About a week and a half ago, when I was struggling to find my next read, Sir Betrothed handed me Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. The Nordic culture and history is very near and dear to Sir Betrothed as it is a part of his heritage and identity. When his favourite author wrote a book about his favourite mythos, he snagged it and read it at once. Since then (mid-2017), he has been trying to get me to read this book. So, I accepted and when I finished the book a few days ago, I felt silly for not having read it sooner!
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman is a British collection of tales from the Norse mythos that begins with the creation of the world and takes the reader through a journey that ends with the tale of Ragnarok, or Doom’s Day for the gods. It is written from Gaiman’s interpretation and understanding of the stories, which is quite close to the original sources, The Prose Edda, and The Poetic Edda.
The first thing that I noticed about these stories was how fast and easy they were to read. Honestly, this caught me off-guard as Gaiman is known for having meticulous and slow-paced prose. It usually takes me approximately half an hour to get through twenty to thirty pages of one of his books, however, with Norse Mythology, I blew through seventy pages in less than an hour. The way he presents the tales are beautifully accessible, making them available to readers of almost any age. The Norse mythos can be quite convoluted, so being able to read them in such a simple manner was a pleasant surprise to say the least.
In the “Introduction,” Gaiman chats a bit about reading the Norse tales as a kid and how growing up they were some of his favourite kinds of mythology to read. His personal experience and passion with this specific subgenre of mythology was considered when writing, and he makes sure to the tell readers that this book and this interpretation should not be compared to the originals as it is so very intimate but looked upon as more of a collection that is inspired by them. I respect authors who take the time to explain their motives and inspiration behind writing, especially when it involves a subject that is open to many different editions and explanations. It helps to create a personal connection between the author, the book, and its reader. I felt as if I was getting a glimpse into the mind of Neil Gaiman, which only added to the book’s appeal for me. I also respect him for not having an introduction laced with spoilers. You would be surprised how many authors just spill all the goodies in the forward, which makes reading the book itself pointless.
Some of the more technical elements of the book that are remarkable include the stories themselves. While presented as short stories, they are all interconnected in one way or another. The book starts by sharing the Creation of the World and then as each story unfolds, a new event or set of characters are revealed that will later impact or make an appearance on the upcoming tales. When we read the story of “Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods,” everything comes full circle, even the tiniest of details that felt to be irrelevant earlier on. In this way, as a reader the title never felt like a collection of tales, but instead a full-sized novel examining the origins and lives of a severely dysfunctional all-powerful family.
As I mentioned earlier, all the events are written in a simple and easy-to-understand manner. Gaiman never uses overtly complex or ridiculously difficult words and phrases to describe anything. Instead, his prose is that of a parent telling their child a bedtime story. This works marvellously for multiple reasons. Firstly, it gives a basic and straightforward picture of what the mythos entails and what is going on. Secondly, it outlines all the major events and characters in a way that make it, not only effortless when thinking about them chronologically, but also painless to research whichever characters or events interest you most (which I totally did). Thirdly, it is very entertaining to read out loud and share with the family. Lastly, it makes it the perfect place to start reading about Norse mythology to see if it is your cup of chai or not.
One of my biggest issues with reading mythology in general is that (usually) no matter which book you pick up, they always expect you to already have some minor knowledge of the lore. Rarely, can I find a book that approaches the subject matter with the beginner in mind. Norse Mythology does exactly that. It is crafted with beautiful care and keeps in mind that those who pick up the book may not be well-versed in its contents at all. You can get a taste and fundamental understanding of the foundation for this mythology, which helps you decide if you want to continue and learn more, or realise it just is not for you. It is by far the most delightful quality of the collection.
The stories themselves, like any branch of mythology, vary from hilarious to brutal to what-the-fuck strange. If I had to choose my favourites out of the bunch, they would be: “The Treasures of the Gods,” “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” “Thor’s Unusual Journey to the Land of the Giants,” and “The Death of Balder,” which fall under the descriptives I have mentioned.
Like most books, Norse Mythology is not perfect and there were some things that fell short. The first are a couple of the stories in the beginning about the creation of the world. This has more to do with the tales themselves rather than how they are written by Gaiman. Due to vast introduction of the characters and the method of which the world comes into existence based on the lore, it was a tad bit confusing. It definitely needed some mental processing on my part to fully understand everything before moving forward. Secondly, there are one or two stories that are so eccentric and weird, that I can see them being severely off-putting for some readers. However, what is mythology without some strangeness every now and again?
To summarise, I highly recommend Norse Mythology to anyone who enjoys learning mythology, more so if you have never been exposed to this genre, specifically where the Nordic tales are concerned. It was wonderfully written, easy to comprehend, and enjoyably flowing. If you are already familiar and well-versed in Norse mythologies, then you may find the contents to be a bit too simple and straightforward (something I have discussed with other reviewers and avid readers of mythology), however it is still quite pleasurable to engage with all in all.