Novel November

Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I've always loved mythology. Mostly the Greeks. Hercules and Odysseus and Jason and Perseus. All I knew of Norse mythology I learned from Marvel comics or Dungeons and Dragons manuals. Which meant I really knew nothing at all. I gathered from his comics that Gaiman knew everything about Thor and Odin, so I was eager to dive into this book. But I was, how should I say this, underwhelmed.

First, it’s a Neil Gaiman book, written in his wonderful, tight, sparing voice. The imagery is precise, the word choice perfect. It feels open, light, simple yet deep. Like a stream that knows its way to the ocean, moving with deliberate effort to become something larger. I listened to it as an audiobook, read by Neil himself, which meant I didn’t have to stumble over the difficult spellings and pronunciations of the Norse names and titles. But, but… It isn’t a Gaiman story. It’s Gaiman telling stories that originated wholly from outside his own mind and spirit. Even in comics and other novels where he uses these same characters, he uses them to tell his own stories, to stand behind characters of his own creation. That’s what I wanted, but it’s something that, by the fact of what it is, this book was never going to be.

These stories cover the creation of the universe and the birth of the gods--which all seems to happen by accident with no single, inciting event--to the death of the gods, which was foretold almost the moment they took their first breaths. The narratives in between seem to build upon one another--we see Thor obtain his famous hammer then put it to use killing giants and monsters--but there’s not really a through line. There’s no plot that stitches the stories together, just details here and there that call back to events of various importance. That would be fine if the characters were likable, but they’re not. Thor is kind of dumb and very violent. Odin is wise but cruel. Loki is always an absolute ass to everyone. They’re consistent, but they are all reprehensible. The gods as a collective hire someone to build a wall around their fortress but have no intention of ever paying him, and when he completes the work they kill him rather than pay the reward they promised. In one story, Odin tricks a group of slaves into falling on a scythe and killing themselves. That section really made me uncomfortable. Sure they were giants, sworn enemies of the gods, but they were slaves. They had done nothing to deserve death, but Odin killed every single one of them, and he did it so as to cause them maximum embarrassment. And if you consider that the Norse gods value death in battle over all else and consider any death off the battlefield to be unworthy, he intentionally gave the slaves the most inglorious, dishonorable death imaginable. He didn’t have to do that. His whole purpose was simply to remove them so he could make a bet that he could complete all of their workload alone. He could have just paid them to leave, or set them free. They were slaves after all, not fieldhands struggling to maintain a job. The gods do these kind of things throughout the book, and we’re supposed to care about them.

All these stories are about the gods themselves. There are very few human characters, and they don’t get to do very much. When I listed my favorite Greek myths, you’ll notice I only named humans (or at the most demigods in the case of Hercules). The Greek gods were just as vain and petulant as the Norse ones, but the Greek stories of the human champions contained real pathos, real struggles. Hercules dies in his story and gets turned into a constellation. Thor and Loki suffer from time to time, but nothing permanent. Okay, they all kick the celestial bucket when Ragnarok rolls around, but the whole point of Ragnarok is that it may or may not have happened yet. Gaiman tells it in future tense, and it could be thousands of years before it takes place. It’s not till the final few stories when the gods do actually start dying that I was able to muster any feelings for them. Even when they suffer wounds or permanent afflictions in the body of the text, they still get to be gods, still get to do whatever they want, still get to be the best and strongest and smartest and richest and luckiest of all creatures. Odysseus, however, is away from his family for a decade and has to battle a hundred suitors to regain his wife and son. Thor just farts and blows his nose, and all is back to better again.

Another thing that sets these stories apart from Greek myths are the rules that govern them. Here, whenever you start to wonder how they could possibly get out of the current sticky situation, they just use magic. And magic can do anything. In one story, a character says, I’ll just make myself as big as a mountain. Done. Not that the Greeks are immune to this storytelling cheapness, but there are many instances where the rules are explained, and the characters devise a reasonable-sounding solution to their predicament. When Hercules fights the hydra and sees two heads sprout anew every time he slices one off, he uses his noggin and cauterizes the stump with fire so no further heads can grow. It works as a plot point. But when you can literally bend the laws of nature as happens no many times in Norse Mythology, the stakes dwindle to nothing.

I don’t like these gods, and I don’t like what they do. I wanted human stories with actual consequences. Gaiman does admit that most of the Norse stories were lost over time. Only this handful of tales exist, and they just happen to be about gods rather than people. In the final chapter, Gaiman describe Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods prophesied to take place in the distant future. As one deity after another shuffled off this mortal coil, all I could think was good riddance to bad gods.

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