upsets the balance of power, leaving the door open for the return of the old gods, kept in an anguished holding pattern for so long.
It’s been awhile since I’d read “The Monarch of the Glen,” and it’s interesting returning to it after spending so much time discussing American Gods, chapter by chapter. Even beyond the obvious links between the two (in terms of sharing the same world and the same protagonist), there’s just so much that’s familiar, here. There’s the eccentric, seemingly benign old man who turns out to be a child-killer (although Doctor Gaskell is a much nastier, more disturbing specimen than Hinzelmann was). There are the protective female characters who aid and defend Shadow in his hour of need (Jennie and Grendel’s Mother). As a potential romantic interest for Shadow, there’s even a bit of the old Laura dynamic in play: Laura and Shadow were star-crossed thanks to the pesky divide between the dead and the living, while Jennie, as a hulder, can only love a mortal man…and Shadow isn’t a mortal man.
“TMotG” tells us a bit about what Shadow is not, in fact: Shadow says he’s not a monster; Wednesday tells him he’s not a hero, since he came back from the dead; Jennie tells him that he’s not a man. So, what is he, exactly? Well, this is where his birth name is officially revealed: Balder Moon; the ancient Norse gods, appearing in his dreams, greet him with cries of “Hail sun-bringer! Hail Baldur!” Baldur was, after all, the god of summer sun and light, and the story takes place during the summer months (albeit a chilly, Scottish Highlands-style summer). He doesn’t really exhibit any obviously god-like powers, beyond his propensity for dream-visions and impressive (but not necessarily supernatural) physical strength, but if he’s not a hero and he’s not a man, “god” does seem like the obvious choice in terms of defining his post-resurrection status.
Speaking of definitions and categorizations, I profoundly enjoy the way the novella plays with the concept of “monsters,” from Shadow’s first exchange with Gaskell to Grendel and his mother, then in Smith’s invocation of the Sawney Beane clan, in some risqué gossiping between party guests—all throughout the story, the word “monster” is bandied about at every turn, up through the main event in which Shadow is forced to fight Grendel. The battle is supposed to be more of a ritual than anything else—a way of showcasing and cementing humanity’s continued dominance over monsters, myth, and superstition, in which Grendel represents the latter and Shadow has been forced to take on the role of the hero. Except that the hero isn’t that different than the monster in the eyes of the rich and powerful elite who gather first to watch, and then to join in, savagely clubbing both “hero” and “monster” to death with orgiastic glee.
If you’ve read “Keepsakes and Treasures,” you’ll know that Smith probably qualifies as a monster, in the sense that he’s a cheerfully amoral killer with a penchant for pedophlia. Jennie might qualify, as a hulder, creatures who were blamed for causing madness and luring men to their doom. Certainly no one’s going to defend Gaskell against the charge (and why bother, since he seems to delight in calling himself a monster, repeatedly?) The party guests themselves become monstrous as they devolve into bloodlust and barbarity, but Smith’s reference to The Difficulty of Being at the end of the story also puts one in mind of Jean Cocteau’s use of the phrase “sacred monsters” to define celebrities, who he described as our modern stand-ins for Olympian deities: flawed, just like us, but richer, more attractive, more self-indulgent.
As in American Gods, there’s no clear line between good guys and bad guys in “The Monarch of the Glen.” Mr. Alice tells Shadow that the yearly battle between “us versus them” comes down to the triumph of knights over dragons, giant-killers over ogres, men over monsters…but the story turns fairy tale logic on its head, causing the reader to question the wisdom of whether humanity really deserves to win…and whether such a battle is really necessary, at all. And of course, Mr. Alice’s mistake is assuming that Shadow is one of “us” and not one of “them”—it’s possible that Shadow is a little of both, but he plays by an entirely different set of rules (“Chess, not checkers. Go, not chess,” as Wednesday would say).
Finally, I love the final paragraph, so ripe with possibility: it leaves the reader wondering not only what adventures await Shadow as he returns to America, but also what’s going to happen in the U.K., now that the ancient ritual has been broken and the old Viking gods (and who knows what else—ogres, giants, and dragons?) are no longer being kept at bay.
It strikes me that Shadow being Baldur sort of makes sense in regard to how other charaters view him—outside of flat out antagonists, people just like Shadow. Most of them don’t even seem to know why. Wednesday needed to keep him out of the way in the novel because he attracted too much attention, but having him nearby was always good for the old con man when he had to interact with others. And that works with Baldur in mythology. He was just darn likable. Frigga got nearly every living thing on earth to weep for him when he died (and that also seems to work in regard to how women tend to reach out to him whenever he’s in danger). It just sort of works.
It’s also funny watching Shadow now that he is used to this life between humanity and divinity. He’s become the world-weary sort of guy that things just happen to, and he’s aware that there’s not much to be done about it. He’s determined to have some say in how he himself is used, but we’re not getting that confusion anymore that we saw at the start of the book. What distinguishes Shadow from so many figures around him is this insistence on creating his own destiny, which is perhaps his most American trait, funnily enough.
Again, setting plays such an important role in the tale. Though some time has passed, we’re still getting a story that takes places during the summer, the final season in the novel as well, suggesting not only Shadow’s summer-god status, but the era of his life he is currently in. However, we’re in Scotland, which means that there’s a beautiful bleakness to this summer. There’s also a sense of emptiness, solitude made mostly clear because of where he is staying, and while it seems that Shadow might be looking for settings like these to try and stay out of the way, I remember the first time I read this novella it sort of made me sad. And that hotel always struck me with an eerie Twilight Zone vibe regardless.
It makes sense to fold fairy tales and legend into this world of gods, and to allow it to become part of the belief commentary that American Gods created. The suggestion that Shadow’s dealings with this world might be changing the game in a big way seems like a pretty good hint as to what might come up for him in the future—we get the sense that things have been wrong with these patterns for a long time, and have been wrong everywhere; Wednesday and Loki’s war is just a symptom of a bigger problem. Is Shadow’s role as a “sun-bringer” meant in a much more literal fashion, then? Is he here to enlighten people, to give them a different option for their future simply in leading through example? Only time will tell.
I’ll try to keep this relatively short—even after three months, I could go on and on about all the minutiae of American Gods. And I’m sure that the next time I revisit it, I’ll find connections I haven’t yet made and catch allusions that went right by me during this reread—for me, that’s part of the beauty of the book. I saw that someone commented last week about a friend who complained that there’s so much build-up to the ultimate battle between the gods, and then it all gets defused at the last minute, and I’ve definitely heard similar things from people over the years—that the journey through the novel is more fun or more satisfying than the destination.
For me, though, Shadow’s story presents a version of the classic hero’s journey filtered through the tradition of the hard-boiled detective along the lines of Philip Marlowe—a smart, sensitive, philosophical guy who plays things close to the vest, who’s not uncomfortable around crooks and con men but plays chess and reads poetry (or in Shadow’s case, checkers and Herodotus).
Throughout this reread, I’ve notice the noirish elements in certain scenes more and more, from the opening scenes in prison to Shadow’s first encounter with (undead) Laura, up through the last chapter where he channels Humphrey Bogart while saying goodbye to Sam Black Crow. Shadow’s moral code, his gnawing desire to get to the truth, the moral ambiguities and sense of conspiracy driving the plot along—you might not notice on the first read, but Gaiman used a detective story as the backbone of the novel. And as someone who loves Chandler, Cain, Hammett and rest of that shadowy pantheon of crime writers, the way the various plotlines are resolved make perfect sense, in that context. If you’re expecting an epic fantasy resolution—in which, I imagine, Shadow would make peace with Wednesday somehow and bring Laura back to life (which does seem like a possibility, up to the end of Chapter 18)—you’re going to be disappointed, but I don’t see that as the book’s failing.
The hero’s journey is part of the story, but it’s not the blueprint for American Gods, which follows a more complex map of layered influences: it’s a mystery, a road trip narrative, a nexus of history and myth and different folkloric traditions, and an attempt to explore America as an idea (or rather, an immense collection of ideas and beliefs and ideologies). Moreover, all of these aspects serve to drive home deeper thematic questions about belief and history and legend, and why stories are powerful and important and need to be recycled and replenished, like any valuable resource….
I think that American Gods can certainly be read once and enjoyed for its plot, characters, and because it’s clever and extremely well-written, but I do think that it’s a novel that reveals itself to be richer and more intricate and more thought-provoking the more closely you read it, as all the details are illuminated and come into focus. So thanks for coming along for the ride, this time—I hope you got out as much out of it as we did! And now I feel fully prepared for HBO to start up the series, which we’ve all been waiting so patiently for. Any day now….
I was much younger when I read this book for the first time, so in some ways it felt like reading a completely different novel. Not a better or worse one, just a different one. The morality all over seemed a lot grayer, and I found myself relating to more of the characters this time around. I maintain that reading and rereading is kind of like listening to favorite music that you haven’t picked up in a while—you’ll find all sort of things that you never noticed, but more than anything, you’ll remember yourself when you first listened to it. It often works better than pure recollection, looking back on who you were the last time you read a certain book. So as American Gods is a road trip that encourages discovery, I had my own sort of journey, thinking about why certain passages of the book affected me the way they did the first time around, why some aspects move me more now and others move me less. I do wonder if anyone else experiences the same sort of thing on rereading….
As for our hero, I’m anxious to see what comes next for Shadow in the sequel Gaiman has promised us. After reading “The Monarch of the Glen” again, it strikes me that Shadow is something of a wild card to everyone around him—he cares about doing what’s right, but what’s right and what’s good aren’t always the same thing. And the ways that people expect him to react are often completely at odds with his actual reactions. All of those big machines he’s stopped, from wars to rituals, there has to wind up being a consequence for that. I wonder too if Shadow is meant to spend his life wandering, or if he has a place in all of this, something that he can become a part of.
The other day I was talking to a friend about how so many fantasy authors seem to write books that help them work through their own ideas about faith. C.S. Lewis did the same, so did Madeleine L’Engle and Connie Willis, and countless other fantasy authors. I talked a little bit about this earlier, about how Gaiman seemed to be getting his thoughts down in American Gods, making his own case for a certain kind of belief, rather than a specific vote for any religious doctrine. It does make me wonder what about the fantasy genre encourages that specific type of exploration, and how these various novels would stack up against each other if you tried comparing them. I think the reason why American Gods sits so well with me on that front is that I don’t feel preached to, and more importantly, Gaiman’s view on these things makes the very act of belief something magical. I think that most fictional texts dealing with faith could use a nice dose of that—the magic of believing, which is really what magic is in the end.
A note on the “Shadow meets Jesus” scene in the appendix of the Author’s Preferred Text version: it’s really good that it’s not in the book proper. It’s a great scene, but it does feel like it belongs in a different novel. Maybe later on in Shadow’s life, when he returns to America. But the suggestions in this bit of extra text are just great. I found it interesting that Jesus’ appearance is tanned rather than non-white the way true historical Jesus would be, but that’s probably due to his depiction in overall American culture. The image of him in comfortable clothes sporting a beard and baseball cap put me bizarrely in mind of a young Steven Spielberg and now the image won’t leave me.
That’s a wrap—well, almost. Next week we’ll have a mega-version of the American Gods Mix Tape for all your listening needs! Plus, as Emily mentioned, the Appendix to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of the novel contains a short scene originally intended to be included in Chapter 15, in which Shadow meets Jesus—they hang out, drink some wine—check it out, if you’re interested (or just for the sake of being a completist). And even though we’ve come to the end of American Gods, there’s still plenty of great stuff coming up in our ongoing Neil Gaiman reread, from some individual posts on children’s picture books over the next few weeks to Tim Callahan’s Sandman Reread, starting in January! In the meantime, happy Thanksgiving to everybody who’s celebrating tomorrow, and happy regular Thursday to everyone else—cheers!
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She wanted to call this post “The Monster at the End of this Reread,” but couldn’t handle the resulting mental image of Shadow grappling with Grover.
Emmet Asher-Perrin is winging her way toward Chicago as we speak, where there will be turkey (and mead?)