On the last page of Neil Gaiman’s riveting NORSE MYTHOLOGY, I wished, for about the hundredth time, that instead of reading it to myself and imagining the thunderous voices of Odin and his rambunctious tribe of gods inside my head, someone would have read it aloud to me.
The vast dimensions of these ancient legends were born of a rugged oral culture where storytelling was far more than entertainment. Through months of northern darkness and deathly cold, it was a psychological staff of life, a necessity for the mind like bread, drink and shelter are for the body.
"Anyone who enjoys 'tall tales' of substance and breadth will find NORSE MYTHOLOGY an intensely satisfying read, but for those who have detected how powerfully the pantheon of Nordic gods has influenced opera, fantasy and science fiction, the pleasure of Gaiman’s skillful reweaving will be all the greater."
As recently as my own Norwegian stepfather’s childhood during the early 20th century, storytelling was still a quintessential part of Scandinavian culture. He’d often recall those special times when books were set aside and the old tales from pre-Viking ages were passed on by elders with a gift for voicing them.
It was perhaps from my stepdad and his unique accent (like the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, but at half-speed and half an octave lower) that I really came to understand what Gaiman has captured so incredibly well in the language of NORSE MYTHOLOGY. The storytelling voice is not a “literary” one as we know it, but a dramatic and proclaiming one, the one my Viking-descended parent used in sharing his rich culture.
In blending and retelling the most enduring exploits of iconic figures like wise Odin, powerful Thor with his magic hammer, Loki the manipulative trickster, Balder with his magnetic good looks, surly but skilled dwarfs, giants with brute force to uproot mountains, and the wives, sisters or daughters who often showed more backbone than their more celebrated male counterparts, Gaiman propels one tale into another through deceptively simple and direct prose. The supple and energetic rhythms of his narrative compare with the timeless poetry of Anglo-Saxon classics like Beowulf.
At the heart of any good legend is its capacity to grab and enthrall the human imagination century after century, in sheer defiance of accepted logic, morality, common sense, physics, geography or reasoning. NORSE MYTHOLOGY does all this with such compelling ease that there’s little temptation to figure out details of size, dimension or time, as each explosive tale, whether tragic or humorous, unfolds. The Norse gods and their kin lived large, so large it just doesn’t matter. They were conceived at the limits of human imagination, and Gaiman, to his lasting credit, gives them free rein instead of trying to tame them with scholarly theorizing.
Anyone who enjoys “tall tales” of substance and breadth will find NORSE MYTHOLOGY an intensely satisfying read, but for those who have detected how powerfully the pantheon of Nordic gods has influenced opera, fantasy and science fiction, the pleasure of Gaiman’s skillful reweaving will be all the greater.
Without distorting the long and tangled roots of Nordic mythology, Gaiman reveals lively nuances that reconnect these stories to our 21st-century world --- from the humor of Thor disguising himself as a ridiculously hairy woman to retrieve his lost hammer, to the unintentionally timely episode in which Odin decides to build a wall to keep out invading giants. Did he make the giants pay for it? You’ll have to read NORSE MYTHOLOGY to find out!
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on February 15, 2017