There was a moment during Neil Gaiman’s latest book, a novelistic retelling of Norse myths, where I couldn’t help but burst into laughter. It was during a chapter called “Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition,” in which Thor and several other gods arrive at the great hall of the sea giant Aegir and demand a feast. The giant is understandably put off by this intrusion, so he says he’ll host them, if Thor brings him a cauldron big enough to brew sufficient beer for the gods. The gods normally drink a lot of beer, so that would be a massive cauldron. But eventually the gang remembers that a king named Hymir owns a cauldron three miles deep, and they set off to borrow it. By the time Thor finally makes off with it, oxen have been punched, giants have been slaughtered, and sea serpents have been caught on a fishing trip. This kind of absurdity makes Norse Mythology a fantastic, funny, and sometimes sobering read.
Mediterranean legends like The Iliad and The Odyssey usually get more attention than Norse myth, and show up more often school curricula. Speaking before an audience in New York City recently, Gaiman said, “Greek myths are full of sex and peacocks… there’s lots of sitting outside and falling in love with your own reflection.” Germanic stories from up north have a rougher edge, and Gaiman’s new book gives gods such as Thor, Odin, and Loki their due.
These are the types of stories that Gaiman excels at: the author of popular comics such as Sandman, and novels such as American Gods, Neverwhere, Coraline, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he’s pulled in influences from the Norse mythos in many of his works.
Norse Mythology is Gaiman’s attempt to retell many of the original Norse myths in a modern narrative, from the world’s birth to its apocalypse, Ragnarok. In his introduction, he says, “There are so many Norse stories we do not have, so much we do not know. All we have are some myths that have come to us in the form of folktales, in retellings, in poems, in prose.” But Gaiman makes the stories that remain into something engaging and entertaining to read. His collection of connected stories jump between comic, flat-out serious, and soberingly tragic tales.
Overall, these are tales of clever beings who roam the world, looking for adventures: there are treks into Giant territory, kidnapped gods, epic weddings, and lots of trickery. Odin, Thor, and Loki, the most recognizable of the Norse gods, are the focus of many of these tales. Odin, father of the gods, is wise. Thor is brave and strong, and likes to hit things with his hammer, Mjölnir. Loki the trickster is smart and devious, and frequently causes trouble for the gods for his own gain or simply for his amusement. But there are other gods out there as well: Balder, Odin’s son; Freya, goddess of beauty; Tyr, a one-handed god of war.
Some of the tales are outlandish, like “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” where Thor dresses up as a bride to steal back Mjölnir after it was stolen by an ogre who wanted to marry Freya. Others are more serious, like “The Children of Loki,” which explains how one of Loki’s children, Hel, came to rule the underworld. “Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods” is an epic battle at the end of the world, while “The Last Days of Loki,” where Loki is horribly tortured for his misdeeds, is pure tragedy.
Norse Mythology doesn’t cover the entire body of Norse folklore, but it’s a great general introduction. From there, you can move to other books of translated poetry, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, and one of my personal favorites, Andvari’s Ring — a century-old translation by Arthur Peterson that deals with some of the same characters, magical rings, and great feasts. What Gaiman does include, however, are fantastic stories that tell the origins of many of these gods, and channels them neatly into a start-to-finish arc.
In the introduction, Gaiman says he was introduced to Norse mythology through Jack Kirby’s comics. In the same way, younger people today may only know Thor and Loki through their appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. For those newer entrants into the mythic world, Norse Mythology is a wonderful introduction. It connects all of the major players and worlds of the Norse, and spins them out in a format that’s far less daunting than my century-old book of epic poetry.