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Book review: Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman delves into the stories of the gods that humans cared little for

Neil Gaiman’s own introduction to the Norse gods was through Thor.
Neil Gaiman’s own introduction to the Norse gods was through Thor.

In Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman swings back to the characters he had begun his career with. In the early 1990s, Gaiman was writing The Sandman for DC Comics, and he brought Odin, Thor and Loki on as supporting characters. Marvel Comics’ blond and noble-thinking Thor had served as Gaiman’s own introduction to the Norse gods, but Gaiman had gone on to read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths Of The Norsemen, and introduced comics readers to Norse gods who more closely resembled the ones from Green’s book: a drunk and aggressive Thor and a devious Odin. Gaiman also added his own twist to the myths, bringing Loki back in the climax of Sandman to be outsmarted by an even more twisted trickster.

Almost a decade later, Gaiman, by then a novelist, revisited the Norse pantheon in his American Gods. Here, he took even more liberties with them, dropping Odin into turn-of-the-millennium US, and turning him into a down-and-out conman called Mr Wednesday.

Now, Gaiman has written his own edition of the Norse myths for a popular audience. The language is a little more contemporary, Gaiman has included those myths that Green would have left out of a children’s edition, and his writing reflects modern concerns a little more. But the myths are the original ones, if one can use that word. A more accurate phrasing would be to say that these are the oldest myths that we know of. As Gaiman points out, we may never know the original myths, or even if there ever was an original myth. For as Scandinavia Christianized, the temples and rituals for the old gods were forgotten, or passed into folk tales and customs.

Norse Mythology: By Neil Gaiman, Bloomsbury, 304 pages, 499.

All that we have are the myths collected in the Eddas, medieval collections of Icelandic poetry, and their echoes in Scandinavian folk tales about giant-slayers. For all we know, there may be older myths that were never collected or written down. The myths that did survive, and made it to Gaiman’s book, leave us wondering if the Norse gods are even gods as we understand them today. Gaiman writes in his introduction that the Norse “did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them". But the gods themselves, unlike the Greek or Hindu gods who pick sides in human struggles or respond to their devotees’ prayers, don’t really care what humans do. They welcome dead humans to their domains, or occasionally bestow gifts on humans, but for the most part, the gods are only bothered with squabbling with each other, and warring with giants or trolls.

Even the god-giant conflict shows the Norse gods to be strangely underpowered. The devas are always more powerful than the asuras, and an asura usually becomes powerful enough to threaten them only by first obtaining a boon from the devas themselves. But the Norse gods seem to be evenly matched, and are often outsmarted by their rivals, the giants. Nor are the gods very clever or creative. That is the province of the dwarves, who create Thor’s mighty hammer, and the secret of poetry.

Nor do these myths show that the wars with the giants are in any way righteous, or that the gods are more moral than the giants. The gods rely on Thor’s strength—which he often uses to commit unprovoked murder—or Loki and Odin’s cunning. Odin will lie, cheat, or defraud his enemies in an ends-justify-the-means frenzy; and Loki will behave just as badly, just for fun.

Immoral and amoral, the Norse gods are terrible role models, but serve as wonderful literary characters.

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