It’s always a gamble to read a favorite author writing in a genre that’s not one of your favorites. But I had waited so long for Neil Gaiman to write another novel after 2013’s “Ocean at the End of the Lane” that I was willing to give his brand new book of Norse mythology a try.
Mythology and the gods have shown up in Gaiman’s past books. I loved his novel, “American Gods.” But in that book he used a great deal of creative license in incorporating gods into the overall plot of the story. In “Norse Mythology” he retells the established myths of the Norse gods in stories that range from just a few pages to around 25 pages long. The stories build on each other and certain gods– Odin, Thor and Loki in particular – appear in many of the stories. But the lack of a coherent narrative makes “Norse Mythology” less captivating than Gaiman’s novels.
The stories are what you’d expect if you’ve read any mythology. Some stories explain the creation of the world, the gods and people. Others explain natural phenomena like earthquakes and tides. They tell the tales of how Odin came to have one eye – he cut the other one out in exchange for a drink of water from a well of wisdom. And how the gods got their greatest treasures – Thor his hammer, Odin his spear and golden arm ring, Frey his giant magical ship that folds up and fits in a pouch.
The stories are quirky and strange, as mythology often is. In the beginning, there’s only a mist world and a fire world. Then life is created when rivers carve glaciers into the shape of a giant…which seems very fitting for Norse mythology.
A huge tree connects the nine worlds, those of giants, light elves, dwarfs, women and men, the mist and fire worlds, the underworld and the worlds of two different groups of gods.
The Norse gods who live together in Asgard are the stars of Gaiman’s stories. Their very human emotions mean they love, hate, seek revenge, and enjoy huge feasts with mead and beer.
Odin seeks knowledge. Thor wants things to kill with his hammer. The trickster Loki gets himself and everyone else into enough tough spots that you wonder why the other gods put up with him. Eventually, they do not. The stories build toward an ominous, potentially world-ending event called Ragnarok.
Gaiman’s writing is as strong as ever, and if you’re looking for a primer in Norse mythology, this one is very accessible. Only two weeks after its release, it’s already topping best seller lists both in the U.S. and the U.K. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to waiting for Gaiman’s next novel, which I hear will be a sequel to my favorite of his books, “Neverwhere.”
"Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman is published by W. W. Norton & Company and was released in early February.
Reviewer Emily Reddy is the news director for WPSU radio.