With the recent resurgence of Marvel’s Thor movies, Norse mythology has become a renewed interest for many.
Neil Gaiman has held a fascination for Norse myths and legends for most of his life. As a young boy he read a comic about the Norse god Thor. Throughout his writing for most of his career, the theme of Norse mythology has been interwoven. His comic Sandman uses Odin, Thor, and Loki in recurring roles and features several locations mentioned in Norse legend. His novel American Gods also takes many elements of Norse mythology and places them in the present day.
In his latest book Norse Mythology, Gaiman goes to the core of the myths and tries to present them in an easily understandable, modernized manner.
Gaiman opens with the Nordic creation myth. The myth states that before the beginning there were two worlds: the mist world and the fire world. The mist world was called Niflheim and lay to the north. The fire world lay to the south and was called Muspell.
The mist world was “colder than cold” while everything on the fire world glowed and burned. “Muspell was light where Niflheim was gray,” Gaiman writes, and covered in “molten lava where the mist world was frozen.”
Between these two worlds was an empty and formless void called Gunnungagap. Rivers from the mist world flowed into the void, eventually forming giant glaciers. The glaciers in the north the glaciers were covered in fog and ice, but the embers and sparks from Muspell melted the ice in the south. Eventually, life in the form of a person appeared in the waters and called itself Ymir who became the ancestor of all giants. Out of the ice also came a cow named Audhumla who licked Buri, the ancestor of the gods, out of blocks of ice.
Ymir, who was neither male nor female, gave birth in it’s sleep to male and female giants one of whom married Buri. Buri had a son called Bor who in turn had three sons: Odin, Vili, and Ve.
The myth goes on to explain how Odin, Vili, and Ve grew into men, eventually creating other worlds and making people who Odin breathed life into – making him the all-father.
Further into Norse Mythology, Gaiman introduces the reader to other characters such us Sif (Thor’s wife) and Loki (Thor’s brother). Many of the myths center around Loki causing trouble and Thor cleaning up his mess. For instance, in The Treasures of the Gods, Sif wakes up with hair missing. Thor immediately assumes that Loki is responsible because “…when something goes wrong, the first thing I was always think is it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”
When confronted, Loki admits to being responsible and says that he did it because he was drunk and it was funny. What follows is a long and amusing tale of Loki nearly losing his head, accidentally getting Thor his hammer, and eventually, Sif regaining her hair.
Norse Mythology is like reading about your favorite dysfunctional family. They are constantly at odds with each other but underneath is a tangible fondness. Fans whose only previous exposure to Odin’s sons and the rest of the Norse gods is through the Marvel movies will find the same vexatious Loki and the same kind but slightly dense Thor.
Gaiman strips away overly complicated or flowery language and re-tells the myths in a straight forward easy to follow manner. Well known for his characterization talents, Gaiman brings the ancient gods to life and allows the reader to believe, even if only for a moment, that the old myths are real.
Devoted fans of Gaiman will find familiar characters and themes in Norse Mythology. American Gods features both Odin and Loki disguised as Mr. Wednesday and Mr. World respectively. Thor is mentioned in passing but does not feature in the main plot.
Odin, Thor, and Loki are also featured in Odd and the Frost Giants in which a young boy encounters an eagle, a bear, and a fox who turn out to be the ancient gods in disguise.
In addition, Gaiman’s comic Sandman: Seasons of Mists also features Thor, Odin, and Loki as well as a number of other characters drawn from different cultures including ancient Japanese and Egyptian mythology.
First time readers will likely enjoy Norse Mythology as it presents the stories with humor and makes them accessible to readers of different ages. While there is some mention of sex, violence, and general mayhem, Norse Mythology is still appropriate for middle school age and older children. Young children would likely find Odd and the Frost Giants a better introduction to Norse mythology, though both books are a good starting point for both adults and children.
Other works readers may want to investigate include Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, or D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths (previously titled Norse Gods and Giants). While Trigger Warning does not center around any specific mythology or culture, it retains a fairy tale feel and many of the stories could easily be adaptations of cultural legends. Trigger Warning and Norse Mythology also share the same conversational tone that is so quintessential to Gaiman’s work.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is aimed at young children and will be a welcome addition to fans of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Filled with full page color illustrations, D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths overlaps significantly with Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Both tell of the theft of Thor’s hammer, the story of Balder, and the Norse creation story. Adults who grew up on D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths will find nostalgic pleasure in D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and may enjoy sharing it with their own children.
Other books readers may enjoy include Rick Riordan’s new series Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. Though less faithful to the original mythology, Riordan manages to create a world of adventure and excitement that will intrigue readers of all ages.
At just over 300 pages Norse Mythology is an easy afternoon read that will leave readers eager to learn more of Nordic culture and myths.