Book Review, Circles, Edith Hamilton, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, Freya's Unusual Wedding, gods, Heimdall, Humor, Literature, Loki, MJolnir, myth, mythology, Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology, Odin, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Ragnarock, Reimagined Narratives, Sexy Norse Gods, story, The Sandman, The World Tree, Thor, Writing
I believe there is a quote that says, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” but that sumbitch never read Neil Gaiman.
I was annoyed and frustrated with myself a few weeks back because Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris were both giving public readings in Dallas this year, and by the time I discovered the where and when of the venue the performance halls were already sold out. This was painful because not only were two of my favorite authors coming close enough to me to actually hear them read and speak in public, but every person attending these events were going to receive a free signed copy of their most recent books with a purchase of a ticket. So probably not actually free, but it feels free. I have no one but myself to blame for this missed chance, and since I already suffer from undiagnosed depression and give myself a pretty hard time I needed something to lift my spirits.
To Amazon I went.
Now I was aware of the fact that Neil Gaiman had started a new book, and once some of the early advertisements started appearing I knew I had to read Norse Mythology. I was originally just going to pre-order it, but then life happened I forgot, but once I started working at the Tyler Public Library and saw that we had ordered a copy I placed the first hold. Ever since I’ve begun working at the library my compulsive book shopping has, no stopped exactly, but at least dwindled to manageable levels. Why purchase a book when I can simply check it out and know that it’s there just a ten minute drive away? The book came in and I just devoured it, but halfway through reading it I realized that I needed my own copy. And so one night while searching through amazon I spotted, not just a hardback first edition, but an autographed copy. I’m a poor man, but also a fool, and so I proved the philosopher correct and divorced myself from 60 of my hard earned dollars. I don’t regret a thing.
Norse Mythology as a book has been a revelation because, like many people who went through the educational system in the United States I assume, I never learned much, or anything really, about the Norse Gods. Going to the school I did I was steeped in the classical tradition. We read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Aeneid, Medea, Julius Caesar, and in the seventh grade I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s standard Mythology. This book, which still sits in my shelf today, was a great resource and a wonderful opening to the complicated world of Greek Myth, but I noted at the time that there was a small portion in the back of the book that my teacher never got around to assigning to us. In the back of Hamilton’s book is 24 pages (I counted) dedicated to the Norse Gods and their mythos. I forgie Edith Hamilton for the sparseness of this section since hard written records of Norse myth aren’t as prevalent as Greek or Roman records, but something has always irked me about the way this section of myth feels simply tacked on, when an in-depth reading and study of these myths reveals a great bounty of lore and stories.
As soon as my copy of Norse Mythology came in I showed it to my friend TJ, the founder of the graphic novel book club I’m a part of, and we both briefly compared the book, and it’s ambition, to Edith Hamilton’s work speculating that there now exists the possibility that within a few years it could be assigned in schools for a similar purpose. I honestly believe this, and after completing the book my assessment remains. Neil Gaiman has achieved through his efforts a beautiful book which has made me slap my head repeatedly wondering why it took me so long to read, and enjoy, Norse Myths.
To begin with I have to briefly mention “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” which is the story of how the god Thor lost his now iconic hammer Mjolnir. Though Gaiman opens the book with individual descriptions of each god and their affinities and powers, each story on occasion provides some background material. The chapter that covers the “wedding” begins with such a description of Thor’s Hammer.
Thor’s hammer was called Mjollnir. It has been made by the dwarf’s Brokk and Eitri. It was one of the treasures of the gods. If Thor hit anything with it, that thing would be destroyed. If he threw the hammer at something, the hammer would never miss its target, and would always flay back through the air and return to his hand. He could shrink the hammer down and hide it inside his shirt, and he could make it grow again. It was a perfect hammer in all things except one: it was slightly too short in the handle, which meant that Thor had to swing it one handed.
The hammer kept the gods of Asgaurd safe from all the dangers that menaced them and the world. Frost giants and ogres, trolls and monsters of every kind, all were frightened of Thor’s hammer. (109-110).
As it turns out the giants stole Thor’s hammer one night while he was asleep, and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgaurd who sees all, comes up with a plan on how to infiltrate the giant’s keep and steal the hammer back. The gods are discussing how to retreave Mjollnir when the most hilarious passage in the book is related:
“Well?” said Loki. “What about you Heimdall? Doyou have any suggestions?”
“I do,” said Heimdall. “But you won’t like it.”
Thor banged his fist down upon the table. “It does not matter whether or not we like it,” he said. “We are gods! There is nothing that any of us gathered here would not do to get back Mjollnir, the hammer of the gods. Tell us your idea, and it is a good idea, we will like it.”
“You won’t like it,” said Heimdall.”
“We will like it!”
“Well,” said Heimdall, “I think we should dress Thor as a bride. Have him put on the necklace of Brisings. Have him wear a bridal crown. Stuff his dress so he looks like a woman. Veil his face. We’ll have him wears keys that jingle, as women do, drape him in jewels—”
“I don’t like it!” said Thor. “People will think…well, for a start they’ll think I dress up in women’s clothes.” (115-6).
I noted that this passage was one of the most hilarious passages, rightfully so I would argue, and that distinction is important for too often in myth there seems to be an absence of humor. Perhaps it’s just the education I received growing up, but myth seems to be steeped in relentless tragedy, violence, rape, depravity, or anguish. I cannot recall any real humor in the Greek Pantheon, and seeing as how that was the only real pantheon apart from the Egyptians I was exposed to, the fact that a moment of humor could exist in mythology was a breath of fresh air. Thor eventually gets his hammer back after a long series of jokes and gags that rely on the uber masculine worldview of the ancient Nords, and promptly slaughters the giants. Still no word though on whether the catering was good or not.
Gaimans Norse Mythology relates the world and the gods and creatures that inhabit the world of the Nordic mythos, however unlike Edith Hamilton, who seemed to retain a kind of academic distance from her topic, Neil Gaiman allows his retelling of myth to be imbued with a little more character. Gaiman has explored these characters before and so this gives him a great edge. Any and all readers who have ever taken the time to read his graphic novel The Sandman Season of Mist is sure to remember the blustering oaf that is Thor and the sly demonic figure of Loki who would aid the Dream King in a way that would not be made entirely clear until the later Sandman volumes. I’d relate more but I’m preparing myself mentally to review those books one by one by one so the reader will have to be patient.
Now I can hear the contester. By the sounds of it Gaiman is taking a self-indulgent exercise by simply retelling the stories of the Norse Myth, why should I bother with that? If I want the stories of the Norse gods I should just read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda if I hate myself and life in general?
I should first remind my contester that if you hate yourself, you should really be reading the collected works of James Patterson. There’s a great difference between crap and art, and then there is work which tries to be neither because it is really nothing at all.
But as to the real complaint Neil Gaiman himself provides some response in his introduction to the work as he notes the fate of the original written materials and oral tales:
We have lost so much. (14)
He goes on to say:
I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.
Sometimes details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside the small hours, awake in the unending lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight or midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from. (14-15).
Gaiman’s book is not an academic reproduction of the Norse Myths, and if the reader is truly interested in such a work translations exist and are constantly being produced. Gaiman is honest in the fact that he just wants to retell these stories, and that’s all the creative justification he needs. Because he is working with myth, and not a more contemporary story, he can rewrite these stories and incorporate more personality and dialogue into them, and while some might argue that that is “corrupting” the original myths they fail to see that this is a fallacy. Myths by their very nature are fluid beings that have shifted and altered over time. They adapt and change depending on the teller, and while written documents are considered sacred, it’s important to remember that when readers encounter such written documents, particularly ancient ones, the conflict of authorial intent becomes tricky and messy. I’m trying to say, sloppily, is that because these are myths Gaiman doesn’t have to make these a new Prose Edda. Instead he can, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, simply tell the stories that have been told over and over again, but bring a new life or light to them that feels relevant to the age he’s writing in.
That’s what’s marvelous about myth is that it can change.
I was taught in school, briefly, that Norse Myths were dark, gloomy, depressing stories in which every god was ultimately doomed to die. This eventual end, referred often to as Ragnarock, is inevitable and Edith Hamilton briefly describes this reality in her Mythology:
The World of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiancy of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a gave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know a day will come when they will be destroyed. (443)
She continues this gloomy description a few days later:
All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women wh go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism. (446).
This being my only real exposure to these myths at first I honestly thought that Norse Mythology was going to be a dark read of nothing but hopelessness. Obviously, I forgot every Neil Gaiman story I had ever read. Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse Myths can be dark, but each story is told in such a way that the reader is able to see Gaiman’s passion and dedication to these stories and that energy translates into a beautiful story that, even at it’s most grotesque or horrifying, still manages to sound lovely.
But what’s important ultimately is the way in which Neil Gaiman completes his book. Rather than end on Ragnarok, and end with death and destruction, Gaiman demonstrates his lasting importance as a story teller for he leaves these characters not with death, but a circle.
After the final battle in which Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and all the gods of Asgard are destroyed there is left a small party including the gods Balder and Magni who are looking over the battlefield. Balder spots something:
They go down on their knees in the long grass, the gods like children.
Magni, Thor’s son, is the first to find one of the things in the long grassm and once he finds it, he knows what it is. It is a golden chess piece, the kind the gods played with when the gods still lived. It is a tiny golden caring of Odin, the all father, on his high thrones: the king.
They find more of them. Here is Thor, holding his hammer. There is Heimdall, his horn at his lips. Frigg, Odin’s wife, is the queen.
Balder holds up a little golden statue. “That one looks like you,” Modi tells him.
“It is me,” says Balder. “It is me long ago, before I died, when I was of the Aesir.”
They will find other pieces in the grass, some beautiful, some less so. Here. Half buried in the black soil, are Loki and the monstrous children. There is a frost giant. There is Sutr, his face all aflame.
Soon they will find they have all the pieces they could ever need to make a full chess set. They arrange the pieces into a chess game: on the tabletop chessboard the gods of Asgard face their eternal enemies. The new-minted sunlight glints from the golden chessmen on this perfect afternoon.
Balder will smile, like the sun coming out, and reach down, and he will move his first piece.
And the game begins anew. (280-283).
At the end of this review I think back to the conversation I had with my friend about the future readers who find Gaiman’s book. I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I’ve never gotten rid of my copy of the book, because no matter how many times I’ve tried I’ve yet to find someone who made the Greek myths so accessible. Having a book like Mythology allowed me the chance to actually understand and process the myths that have inspired thousands of years of writers, poets, playwrights, and artists who have shaped our culture. The Norse Myths have often, it seems, fallen upon deaf ears, but in the last few decades I have observed new legions of people discover and invest themselves in the characters and stories of Thor, Loki, Balder, Freya, and the old clever Odin. Gaiman’s book then is a boon to a new generation, and humanity period because it, like Mythology, will expose a generation to these myths which have too often been ignored or written off as hopelessly bleak.
Yes the gods die, and yes their stories are filled with bloody mahem, but the final image reveals, to me at least, a far more final conclusion than the Greek pantheon. Rather than simply live on a mountain and occasionally step down to rape the local girls, the Norse gods are aware of their ultimate end, but as Gaiman reveals it there is no real end. The gods die but are then ultimately remade. Their stories end and then start anew meaning that there is no true end or true beginning.
The stories continue ever afterwards, and there is no better testament to the quality of myth.
All quotes taken from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman were taken from the W.W. Norton & Company hardback first edition. All quotes from Mythology by Edith Wharton were taken from the Little, Brown & Company Paperback.
For the record Red of Overly Sarcastic Reviews still probably has the best rendition of Norse Mythology after Gaiman and most of what I knew before reading his book came from this video.
While looking up images to include in this article I stumbled upon, what appears to be a sexy pin-up calendar using the Norse Gods, all of them men. I couldn’t find a good place for them in the article, so I included them here. Enjoy…how could you not?