Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (Myth-Based Story Collection, 2017).
In his new book, the incomparable Neil Gaiman (a multiple award winner and best selling author in a variety of genres) faces the challenge of converting the often fragmentary surviving myths from the Viking Era into a series of connected short stories accessible to modern readers (rather than the more common and somewhat dry ‘scholarly’ translations that have come before).
Please note that the ‘dry’ comment immediately above is mine–as a reader Neil very much enjoyed those earlier ‘serious’ books, as he notes in this book’s introduction. Conversely, as a youngster his first contact with The Mighty Thor and those around him was in the joyously pulpy comic book pages from the likes of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber. He loved both of these seemingly incompatible takes on basically the same subject matter.
In today’s book, Gaiman is in effect attempting to strike a middle ground, merging two, very different approaches and sensibilities into a workable storyline, and while putting his own unique stamp on it all. Thus he strives to retain the epic sweep and feel of what were for Norse people very real, magical aspects of their pagan belief system, while telling what modern readers will see as stories set in a highly imaginative fantasy world. Adding sharp and frequently amusing dialogue (the notorious Loki delivers especially fun, if often snide comments) certainly helps bridge the gap between ‘straight’ myth and more modern storytelling. And since Gaiman is at heart a novelist, his habit of having characters and his third-person narrator refer to events in previous tales at appropriate moments in later pieces gives the overall book much more the feel of a single, ongoing story.
In fact, as Gaiman noted in his intro, he sees the various stories, when arranged as here in a kind of chronological order, as one vast journey. As such the fifteen individual adventures can very much be considered more as individual chapters in a single, episodic epic.
And of course the motif of characters on a fateful journey is one of the most common (perhaps the most common) elements of fantasy fiction. A good number of the episodes here are in fact smaller journeys within the overall context of the entire book. As such, the main characters and the often intriguing, sometimes deliciously weird supporting players (industrous elfs, various sorts of giants, some very lively dead folks and all manner of other creatures in addition to the Gods) get to show us glimpses of pretty much all of the Nine Worlds of their universe.
Most of these pieces here can stand alone, I should note. But reading them in proper sequence is a much more satisfying reading experience. Layer upon layer is added, producing growing depth to the fantastical saga. It all builds to a savage, mutually destructive final battle royal between the doomed gods and their arrayed enemies.
And yet, there is also new hope in the aftermath–as certain of the dead are reborn and likewise a new (and hopefully better) universe arises.
To me, Gaiman achieves a highly successful melding of the old and new here.
In addition to his meaty introduction and the stories, he offers brief profiles of the three leading figures in the tales to come: Odin, King of the Gods; his hot-tempered son Thor; and Odin’s half-giant blood brother, the unpredictable and ultimately dangerous Loki.
There’s also a helpful glossary of the people, places and magical things in the back of the book.
A very interesting book and a somewhat different take on a great old storyline, it’s available in multiple formats (print, ebook, audio, CD, etc).