Of gods and men.
I expected to enjoy this book. I mean, I love Neil Gaiman's work and I've always been interested in mythology. I didn't expect that I would love it quite as much as I did though. Of all the books I've reviewed so far this year, Norse Mythology is easily my favorite.
Anyone who has read work by Neil Gaiman before will be familiar with the conversational, humorous way he tends to write. When I first heard of Norse Mythology, I wasn't exactly sure how that tone would fit with such serious subject matter. What I knew of Norse mythology had to do with Valkyries and Ragnarok and dramatic betrayals. It all seemed fairly serious. In a finicky sort of way, I neither wanted Gaiman to write a humorous book nor an entirely serious one. I wanted the quirky tone I was used to from him, but I also didn't want it to feel irreverent. Honestly, I deserved to be disappointed for making such absurd demands of a man I've never met. But, Norse Mythology delivers everything I had hoped for and more.
Gaiman approaches the subject matter with loving care, explaining both his personal interest and the limitations he faced in writing about it, namely the lack of source material to draw from. I was unaware that so much of the Norse canon had been lost to time, and, especially after finishing the book, I mourn the loss of all that could have been. However, in Norse Mythology Gaiman offers a straightforward retelling of those stories which we do still have evidence of. There are many cracks and gaps which he does not try to fill on his own. Instead he takes just enough creative license with each story to make it feel fresh and interesting. Reading through Thor's foibles, the birth of Sleipnir, and the dwarves that made Mjolnir in contemporary and witty English is an unexpected pleasure. Gaiman finds just the right balance between his own voice and the voices of the ancient Norsemen who originally told the tales. There is humor, but there is also honor, glory and grief.
Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a different tale, some shorter and some longer. Even the longer ones are easy to digest though. I finished the entire book in two days, which is something I haven't done in quite a while. Gaiman manages to make the tales, which are not necessarily connected directly to one another either in time or in content, work together as a cohesive whole. We begin in the beginning of creation and end with its destruction, but the intermediate chapters reach back to the beginning and foreshadow the end. They work together to form a narrative arc which is typically absent from stories such as these. For example, from the beginning, the book leaves no doubt as to what path Loki will choose, but with each passing chapter Gaiman still managed to make me hope that he would defy fate and go a different way. If you are familiar with Norse mythology and you're wondering what Gaiman offers that you can't already find online, I think this is it. He gives the entire canon cohesion and narrative drive, as well as emotional depth. He presents the stories in a modern way for a modern audience.
I do feel I must point out that though I have fond memories of reading mythological tales as a child, I wouldn't necessarily recommend Norse Mythology for young audiences. As in Greek mythology where Zeus makes conquests of both a physical and a sexual nature, this book includes both violent and sexual content. It remains true to the source texts and it isn't necessarily graphic, but that doesn't mean it's appropriate for all ages, and it's worth taking note of.
Honestly, I can't recommend it highly enough. It was a smooth and highly entertaining read that left me with a certain wistful fondness for those years so long ago when I first discovered the tales of Hercules and was drawn into the world of mythology. It satisfied a nostalgia that I hadn't even been aware of. That alone made it a worthwhile read for me.
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