Review: Norse Mythology

I’ve been interested in mythology for years, so when I saw Neil Gaiman had a new release about Norse myths, I was too tempted to resist. My only experience with Gaiman’s writing before diving into Norse Mythology this month was Coraline, which I enjoyed so much as a child that my copy is one of the most worn-looking books on my shelf. If that and Norse Mythology are anything to judge by, I need more Neil Gaiman literature in my life.

FullSizeRender (8)About the book: In a series of sections that Gaiman lends chronology to, Norse Mythology presents a set of myths threaded together a few main characters. Odin (the father of the gods), along with Thor (the mightiest of the gods) and Loki (of giant descent) are the most prominent characters of the book. They face hardships and embark on adventures, as well as battling each other in disagreement. The world begins and ends, with all of life passing between–except the end may be no more than a new beginning. Gaiman provides an introduction, a glossary of names, and a brief sketch of each of the main characters in addition to the myths themselves; these extras act as the reader’s guide to unlocking the rules of the world (or the nine worlds, more accurately) and keeping up with the changes and constants inside it.

Myths are a distinct kind of story. They’re fantastical, and, in my opinion, the sort of story that most requires an open mind. Anything can happen, and the reader must suspend all disbelief to follow wherever the story shall lead. The characters are gods and monsters with no need to adhere to the rules of reality. Death need not be final, magic may appear or not, animals and inanimate objects are personified, and anything is possible. The stories are atmospheric and character-driven rather than plausible. Myths are stories that can break their own rules and still be accepted.

From Gaiman’s Introduction:

“Some details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope they paint a picture of a world and a time.”

This is what mythology is, essentially. It’s an essence, a way to explain the nature of the world and to entertain oneself. These stories came from a time when writing was much less common and the stories were passed by word of mouth–changing a bit each time, no doubt. There are so many different versions of myths, and none of them are more right or wrong than the other. This is something I find particularly compelling about fiction (and mythology in particular): it can be contradictory and unrealistic.

“Nothing will remain of the armies of the living and the dead, of the dreams of the gods and the bravery of their warriors, nothing but ash […] That is how the world will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice. That is the final destiny of the gods.”

Personally, my favorite aspect of any myths is the sense of power–gods are limited beings, but much less so than humans. Thor might not be the brightest, and he may be fallible, but still everyone fears him. Odin may be deceitful and disfigured, but he is respected as the all-father–the man who made  the existence of both gods and humans possible. Freya may be the most beautiful woman, but she is strong-willed even among the gods and well-respected for it. Loki is only ever on his own side, and sometimes he loses, but he is incredibly resourceful and can get almost anything he wants out of anyone. While the characters aren’t always likable, their power and struggle makes them irresistibly compelling.

Each of the stories in this volume are short and sweet, just the right length to keep the reader thinking “just one more” and thus finding oneself at the end of the book in just one sitting. Although the myths are not a continuous story, they are ordered in Norse Mythology in the arc of a journey, the tension growing more with each cluster of pages from the beginning of the world to the end. In between is the search for Sif’s hair, the origin of poetry, a quest for a 3 mile deep mead cauldron, and much, much more. Gaiman has found a great order of narration here, but even that is fluid because there is no beginning and end to mythology. The first story in this book is titled, “Before the Beginning, and After.” I, for one, love the supposition that even before the beginning there was something. Even nothing is something. And even though there is little left of Norse mythology, the reader is left with the hope of more in this collection:

“That is the end. But there is also what will come after the end.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to read more mythology, because it fascinates me. I’m looking forward to checking out Homer again later this year when The Iliad comes up as my classic of the month (I think I’m also going to try reading The Odyssey around that time, as a bonus). I’m also looking forward to watching the movie Thor for the first time in the near future. I will definitely be reading more of Neil Gaiman’s works, though I believe this one was his only myth-related book. Any recommendations? (Seriously, I must read more Neil Gaiman.)

Further recommendations from me:

  1. For can’t-get-enough mythology fans, classic myths from ancient Rome or Greece may be of interest, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, or Homer’s The Iliad. I’m not personally familiar with old Norse sources, but I can vouch that these other epic tales are equally interesting.
  2. Books that reference mythology and ancient culture with frequency may be great next picks for readers who are already more knowledgeable about the stories and history of mythology. Books like Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Donna Tart’s The Secret History are wonderful in their own right, but also draw on the stories and lives of the ancient greats.
  3. For something easy, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (or any other of his books; I believe there are also Norse myth based novels in his oeuvre, but I’ve only read his Percy Jackson series so far) is also a modern mishmash of mythology. This one mixes new adventures with established mythology, and is an engaging tale for readers of (almost) all ages.

What’s next: I’m still finishing Jane Eyre, my classic of the month from March (which I’m absolutely loving), but I’ve also got library books due soon, so in a couple of days I should also be done with Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything and have a review for you on that. It’s a YA contemporary novel about a girl who’s allergic to everything, and is content in her isolation until she falls in love with the boy next door and realizes just how badly she wants to be out in the world, even if it could kill her.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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