Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

(8.8/10)

Gaiman is, without a doubt, one of the most multi-talented writers alive today. I don’t say this out of a sense of personal bias, but with a degree of objectivity. Not only has he written fantastic comics, intelligent children’s stories and detailed novels about the nature of godhood (even if I didn’t personally enjoy them all), he has also adapted Norse mythology and re-written it with his modern stylish flair.

He really is a talented man; he is capable of that rare, rare, thing of being able to write fiction that is worthy of literary criticism but is also ridiculously popular and, well, just plain cool. He has many years of writing ahead of him (I hope.) And I don’t think it is too far a thing to suggest that he may win the Nobel Prize for Literature in his lifetime. He has contributed much to the arts, and this work here shows he has much more to give. I think he really deserves it.

So here he has retold some already excellent stories. In doing so he makes them approachable and, perhaps even, more engaging for a reader today. I do like old poetry, though not everyone does. I think this can be taken as either an introduction to such works or simply as it is at face value. And it really is what it says on the cover: it’s a whole bunch or Norse stories about some familiar faces. We have Odin, conniving and powerful. We have Thor, strong and honourable. And we have Loki, cunning and ingenious with his own complex intentions. They do battle with each other, with the elements and a whole host of nasties. But not before Gaiman takes the time to provide you with guided tour of Yggdrasil and the nine worlds that take root from her. He clearly establishes the origins of this mythology before he even begins.

The collection ends with the most appropriate tale of them all, Ragnarok: the final destiny of the gods. He spends the entirety of the collection building up to it; thus, we witness the end of time. The gods fight in one final glorious battle. Loki, naturally, does not fight with the gods of Asgard. Instead he leads the armies of the dead against them. Many of the gods will die, and the pattern will begin anew as their offspring pick up the weapons of their slain forbears; ultimately, taking on their mantels. The cycle continues, as Gaiman captures the heart of Norse mythology here.

What I also noticed is how these tales have affected his other works. Sure, the characters are different; yes, the setting is warped into something else, but I can clearly see how writing this, and researching this, has oozed out into his other projects. These ideas of rejuvenation are repeated in the Sandman series, for example. Gaiman also narrates his personal journey in the introduction; this book has been a long time coming: this topic has clearly helped to propel much of his writing, and it really is worth hearing about.
Sean Barrs, 8.5/10

Huginn and Muninn, the Eyes of Thought and Mind; Freyr the Blade that stands alone; Mjolnir, Thunder, strength and devastator. Gods bloodied and wounded, that live and die. Tales of the worlds birth, its shaping and ultimate end. Countless years in the making, Neil Gaiman has given us a fresh eye on the stories of Norse mythology; tales of Odin, Thor, Loki and a pantheon of other gods, giants, and monsters, that every great Mythos has and needs. 

Gaiman's Norse Mythology is an uncomplicated retelling of classic Norse tales, with easily digestible stories, well written, and given the author that is not hard to understand, aimed at readers of mythology and fantasy alike.

Over the last few years, there has been resurgence across the general populace in the tales and retellings of mythology and Norse Mythology in particular due to the success of the movies like Thor and Avengers. Comic books - or graphic novel if that is your preference - have been around for a lot longer, however the movies have made figures such as Thor more commonplace. There is no comparison between Neil Gaiman's retelling and movie characters, however the Norse Mythology narrative could be said to be aimed at the readers who are only familiar with the characters from movies and comics, offering them stories with a truer portrayal and a deeper root in their past.

Thor, Loki, Odin etc become more than colourful Gods, more than the personifications of righteous or mischievous power, they step down from the screen and out from the page to become real, capricious, short sighted and impulsive. The retelling outlays the interpretations of a people and their society as they define their lives and the world around them, placing their trust, fear and worship at times in equal measure in the Gods that rule over them.

An interesting result of my reading was the perspective and reference of own pre-existing knowledge around mythology. Not really a surprise given each reader's own understanding and background. As a person who enjoys his mythology the interconnection I feel appeared with other mythos was fun. Take Odin's spear Gungnir; its properties include the ability that it doesn't miss its target once thrown and returns to the hand of its wielder. The interconnection that came to me was in Irish mythology where there is the Gae Derg, or The Red Javelin, which once cast would find its enemy no matter where they hide. Continuing along these lines in another Irish mystical object, is the Cauldron of the Dagda, whose power is that it is bottomless and you can continually eat or drink from it. This symbolism aligns, I think, nicely with the Cauldron of Mymor in Norse mythos, which the Gods used to brew ale and they could drink all they wanted and the ale never ran out.

One of the bonuses of Neil Gaiman’s interpretation I feel would be that if you wanted to get a child's (or man-child’s) head out of the comic or away from the screen then this would be a great transition material, it's a simple, straight forward telling. It is poetic, but relatable, as well as enchanting, while being honest to the nature of Gods.

Would I have had it a little darker, or maybe a little more longer, yes, but that is a personal preference and not a commentary on the book, which full of stories both childish, bloody and raw all in the same telling. One such story that pops to mind using this description centres on a bet the Gods take with a Stranger to build a siege wall. Upon close completion of the wall and the collection of his prize it is up to Loki to ensure the stranger loses the bet. To do this Loki transforms himself into a stunning mare so that he may entice and draw away a stallion that provides the heavy lifting for the Stranger. Catching the attention of the stallion Mare Loki and he run off to the forest. When the Stranger loses the bet and their identity is exposed, Thor is called by the other Gods to kill the Stranger. Some months later Loki returns with a new foal he names as his child, sired by the Strangers stallion. A simple tale, of greed, oath breaking and Loki as a female horse who gives birth to an eight-legged foal.

Norse Mythology is a polished and well-crafted piece of storytelling and I would recommend it to all. As an added bonus, for those who prefer audio books, the Norse Mythology audiobook is spoken by Neil Gaiman himself.

Fergus McCartan, 9/10

As a side entry for the most my pronunciation and reading of the Norse words was passable, however there was a few I did have issue with (I had hoped there would be a phonetic appendix) so I looked them up. As a benefit I thought I would like the ones I at least had issue with:

aegir = e-jeer
aesir = a-seer
angrboda = ang-boda
bolverkr = bull-vic
breidablink = bri-dav-a-lick
Draupnir = draw-ub-near
Eitri= E-tree
Farbauti=far-butty
Fjalar=fa-jal-r
fjolnir=fa-nul-near
Ginnungagap=Gin-young-gaw-ga
Gleipnir = Gil-ipe-near
hlidskjalf= Huds-julf
hvergelmir =her-gal-mir
jormungundr = Hor-man-gun-der
Jotunheim = Yo-dan-heim
Kvasir = vas-sear
Naglfar = nag-wa-far
Skidbladnir = Skid-blad-nir
Thiazi= Thigh -a-ze

Reviews by and Fergus McCartan

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Norse Mythology reader reviews

from Scotland

What a fantastic retelling of Norse Myths. It features such characters as Odin, Thor and Loki along with a host of other lesser known gods and characters. Gaiman does his best to stick to the source material and not stray too far from the myths themselves, writing it in his own language which really brings the stories to life. By doing this, Gaiman has written the perfect place to start if you want to learn more about Norse Mythology in my view. What really added to my enjoyment was that I had read the Poetic Edda before this, so I had an inclination as to which myths would get the Gaiman treatment. It’s basically a collection of short stories, with a large Ragnarok story at the end. Amongst my favourites were: • How Thor receives Mjollnir (Treasures of the Gods) • When Thor has to dress up as a bride to get Mjollnir back (Freya’s unusual wedding) • The story of the cauldron the Gods want so they can get drunk a lot (Hymir and Thor’s fishing expedition) • The mead of Poetry (Mead of poets) My favourite though, was Thor’s journey to the land of the giants. It’s one of the longer tales in the book where Thor and his companions are put through their paces in a number of physical contests. Gaiman stays true to how the characters are described within the ancient myths. The characters are different to what people have come to expect from Marvel films. Thor is a bit of a dumb meat head. Odin is treacherous and ultimately clever. Loki is even more conniving than the film/comic book version. Gaiman starts the book by saying that Norse myths are his favourites, and this shows with the level of care he gives the source material whilst adding his own spin to the tales. Norsemen also play a large part in American Gods. I listened to this on audiobook and Gaiman’s narration is great. Something really special happens when writers narrate their own works. The passion comes across when they read their own works. I’d recommend any of Gaiman’s audiobooks. Final thought Gaiman has definitely drank from Odin’s Gift (from the nice end!) and this is a must-read for anyone interested in Norse / Viking history. I already want to reread this, it was that good and it’s short enough to be read in a couple of days.

8.9/10 from 2 reviews

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