Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology – a review

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman, W.W. Norton, 2017.

Earlier this year I reviewed Carolyne Larrington’s The Norse Myths, a lavishly illustrated introduction to the Norse myths for a popular audience. While Larrington’s book is more scholarly and objective, Gaiman’s book is laid out as a series of stories; retellings rather than analysis.

In that earlier review, I felt I should explain who Larrington was and why she was qualified to write such a book. I hardly need to say who Neil Gaiman is, and his interest in mythology is well-known. From American Gods to the Sandman comics, he has often incorporated deities and myths into his work.

Norse Mythology is available on KIndle as well as hardback, and since it’s not illustrated, there’s no great loss in buying the Kindle version if you prefer reading that way. Like Larrington’s book he starts with the creation and goes to the Ragnarök, the doom of the gods that will see Odin, Thor and the rest fall. The old world will be destroyed, and new rise in its place.

To help you keep track of the vast number of deities, giants, and other creatures in Norse myth, there is a quick reference at the end, and after the introduction Gaiman gives a quick overview of the three main characters, Odin, Thor and Loki.

The three gods, from the Sandman comics. SuperPower Wiki.

Anyone who’s read the Sandman comics knows what to expect of Gaiman’s thunder-god, who is strong, fearless, and clueless. The one thing he knows, and sticks to, is that if there is trouble, Loki caused it. Loki, and Odin, of course, are the clever, slippery ones. Odin is wise, however, and looks ahead, while Loki acts mainly on impulse. (Michael Dirda poiints out that the gods speak like superheroes: Thor as the Hulk, Loki as Iron Man, as Robert Downey plays him.)

The short paragraphs and straightforward sentences suggest an audience of eight and up. Like Kevin Crossley-Holland’s earlier book, its main audience seems to be children, which is not to say that adults won’t enjoy it. Gaiman acknowledges Crossley-Holland and Roger Lancelyn Green as inspirations for his book, saying that Green was his first introduction to Norse myth as a child.

Retelling the Norse myths for children is easier in some ways than retelling the Greek myths, because there’s not a lot of sex, and certainly a lot less rape. The Norse myths are more violent, however, starting right with the creation myth.

In the beginning, there was ice and fire, and two beings, the giant Ymir and the cow Audhumla, grew out of the space between them. Ymir created more beings out of his own body, and they in turn had children, including the god Odin and his two brothers. They decided to create the worlds, but had nothing to create them with. So they killed grandfather Ymir, and made the nine worlds out of his body:

Ve and Vili and Odin looked at each other and spoke of what was needful to do, there in the void of Ginnungagap. They spoke of the universe, and of life, and of the future.

Odin and Ve and Vili killed the giant Ymir. It had to be done. There was no other way to make the worlds. This was the beginning of all things, the death that made all life possible.

Gaiman, being a modern storyteller, goes inside the gods’ heads and tells what their reasoning was. This is a stark contrast to the style of the Prose Edda or the Icelandic sagas, who tend to a more reportorial style: they tell you what happened, and what people said and did, but let you draw your own conclusions about motivations.

The Prose Edda simply says of Ymir’s death:

Bor’s sons killed the giant Ymir. And when he fell, so much blood escaped from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of frost-giants, except the one that escaped with his family.

Gaiman’s simple, stripped-down style was probably inspired by Snorri’s Edda and the sagas, who tend to be brief and to the point. He does elaborate on his sources in places, however. In both the poem Thrymskivda and Gaiman’s book Freyja’s reaction to Thor’s suggestion that she marry a giant to get his hammer back is pure fury. Gaiman also describes Freyja’s growing anger in the story of how Asgard’s walls were built, where the gods once again use Freyja, along with the sun and moon, as bait.

A depiction of the unnamed master builder with the horse Svaðilfari (1919) by Robert Engels. Wikimedia.

Loki assumes the giant won’t finish on time, but Freyja is not convinced. As the walls mount, we see her getting more and more pissed off, until she tries to make a bargain of her own: if she has to leave Asgard to live with the giants, then Loki has to die before she goes. (Loki saves the day with a trick of his own.) Gaiman uses Freyja’s mounting fury as a recurring element in his telling, whle the Prose Edda doesn’t mention her reactions at all.

He does apologize in the introduction for the lack of stories about the Norse goddesses, who are very poorly represented in the stories that remain to us. It’s clear that his heart belongs to Angrboda, Loki’s mistress and mother of three monstrous children by him. (Given the Sandman comics, this makes sense.)

I was pleased by his handling of Skadi‘s story, where he makes her desire for revenge the focus. (Unlike Crossley-Holland, he doesn’t funk describing how Loki made Skadi laugh, although that may be because in 1980 Penguin didn’t want godly testicles in a children’s book. Even Gaiman blinked slightly on that point.)

However, he failed completely with the story of how Freyr fell for Gerdr, as told in the Eddic poem Skirnirsmal. He had to put together the Prose Edda version, which focuses on Freyr’s lovesickness, with Skirnirsmal, a dialogue between Gerdr and Freyr’s messenger, Skirnir. In the poem, Gerdr steadfastly refuses to meet with Freyr and has to be coerced into it.

Gaiman focuses on Freyr, and only mentions Skirnir’s meeting with Gerdr so that she can consent immediately. (I kept thinking of the parallel between Freyja’s fury at being married off to a giant and Gerdr’s refusal to marry some distant god she’d never met.)

Don’t allow my carping about Gerdr to put you off reading this book. Gaiman’s version of the Norse myths is an easy, captivating read for children that adults will also enjoy. And if you want a little more background on Norse myths and the society that invented them, read Carolyne Larrington’s book alongside it.

For the image at the top, click here.

One thought on “Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology – a review

  1. lornasmithers

    I’ve recently read this. I’m not actually too familiar with Gaiman’s other work. I thought it was well written and I liked the humour and how he got into the heads of the gods. However, I found them a bit one-dimensional (not knowing the Norse gods I’m not sure if they are in reality) and was hoping for a bit more mysticism. I’d still say it’s a quality work though and more accessible than the Prose and Poetic Eddas.

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