Review of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

It is fair to say I have a favorable bias toward this material. I taught Mythology in high school for several years. I enjoyed it too, until we started eliminating all those superfluous subjects and ended up with Vanilla English 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Like most teachers of the time, I spent a lot of time talking about what a mythology was, how it supported the population and telling the long-told lie that the most important of the myths came from the Greeks who then had their stories stolen by the Romans. Then, we spent the last couple of weeks of the course looking at the “others,” with most of the others being the Norse.

This book suffers a little from that ideology too, although not to the point where it is a flaw necessarily. What Gaiman attempts to do is to put some of the stories into a kind of novelistic arc of storytelling. More or less he tells some of the creation myth, several of the stories unique to the personalities of the major players and then a representation of the end of times in Norse myth. He even poses the question of whether the end times tales are stories of what has already happened or whether it is a tale of what is yet to come.

I love the selections he has chosen to illuminate. We get a good sense of Odin, wisest of the wise but only because he has been willing to make literal mythic sacrifices in exchange for knowing. What a great and lasting tale for all who still care about knowing. Not an alt-fact anywhere in sight for Odin’s single eye.

Gaiman gives us some good tales about Odin’s son, Thor. He is, of course, the hero’s hero but depicted as not the brightest flame in Valhalla. Thor shows us the worth of lots of other characteristics, including strength, bravery, determination.

There are also stories about Loki, who isn’t technically a god as he is the son of a giant. But his association with Odin has always set him up for preferential treatment in Asgard, as well as the jealousy and, in some cases, outright hostility of the other gods and goddesses.

Two stories strike me as the best of the bunch, although it is difficult to tease the threads of one or two stories out of the beautiful tapestry Gaiman presents. I like particularly the story he calls, “The Mead of Poets.” I am a home winemaker and I have made several batches of mead. It is predominantly wine made from honey, but modern mead has little resemblance to the drink of the Vikings. They did quick and dirty fermentations and added a veritable cornucopia of adjunct ingredients. The mead you would drink in one village was likely to bear little resemblance to what you might encounter in another. The mead of this story is very much like that.

Ultimately, the mead is made from honey and the blood of a divine poet and drinking it sets the muse loose from one’s heart. For the sake of brevity, and to keep you interested when you get your copy of this book, here is a little synopsis of the end of the tale. Odin steals the mead by drinking it, changing into an eagle and flying back to Asgard to deliver the goods to the gods, where, like a father bird, he will spit it out for his underlings. This is the magic mead that makes wonderful poets. Great poets have tasted Odin’s gift. And that is the end of the story…except it is not.

There is another kind of poetry anyone who has ever attended an open mic has heard. Like any good myth, there has to be an explanation for bad poetry too. And the Norsemen provided a fine one.

Odin is flying back to Asgard as fast as he can with the stolen mead in his belly and Suttung, the one from whom Odin has stolen, has also changed into eagle form and is chasing Odin, actually nipping at his tail feathers as they approach. At this point, Gaiman, interrupts his story to speak directly to the reader, saying, “The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.” And yet, two paragraphs remain.

With Suttung literally hot on his tail, “…Odin blew some of the mead out his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail. No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.”

I love a myth that explains both the good and the bad, don’t you?

The other individual story I loved in this collection is because of its obvious relation to our own life and times. The gods are perpetually at war, usually with the giants and they decide they need protection in the form of a wall. But they don’t want to actually invest in the actual building of a wall so they find a guy, an immigrant stranger actually, who will build the wall for them. (BTW, Loki figures out a way to enter a contract. It is a fine, binding deal until Loki figures out a way to cheat.) Mythology often serves the purpose of providing morality lessons.

“I can build you a wall,” said the stranger. “Build it so high that the tallest giant could not climb it, so thick that the strongest troll could not batter through it. I can build it so well, by placing stone upon stone, that not an ant could find space enough to crawl through it. I will build you a wall that will last for a thousand thousand years.”

“Such a wall would take a very long time to build,” said Loki.

“Not at all,” said the stranger. “I can build it in three seasons. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. It would only take me a winter, a summer and another winter to build.”

Of course, like in all myths and tales of super-human feats of strength and engineering, there are elements of subterfuge, trickery, treachery and falsity. In this story you’ll find a lot of those things, but in this case, the guy who has everything ends up with more and the guy doing the building gets screwed. Huh, imagine that.

Anyway, great book, fast read. It only took me a couple of days but you will do it in one. Buy a copy in hardbound for your library and then buy one for each of your grandchildren (no matter how many you are going to end up with.) Five out of Five, Neil.

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