Sunday, March 26, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman Book Review

This is a spoiler-free review of Norse Mythology by the famous Neil Gaiman. 
This book came out last month, February 2017.   Norse Mythology is very much what is says on the cover, it's a collection of short stories about Norse mythology.  The best way I can think to describe this book is that it's a lot like when musicians will release a new cover of an old song.  Gaiman adapted fifteen stories from what very little remains of the pre-Christian Scandinavian myths in the Edda that were recorded around the 13th century in Iceland. The Edda includes the prose and poetry records of the original Norse Myths.  I will link the full text for both of them down below if you ware interested.   Gaiman hasn't done a new translation of these myths, he's added some storyteller's flourishes to the existing material. And to be fair, he's really added quite a bit to the material.  Where the original material in the Edda might have 2 or 3 sentences about something, Gaiman turns it into 2 or 3 pages of setup and comedy. He's made the Norse myths quiet a bit funnier, bawdier, and far more relevant for current readers. 



I will say, prior to reading this book I did not have a particular interest in reading Norse Mythology. I was really just reading this book for a good time, and it was a good time.  But Gaiman takes his time setting the stage with this book.  We start of with a list of all the characters in the Norse myths and descriptions of them and a tour of the Norse worlds, the 9 worlds of Yggdrasil and background about what each world is like.  The setup portion of the book reads quite a bit like a Wikipedia article on Norse mythology to me, which, at the very beginning of the book I thought, oh no, if I wanted to read a Wikipedia article on Norse Mythology, I would have just done that on my own. 



But the first short story about the gods kicks off around page 50, and from there on out, I very much enjoyed this book.  I enjoyed the inventive origin stories, including the beginnings of poetry, earthquakes and the shape of salmon. I would say if you have any particular interest in Norse mythology, read the front matter. And there's an introduction about the author and his interest in this topic of Norse myths and some background about the process of him writing the book, so if you have any particular interest in Neil Gaiman as a writer or as a person, read the into.  But if you're just looking for a good time and some entertaining stories about Norse mythology, skip to page 50 where the first story of the gods kicks off. The first story is called the "Treasure of the Gods," and Loki is delightfully mischievous


I think Neil Gaiman really did something special with how much personality he brought to the Norse gods.  He took the germ of what was there in the Edda and  fleshed out the Norse gods into characters you feel like you know. It's fascinating to me how flawed and how emotional and fickle the Norse gods were. And mortal and not omnipotent by any means. The story hinges on Odin, the all father, Thor and Loki. Odin, I did not realize, sacrified himself to himself, which gave him great wisdom, not omnipotent, but great wisdom. Neil Gaiman's Thor is rather dense but seems to mostly work around these limitations rather successfully by threatening violence. Loki was the most interesting character of them all.  He's a bit of a gray character. He's a villain, but not entirely. For much of the book, he's more mischievous. Like a practical joker, but he's nowhere near Marvel movies level of cackling supervillain. He does take a dark turn at the end. 


Actually, the book as a whole I would say starts off very light and gradually becomes darker in tone, culminating in the story of Ragnarok, the final destiny of the gods, which is essentially the Norse Apocalypse. It's a reminder that the gods are not immortal. 
Gaiman’s comedic tone gradually takes a dark turn in the book and follows the darker turn Loki takes, moving from joker to villain. 



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