When he was growing up, not long after reading Marvel’s Thor, he picked Roger Lancelyn Green’s classic Myths of the Norsemen to learn more about his favorite characters — and found himself fascinated by a vision of Asgard that was nothing like Marvel’s sci-fi space palaces. “It was a bunch of huts with a wall round them. Thor was now red-bearded, irritable, muscly, zooming around the sky in a chariot pulled by goats, and not necessarily the brightest hammer in the bag.”
That childhood fascination informs Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology, a lively, funny and very human rendition of Thor the thunder god, his father Odin and and the dark-hearted trickster Loki (plus countless other gods and monsters). Most of what we know about the Norse pantheon comes from the Eddas, two massive works of medieval Icelandic literature that date from the 13th century — but there are countless stories that have not survived.
Gaiman captures the writing style of a mythology book while adding his own flair for prose. The author has always had a deft hand with the grim and violent. He knows when to be explicit, when to be subtle, and his take on the Norse gods handles this just as well. Neil Gaiman is no stranger to third-person omniscient point-of-view for his books but pick-up a book of Greek Mythology, Celtic Mythology, or even the Bible and you’ll notice that style Neil Gaiman is capturing. It’s that use of proper nouns more often than pronouns that tell us these figures are important.
Less than three hundred pages went by in a flash and left me wanting more stories and of different gods. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is mostly the Thor, Loki, and Odin show with some bits of other gods, giants, elves, and dwarves thrown about. On the other hand, the author makes this clear when they’re the only three gods who are introduced at length in the beginning of the book. If he didn’t make tales of myth so entertaining then this wouldn’t even be a valid critique.
That’s one of the major differences between this and other books on Norse Mythology, in that besides adding the flourish that is associated with Gaiman he also adds his wit. The gods, even stern Odin, are actually quite funny. The Allfather has that dry sense of humor, his blood brother Loki is clever with his wit, while his son Thor has the humor of a boisterous loudmouth.
The stories both stand on their own and interweave together beginning with the creation of the world and the end of it. It is Thor who gives the best advice in The Treasures of the Gods you can carry with you as a theme for the rest of the book. In it, he tells his wife Sif when she asks why he blames Loki for some misfortune
“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”
As much as this version of Thor is dumber than a bag of hammers, in this respect, he is right.
My personal opinion is that this book (at £15 for 268 pages) was a complete waste of money. The writing, while appealing to children, has nothing entertaining for adults. I went through the stories like a hot knife through butter and when it was done, I felt this churning in my stomach telling me I was not satisfied with the stories. They had no moral outcome, no code, no insight into characters. When Thor and his boisterous brothers and cousins did not want to pay up or be honourable (like give Freya to a giant who was building a wall), they went off and either killed the people they owed or involved Loki so he would deceive them out of their prize.
The only good thing about the book is to serve as a companion guide to American Gods to see Wednesday slightly different and see what Shadow did at the end. Otherwise, complete faff. Even my encyclopedia of Norse and Celtic Gods had better stories. Save your money and buy something else.