Thursday, January 17, 2019

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is the first book I read in 2019, after the end of my Book-a-Day run for 2018. And it took me until the 9th to get through a short book made up of short, quick-read chapters -- as I expected, the reading backlash hit hard.

(My hope, going forward, is to read one substantial book a week, a novel or similar-length non-fiction work, and to mix in comics around that as I can. We'll have to see if that happens.)

Gaiman is a excellent writer to read when you're not sure what you want to read...or if you actually want to read anything at all. His prose here, as always, is crisp and slightly wry, with sentences like potato chips -- it's always easier to just keep going on and read the next one. He's a writer whose depths can be missed by the unwary: each word is chosen precisely, and there's always an attitude and a viewpoint embedded in those words for readers who pay attention -- but, on the surface, he's telling a story cleanly and quickly, about larger-than-life characters and their quirky exploits.

Norse Mythology was his new book for 2017; I read it in the trade paperback edition that came out a year later. (The longer I'm out of the fiction publishing business, the longer I seem to wait to read things -- if I can't get bound galleys before publication, I guess, I'll wait until the next edition in a similar format.)

I'm calling it "Fantasy" for my tags, here, but it's more accurately myth -- these are stories that we think people took seriously, and believed in at least on some metaphoric level, which is not the same as a clearly fictional work of fantasy. But all of Norse myth that we have available has been through a number of ferocious filters of Christianity and time and a long oral tradition, so it is closer to literature than religious text to begin with -- as if all we had of Greek myth were half of Ovid -- and Gaiman's work here is to retell those stories, as purely and cleanly as he can, in modern language for the people who like Neil Gaiman books.

Gaiman has an introduction up front where he admits that his first encounter with this world was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which is probably common for a lot of his generation. (I think I first met Thor, Odin and Loki in the back of Edith Hamilton; I didn't read superhero comics much as a kid. But I'm also a decade or so younger than Gaiman.) His version, though, is directly from the original sources, the Elder and Younger Eddas, with the stories pulled out into individual named chapters.

As Gaiman notes in his introduction, we have lost most of this mythology: we know a lot of names and some representative stories, but that's about it. The core of the mythology seems to still be extant, the accounts of the beginning and ending of the world, but it's difficult to say if Odin and Thor and Loki really were the most important gods in the pantheon, or if they're just the ones whose stories happened to be most prominent in those two Eddas.

But that's what Gaiman has to work with, and he does it well, beginning with the first giant Ymir and the creation or discovery of the nine worlds and continuing to Ragnarok, the end of this set of things. (Not of all things: this is a cynical-destruction universe, in which a small piece makes it out of the total destruction to see the next cycle. You can call that optimism, if you like.)

Gaiman's tone, particularly in the initial chapter where he introduces the gods, can seem like he's talking to children, but I don't think that's his intention. Gaiman is aiming for a storyteller voice, one that is informative and teaching, but not necessarily teaching an audience that is new to the stories. It may be more colloquial than readers of Edith Hamilton or Bulfinch expect, but this is a new retelling for a new age: every age gets the eternal stories told again in its own words.

As usual, Gaiman's words are good ones, and his stories are told sturdily. These are things he cares about and is interested in and wants to do right. It is not a novel. But fans of Gaiman's fiction will probably find much to like here as well.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Perhaps worth cross-referencing Ada Palmer's song cycle "Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok" (recorded by her vocal group Sassafrass and performed by a subset of the group at at least two Worldcons) and also, for the few days that it's still up, the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Gaiman's version.

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