I bought this book quite a while ago but never got round to reading it. I’ve been a sometimes fan of Neil Gaiman since my teens, despite my school librarian mildly falling out with me for recommending she read Neverwhere and she was disgusted when the characters talked about eating cat. With Norsevember this month it was the ideal opportunity to read it. I have a little knowledge of Norse mythology but not a massive amount. Most of what I know centres around Loki as I found him the most interesting, both on paper and in the Marvel universe.
I think this book is intended as an introductory, book on the biggest Norse myths, and it fulfils that exactly. I like that it’s easy to read and although as a re-writing of existing texts it doesn’t scream Gaiman, there is the odd sarcastic remark that I think is his personality coming through. Many of the characters will be familiar to a lot of people, even if only their names or from the Marvel films/comics. To those people there may be a few surprises where the comics took liberties with the storylines (for example I don’t remember the films mentioning that Fenrir and Hel are Loki’s children) and personally I like that the gods are all related to each other. It gives the myths a bit of a family drama feel on a large scale. I’m not going to comment further on the myths themselves, but how they are told by Gaiman.
In the main this is a highly entertaining and light-hearted retelling of the myths. Some of the nitty gritty details have been omitted but it would have been impossible to condense them into a short book otherwise. Personally I prefer reading original works so I don’t miss these details, but this is still worth reading if you’re just looking for the main themes and stories, and if you enjoy them you’re more likely to then look up the myths and get those details later. Besides, for all I know I’m missing details as well since I have to read translations; funnily enough I can’t read 13th century Norse runes or Icelandic! I still learned more about the myths reading this book and I’d recommend it for anyone new to the mythology and wanting to get an idea of what they’re like.
My favourite piece of Norse literature is Lokasenna, or Loki’s Duel or Loki’s Flyting, or other names depending on the book. I studied medieval literature for one module at university and most of the Norse poetry was based on war but I came across this one. It’s a long poem where Loki insults each and every god during a banquet with insulting but accurate jibes and is funny at times. This is reduced to only a few sentences in this book, which is a real shame. If you don’t look up any other poem, please look up this one. It’s in the Poetic Edda or you can read a version of it in Sacred Texts although this version is in an archaic style which is probably more accurate but consequently a little harder to read. On the other hand, Loki’s subsequent downfall and earlier, Balder’s story were written in full from how I knew them, so I was slightly disappointed in this. He couldn’t include everything without making the book massive, I guess, so it was only personal taste that I was disappointed by my favourite story being curtailed so much.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone looking for a light read and/or an introduction to Norse mythology. I don’t know what someone who knows the myths through and through will think of it. I’m not in that bracket so although I recognised the omissions where I do have outside knowledge, I still learned several stories that didn’t know as well, such as how Thor got his hammer (which funnily enough also features Loki) and a lot of the stories featuring giants. The Norse culture is often “known” for their warmongering, raping, pillaging, wearing horned helmets (which they didn’t do) and being buried at sea in a burning boat (which they also didn’t do) so the biggest plus for reading any Norse mythology is learning that they were actually highly cultured. After all Odin, the All-father is not only the God of War; he’s also the God of poetry! My guess is that most of the histories written about them would’ve been written by those they were invading, and therefore had no reason to paint them in a good light.
I think I drifted a little there from the matter at hand, reviewing Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. If you’re a fan of the author you may or may not like this. It’s not a novel exactly, in that it isn’t an original story by him. It doesn’t often feel like a book of his and his voice only occasionally comes through. Don’t pick it up expecting a Neil Gaiman story; the clue is in the title so to be honest I don’t see many people doing this anyway. What you do get is an overview of an incredibly rich mythology that is a great read. If you’re interested in mythology, Norse or otherwise, give it a go.