Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman / *****

norsemythology_hardback_1473940163It’s been kind of wonderful to see Neil Gaiman’s reaction to the runaway success of Norse Mythology, a book that, to be fair, really shouldn’t be as popular as it is. Let’s be clear – Norse Mythology isn’t a new novel from Gaiman, isn’t a new collection of stories. Rather, it’s exactly what the title suggests: a retelling of Norse myths by Gaiman himself, infusing the rich, vibrant Norse myths with his own dry humor and rich storytelling voice. And while the book is undeniably wonderful, you can’t help but understand where Gaiman is coming from. Books of mythology aren’t exactly your typical bestsellers, give or take a Rick Riordan novel, and Norse myths even less so – they’ve never had the cultural cachet of the Greek and Roman gods.

And yet, in many ways, that’s what makes Norse Mythology such a rewarding read. Oh, yes, there’s Gaiman’s inimitable voice, which brings these tales to life as they’ve rarely been done before; with his direct, demanding Thor, his sneaky Loki, and the menagerie of creatures and tales at his disposal, Norse Mythology feels undeniably like the work of the same man who wrote American Gods and Sandman. (Indeed, any fan of American Gods will be thrilled to see the origins of some of that book’s odder scenes here.) Gaiman’s love of myth and archetype is long since established, but his joy in exploring this vein of stories really comes through in every page.

But more than that, Norse Mythology works partially because of its novelty. Most of us don’t know much about the Norse myths beyond what we’ve gained from Marvel’s version of Thor and Loki (a starting point Gaiman himself shares, as he discusses in his introduction), which means that these aren’t stories we know that well. That allows the book to feel fresh and new in a way that Greek myths might not, telling stories we don’t already know – everything from the origins of poetry in the world to the creation of the wall around the world, from the beginning of it all to the final battle, Ragnarok. And in Gaiman’s hands, it’s all exciting, funny, charming, and utterly magical.

More than that, though, the Norse myths don’t feel like the myths we know – and while some of that is no doubt to Gaiman’s style, much of that comes from the characters themselves, who cheat, sneak, steal, battle, and betray every bit as much as humans, maybe even more so. These are universal tales, ones that play off of classical archetypes, but plunge us into a world most of us have no knowledge of. And if Gaiman takes a little too long to set it up (the first couple of chapters, which familiarize us with the world and the cast of characters, are undeniably a bit dry, but worth powering through to the first real tales), that’s okay; we need our chance to get our bearings.

So, yes, Norse Mythology is a hit, and while it may be an unlikely one, it’s not an undeserving one. It’s pure Gaiman, in terms of theme and feel; while he may not have written the plots here, they reflect his love of myth and legend, his unique sensibility, and his ability to combine the archetypal and the personal into something rich. And more than that, it’s a window into history, belief, and religion of a sort that many of us never know. It’s a wonderful read, and deserves all of its success and then some.


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