Like many readers, I’ve pieced together what I know about Norse mythology from reading Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Farmer’s The Sea of Trolls, meeting the bed-ridden Odin in Adams’ The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, tracing the branches of Yggdrasil in Chabon’s Summerland, and delighting in the feats of Thor and glimpses of Loki in movies, TV shows, and books as disparate as The Avengers, Supernatural, and Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods. Most of us know at least one of these stories.
Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology brings some of the most famous stories together in a narrative that begins with the creation of Asgard and ends with predictions of Ragnarok. It’s quite readable, if somewhat bare—the stories are told simply, without the thousand crazy points of overlap and echo that are so much fun in other tellings. It’s like we’re being told a familiar story pitched to the understanding of a younger sibling.
The story-teller is a master, though. With extreme economy, he gets across complicated ideas, especially about Loki, that always-slippery character:
“So now you know: that is how the gods got their greatest treasures. It was Loki’s fault. Even Thor’s hammer was Loki’s fault. That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”
Some of the parts that could be presented as scandalous are told in a way that eliminates the suggestive possibilities, as when Loki lures away a stallion in order to save himself from the wrath of the other gods. We are told that he
“stayed away for the best part of a year, and when he showed up again, he was accompanied by a gray foal.
It was a beautiful foal, although it had eight legs instead of the usual four, and it followed Loki wherever he went, and nuzzled him, and treated Loki as if he were its mother. Which, of course, was the case.”
The exciting parts are still exciting, but told in a way that makes me think of William Goldman having his grandfather/storyteller interrupt the narrative to tell his young listener that the princess bride “does not get eaten by eels at this time.” When Gaiman tells the story of how Thor performs what turns out to be a marvelous feat of strength, we are shown only that he has been asked to wrestle a giant’s old nurse, or foster mother:
“He did not want to hurt her.
They stood together, facing each other. The first to get the other down onto the ground would win. Thor pushed the old woman and he pulled her, he tried to move her, to trip her, to force her down, but she might as well have been made of rock for all the good it did.”
Only afterwards are we told that the old woman
“was Elli, old age, No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only onto one knee.”
The simplicity of the story-telling has its charms, particularly when it comes to the intricacies of the gods’ magic:
“When the gods felt age beginning to touch them, to frost their hair or ache their joints, then they would go to Idunn. She would open her box and allow the god or goddess to eat a single apple. As they ate it, their youth and power would return to them. Without Idunn’s apples, the gods would scarcely be gods…”
The characterization of the different gods is consistent throughout the volume. Thor, for example, is always completely guileless:
“Tyr said to Thor, ‘I hope you know what you are doing.’
‘Of course I do,’ said Thor. But he didn’t. He was just doing whatever he felt like doing. That was what Thor did best.”
The simplicity of the story-telling extends even to a description of necromancy. When Odin is disturbed about the fate of his beloved son Balder:
“He stood by the grave at the end of the world, and in that place he invoked the darkest of runes and called on old powers, long forgotten. He burned things, and he said things, and he charmed and he demanded. The storm wind whipped at his face, and then the wind died and a woman stood before him on the other side of the fire, her face in the shadows.
‘It was a hard journey, coming back from the land of the dead,’ she told him.”
All of the best stories of Norse mythology are told here, but in a way I would find suitable for reading to drowsy children right before bedtime.