This year, before American Gods hit the TVs as probably one of the most anticipated series of the year, the readers were treated to a new Gaiman’s book. At least things look like this if you judge the book by the cover 😉 But Gaiman’s name on the front page is more than a bit misleading – because he’s in no way the author of the collected myths; he himself presents his role in the introduction as that of a humble narrator, a storyteller refreshing ancient and beloved tales. I guess that his name on the cover serves as a selling device – and probably serves quite well. But even though I can understand this approach from a mercantile point of view, it still smacks of hubris to me. How can one present oneself as an author of mythology? That is a minor point, though – if this way more people will learn of Norse myths, I will only applaud and cheer.
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t start with the cover. The English version of the cover, presented above, is IMO simply beautiful. A detailed rendering of Thor’s hammer, gold and grey on dark background, accompanied by simple, elegant lettering that in no way distracts from the graphics – what’s not to admire? It’s just perfect. I only wish Polish version were the same… Alas, you can’t always get what you wish for, and in most cases that’s a good thing 😉
As for what’s inside – it’s Norse mythology and no mistake. Gaiman openly states in the introduction that he’s just retelling the old myths, giving them simpler, more digestible form suitable for modern readers who are not necessarily mythology buffs. There is nothing new or unusual in there – for those who know Norse mythology. Those who got acquainted with Nordic myths through Marvel comics or movies might be in for a surprise ;).
Norse mythology is harsh and proud, severe and heroic, cruel and tender, full of dichotomies and opposites. It’s filled with melancholy and humor, sometimes crude, sometimes surprisingly subtle. It can be viewed as a one, long tale of sacrifice and duty, of love and loyalty, of harsh justice and egoism and of how one wrong choice can become the undoing of thousands of good ones. However you look at it, at its core there is one undeniable quality of Norse mythology. It is tragedy. For it’s a mythology of a people who expected the world to end. Who knew exactly how it would end; who prepared all their lives for the Ragnarok, the final battle between the forces of good and evil, order and chaos, and who knew that that battle will have been lost, no matter whose side were you on. The dice had been cast long ago. The choices had been made. There is no ambiguity about it; no second chances. And yet, instead of despairing, Nordic tribes did their utmost to be prepared to die and die again. The outcome was set; but more important was to ensure that you will have fought on the right side, that you will have given your best to assist your gods in the final death of the world. As in many mythologies around the world, the Norse believed that more important was the way itself. The world will end. And it will be born again from the blood and ashes of the old one.
Gaiman sets out to present this grim outlook with as much light as possible, accentuating the funny, the humorous, the crudely preposterous, boisterous moments of laughter. But he also takes care to keep the solemn dignity of the myths. And, most importantly, he never lets his writer’s ego off the leash. He keeps faith with the original material, not giving in to the temptation of tampering. In this book he’s just a narrator; not an academic offering explanations or interpretations, not a fantasy writer, tempted to add his own content to the mix. I appreciate this very much, especially since the number of Norse myths is limited; the mythology is woefully incomplete. Christianity eradicated much of the pagan beliefs, the Nordic and the Slavic alike. And no new tales have been found, no new interpretations have been offered. The world of the Norse gods in Gaiman’s take is just as it has been – an intense, intoxicating glimpse into the ancient past of Europe, before Christianity conquered the continent.
Gaiman presents the fifteen chosen myths in a logical way, following the internal chronology of events. He adds bits of necessary information here and there, punctuating the arrival of a different pantheon among Ases, showing the complex lineage and relationships between the gods and the giants, etc. But there are still some things missing – the sacrifice of Odin to himself, for example, is only mentioned, even though in many collections it is presented as a separate – and extremely important – myth. Still, we get most of the better known tales: the creation of the world and the story of how Odin became All-father, the tale of Freya’s unusual wedding and of how Asgard got his impregnable wall, the story of Loki’s children and of Balder’s death, the tale of Utgard, of the mead of poets, of Idun’s apples and of Asgrdian treasures, and of course Ragnarok, as well as a few more.
I have read Eddas, I have read many interpretations and retellings of Nordic myths, including the illuminating interpretation of the scapegoat mythos in the tale of Balder’s death by Rene Girard [link]. I very much appreciate the simplicity of Gaiman’s approach. His is the Norse mythology cut to bare bones. Tamed, civilized, modernized, but still – thankfully – unadorned. It can be read as well by eight year-olds as by eighty year-olds. In short, it’s a great book for acquainting oneself with one of the most powerful European – or maybe even world – mythologies. And it’s especially true if your current knowledge is limited to Marvel’s take on it ;). I admire Lee’s and Kirby’s work on the inhabitants of Asgard; I like even more the newer incarnations of Thor and Loki, such as Straczynski’s Thor: Reborn or Astonishing Thor (Choi’s graphics!). By the way, Gaiman’s own comic book spin on that story (Angela) is definitely the worst 😉 But truth be told, and I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone by saying this, Marvel is not the most faithful and reliable source of knowledge on Norse mythology ;). So, if you want to know the real thing, Norse Mythology by Gaiman is definitely a good place to start.