Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

Norse Mythology

Review by Ann Skea

Norse Mythology.
Neil Gaiman.
Bloomsbury. 2019. 282 pp.
ISBN 978 1 5266 1921 1.

Before the beginning there was nothing—no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.

But even before this beginning, which opens the first chapter of Neil Gaiman's re-telling of the Norse myths, he has introduced the three most important characters: Odin ("the all-father"), Thor ("the thunderer"), and Loki, ("the trickster"). And already he is a beguiling story-teller, quickly revealing their strengths and weaknesses but also offering asides like that in which he describes Loki's mother, Laufey, as being "known as Nal, or needle, because she was slim and beautiful and sharp." No wonder, then, that "Loki is more cunning, subtler, trickier than any god or giant. Not even Odin is as cunning as Loki" (which throws a new light on Odin as well).

Gaiman's chapters are short and compact and easy reading. Having described what happened "Before the Beginning and After," he then tells us about the creation of "Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds."

As the mist world and the fire world meet, a creature named Ymir is formed. So, too, is the giant cow, Audhumla, who licks Buri, the ancestor of the gods, from the ice. Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve are born, and when Odin kills Ymir, our own world is created from his bones, blood, teeth, eyelashes, and brain:

Look up at the sky: you are looking at the inside of Ymir's skull... And the clouds you see by day? Those were once Ymir's brains, and who knows what they are thinking even now.

Odin, Vili, and Ve create our first ancestors, Ash and Embla, from the wood of the Ash and the Elm. And as the worlds are made ready for the gods and their enemies and allies, we learn of Yggdrasil, the mighty tree which links the nine worlds together. So much happens in this chapter, and there are so many unfamiliar names that it is, perhaps, the most difficult to remember. But for the rest of the book, each chapter is filled with action, drama, excitement, and terrors, as Gaiman brings the gods, the giants, the elves, and all the other inhabitants of these nine worlds to life.

There are battles, bloodshed, magic, trickery, feats of bravery, endurance, betrayal, and love—all the things that have kept these stories alive since they were first told in the lands of the Vikings. Gaiman has woven together the prose and poetic Norse Eddas and has brought his own great story-telling gifts to the re-telling.

He seems to have known Odin and Thor and Loki personally, and he is willing to tell us their secrets. He casually lets us know, for example, that before the mighty Thor acquired his indestructible, ever-accurate, boomeranging hammer, Mjollnir, he had "broken a great many weapons over the years, normally by hitting things with them," and that "he had lost a number of otherwise excellent weapons by throwing them at things which irritated him and missing."

We hear, too, that Loki's children, the dangerous, giant wolf Fenrir, the disfigured daughter, Hel, and the Midgard Serpent, were the result of an adulterous liaison with the frost giantess, Angrboda, and that Loki's loyal wife, Sigyn, "who had been happy and beautiful when Loki courted and married her," now "always looked like she was expecting bad news."

Loki, of course, is a likeable villain. He is handsome, plausible, and convincing. He shape-shifts, "drinks too much," and "makes the world more interesting but less safe." He is scary, understandable, and often funny.

Thor, too, has a dark sense of humor. Thor knows that it is Loki who, overnight, has stolen his wife's beautiful golden hair, because "when something goes wrong, the first thing I think of is, it is Loki's fault. It saves a lot of time." He shatters Loki's front door and storms into Loki's house, holds Loki above his head, extracts a confession, and threatens him:

"She won't go through life bald," said Thor. "Because, Loki Laufey's son, if you do not put her hair back right now, I am going to break every single bone in your body. Each and every one of them. And if her hair does not grow properly, I will come back and break every bone in your body again. And again. If I do it every day, I'll soon get really good at it," he carried on, sounding slightly more cheerful.

"No!" said Loki. "I can't put her hair back. It doesn't work like that."

"Today," mused Thor. "It will probably take me about an hour to break every bone in your body. But I bet that with practice I could get it down to about fifteen minutes. It will be interesting to find out."

Gaiman makes all the well-known stories full of new interest, and he tells others which are not so well known. My favorite is the story of the way the poets' mead is made, stolen by the giant, Suttung, and re-stolen by Odin after a shape-shifting chase. The twist at the end, which beautifully characterizes the world's worst poets, suggests Gaiman is enjoying himself immensely.

Gaiman's final chapter, "Ragnarok The Final Destiny of the Gods," is compelling and exciting. "That is the end," he writes. "But there is also what will come after the end." And in the final lines of his story, he provides an imaginative, moving, and very satisfying conclusion to his story-telling.


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