It was my love of Neil Gaiman’s work and his storytelling craft that first turned me towards this work. It was in the midst of taking his Art of Storytelling MasterClass that I was first made aware that he had written a novel on the topic, and was thus appropriately titled Norse Mythology. Legends and mythologies have always held special interest for me, and the chance to read what I understood to be a masterful retelling of traditional Norse mythology sounded truly wonderful, especially through the eyes of Gaiman.
Prior to reading this book, my education regarding Norse mythology was tangential at best. One of my favorite and most influential authors I have read, J.R.R. Tolkien was heavily influenced by the stories of the ancient world, particularly Old English literature and Norse mythology. Ever since I first began reading fantasy in my youth, the subject has held interest for me. Despite that, it remained peripheral until recently. Mythology, whether in our world or a fictitious one, informs and impacts the ways in which cultures develop and how the stories embedded within society inform the developments of said society. The stories we tell ourselves matter. From the threads tied to Middle Earth, to the pieces of inspiration for so many other stories, the foundation that Norse mythology offers to the world is fantastical, and returning to the source with Gaiman as a guide is beautiful. He brings both the well-known and more obscure legends into prominence with the same care and intent.
Norse Mythology is not written like an epic fantasy, it’s not superfluous or grandiose in style or form. The language is simple and effective, and the storytelling is direct. It doesn’t have to rely on grand prose, and doesn’t apologize for it. As I progressed, it felt as though I was following along with an oral storyteller telling the stories of the gods, not simply reading a novel. The story stands on its own, the characters and events are all that is needed in conjunction with Gaiman’s craft to transport the reader to the fantastical realms of mythology. I could imagine listening to the very words on the page being spoken by an ancient skald, or storyteller, around a great burning fire in a great hall or to a group gathered around a hearth, hearing stories of Yggdrasil and the Nine Realms, the tale of the forging of Mjolnir, the story of the birth of Loki’s children, to the events of Ragnarok and the end of the world.
The simple storytelling is one of its great strengths, which is not what I would have expected based on my affinity for epic fantasy, nor what I would have expected from Gaiman. In reality, each of the 15 chapters are short, concise, and easy-to-read individual legends from Norse folklore. Each story stands alone, but finds itself a part of the larger narrative of a great mythology. Certain stories might highlight one or two of the gods of Asgard, while others concern the larger collective of the ranks of the Aesir and the Vanir. Through these tales, woven together into this narrative arc, we meet Odin the All-Father, Thor the strongest god, and Loki the Trickster. We meet Frey and Freya, brother and sister gods of the Vanir, and Heimdall, the watchman who will herald the coming of Ragnarok. We read about how the worlds were created and how the All-Father breathed life into humans. There are stories of giants and elves, of war and cunning, betrayal and adventure. There are stories that show the pride of the gods, and we see how that pride becomes their downfall. We read about the birth of the children of Loki, Hel who watches the realm of the dead, Fenrir the mighty chained wolf, and Jormungundr, the world serpent.
The short story format allows for a very easy pick up style of reading, as each chapter is a quick read all its own. Alternatively, the entire book can be read in only a few hours. I sat down on a dreary December evening and leisurely finished the entire book in no more than three hours. Alone, each story is self-contained, though the narrative journeys from the beginning creation myth, to the inevitable end at Ragnarok, and to what comes next. Norse Mythology is a book written for everyone. Whether you are familiar with the players and events of these stories or are completely removed from the topic, Neil Gaiman’s book provides a beautiful introduction that is thorough without being overwhelming, and is simple, yet engaging enough to entertain every reader. The book is wonderful for a personal introduction or expansion of understanding, and would likewise be a spectacular episodic read with each short narrative serving as another fantastical dive into the world of Norse mythology.
Norse Mythology is written by Neil Gaiman, and is published by W.W. Norton & Company.
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