I read Norse Mythology and I liked it, somewhat to my surprise.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a casual Neil Gaiman fan, and some of his books I love very much (if you’ve read The Graveyard Book, let’s hold each other). The nice thing about Neil Gaiman is that he has written a lot of books, for all ages and in many different mediums, so if you don’t care for the content level or subject of one book, you might love another, as he is a very skilled writer no matter the genre.
I really love Norse mythology (big surprise), and while I know Neil Gaiman can use mythological influences to devastating effect in his work, I wasn’t sure about how well he could retell the original stories – playing the “straight man,” as it were, rather than re-imagining or spinning or twisting the myths into his own stories.
I really appreciated Gaiman’s introduction to this book: he makes it clear that he is not writing a comprehensive work on these myths, but instead “picking and choosing what tales I wanted to tell and how I wanted to tell them, blending versions of myths from the prose and from the poems.” He also acknowledges the difficulties; for example, how many Norse myths we’ve lost, so that some gods we know the names of but little else.
The stories themselves are told with characteristic Gaiman skill and beauty; some of them are very poetic, not in a confusing way, but in a satisfying, let-me-sit-here-and-savor-that-sentence way. The stories are well-paced and entertaining, with occasional sly humor, as well as a good sense of dramatic tension, in spite of the stories’ age. for All of them are told with directness and clarity, wasting no words and lavishing no sentimentality.
Gaiman doesn’t sugar-coat the myths by any means, either! Norse myths can be gross, violent, disturbing, or all three at once. The gods have a tendency to resort to murder or cruel punishments when they’re pissed off or feel wronged – they’re not in charge because they’re virtuous. Gaiman doesn’t shy away from showing this, and achieves a nice balance of humor and gravitas when dealing with some of the more shocking or disgusting stories.
On the other hand (and oh my gosh I can’t believe I’m saying this), Gaiman is a little hard on Loki. Yes, he does some despicable things (which don’t necessarily stand out against the despicable things some of the other gods do at times – I’m especially looking at you, Thor and Odin), but he is a Trickster archetype, and his main goals in life generally have to do with causing mischief and throwing the natural order into chaos. In Gaiman’s stories, Loki is very intentionally a malicious, villainous creep. It’s Gaiman’s right to tell the story that way and it’s my right to completely disagree with it.
Gaiman’s narration, as I touched on above, is really good for the most part. However, he is inconsistent with the way he uses the narrator to occasionally break into the story. I couldn’t figure out what rhythm or reason he was using. Most of the stories didn’t have narrator interjections at all; some had a little, and some suffer from multiple paragraphs of the narrator introducing the story. “The Mead of Poets,” for example opens with “Do you wonder where poetry comes from? Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell?” and goes on at length from there before finally starting the darn story.
My other quibble is the near-erasure of Sif, Sigyn, and Frigg (all goddesses). The stories he chose mostly focus on Thor, Loki, and Odin. We only get one Frey story (he’s a fertility god and one of the most well-loved by the original audiences of these myths), and Freya (another goddess and Frey’s sister) shows up in only a handful. I expected better from Gaiman on this point.
Overall, I liked this collection enough to read it again and recommend it. If you like Neil Gaimain or mythology, I recommend it. If you’re looking for more on Norse mythology, there’s a nice list here, including my personal favorite, The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland.