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I'm in the midst of helping to organize Word, a literary arts festival debuting in Blue Hill, Maine, October 20-22. (Check it out here: www.wordfestival.org) Life is fraught, so it's nice to settle down at night with a wolf who wants to eat the moon. Also to read about Ragnarok, which is so awful it seems churlish to complain about October's dying of the light.
Anyway, read on, and don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. Happy Halloween!
By Neil Gaiman
W.W. Norton & Co, 2017
For those of dinosaur mentality, Thomas Bulfinch is the go-to source for news about Thor and Odin and Loki. (Not to mention Arthur, Charlemagne, and all those Greek guys.) Forget Marvel Comics. Forget Chris Hemsworth. For us, 1881 is where it’s at. (Being a modern, can-do woman, my edition of Bulfinch dates from 1913.)
That’s all changed now.
For future generations, Neil Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY may very well be the definitive version. He tells the stories straight—this is not AMERICAN GODS or ANANSI BOYS, the novels that made his name by bringing gods to life. But he’s a marvelous writer, far more graceful and giving than Bulfinch. And he knows these guys well, especially Thor and Loki, the best (maybe the only) real characters. He says he’s been obsessed with these gods since the age of seven.
He’s comfortable sharing the character insights he’s gleaned. “That was the thing about Loki,” he notes after the trickster has provided the gods with their hallmark treasures but cheated to do it. “You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”
Where Bulfinch devotes a paragraph to the god Frey’s courtship of the beautiful giantess Gerda, Gaiman gives us nine pages, introducing the love story by telling us, charmingly, that handsome and mighty Frey “was missing something in his life , and he did not know what it was.”
To win Gerda, Frey gives up his sword, a magical weapon so powerful it can fight by itself. The story ends with ominous regret. “Ragnarok is coming. When the sky splits asunder and the dark powers of Muspell march out on their war journey, Frey will wish he still had his sword.”
These are fun and funny stories, but they are not cheery. They never have been. When gods have children, they’re likely to come out weird—Loki’s include the Midgard Serpent, the snake that encircles the human world; Hel, the half-girl/half-corpse who runs the underworld; and Fenrir, the giant wolf who wants to eat the sun and moon. Ragnarok, the final battle between gods and giants that will end everything in fire and fury, is always looming, although supposedly the world is reborn after the cataclysm. (Hollow reassurance, since we’ll all be dead.)
Writing in The Guardian last March, Ursula K. Le Guin complained that, while Gaiman’s humor and fluent writing make these Norse stories suitable for children as well as adults, he minimizes the “strangeness” of the religion being depicted, with its bleak view of the world and its future. “I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.”
I can see her point from a scholar’s perspective, and I did feel a certain lack of red meat here, despite Hel the half-corpse. But I’m glad Gaiman opted for accessibility. He’s clearly written the tales to be read aloud, one at a time—he keeps repeating facts from two tales ago, in case we’re reading one a night and have forgotten who’s who.
These are wonderful stories and, with the Greek myths, form the basis for much of European culture. Gaiman is helping to keep them alive in something close to their pre-Hemsworth form. And for that I’m grateful.