Thursday, April 20, 2017

Thank Gods it’s Thor’sday

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

Do you wonder where poetry comes from?
Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell?
Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great wise beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on as poetry to the world to be song and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane?
Have you ever wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales?
And some of us do not?
It is a long story and it does no credit to anyone.
There is murder in it and trickery.
Lies and foolishness; seduction and pursuit.
Listen; It began not long after the dawn of time…

–Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology

Hit British writer Neil Gaiman, of novel (prose and graphic), film, and television fame, is an old hand at working with myths and legends from all over the world. His seminal Sandman comic and prose novels Anansi Boys and American Gods (coming to HBO April 30) all imagined gods from every corner of the earth, some famous, some obscure, all trying to make their way in the modern world. His comic series Lucifer and his novel Good Omens (co-written with the late Sir Terry Pratchett) put modern spins on the Judeo-Christian apocrypha.

In honor of the upcoming American Gods TV premiere, I decided to review Gaiman’s take on traditional mythology before his more modernist and revisionist spin of the subject hits the airwaves. In his recent book, Norse Mythology, Gaiman isn’t concerned with updating mythology into new urban fantasy tales. Rather, he steps back from his role as “author” and steps into the role of “storyteller,” putting a bit of his spin on the classic tales of Thor, Loki, Odin, and the other gods and monsters who the peoples of the northern climes would come to know and fear when they strapped on their Viking helmets, boarded their long ships, and took to the seas.

In his introduction, Gaiman acknowledges the ways that the folklore of the Norse people has been distorted and diminished as it came down through the ages. Like many tales from the ancient and medieval world, we only have access to those that were written down and whose texts survived the ravages of time and culture—a small fraction of the great storytelling tradition. Gaiman shares that while Marvel Comics’ “Mighty Thor” enticed him into the local library as a boy to seek out the original Viking myths, he soon discovered that the true myths of the Norsemen resembled, but were markedly distinct from, those of comics which had been shaped by modern creative tastes. This is a timely warning for today’s audience, seeing as “The Mighty Thor” is now a worldwide box office attraction. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins will represent Thor, Loki, and Odin in the popular consciousness for some time to come. Gaiman warns his audience that the Asgard of old wasn’t the gleaming Science Fiction City dreamed up by Jack Kirby, but rather something a little more relatable to a medieval audience. Odin holds court in a great drinking hall, a very fine drinking hall, but not a shiny glass building that looks like an expo center. Thor isn’t the even-tempered, blond, Aryan ubermensch of popular imagination, but rather a ginger bruiser a bit on the thick-headed side. The “heroes” of the stories are just as likely to achieve their aims by treachery and thievery as epic honorable combat (all the more reason to keep a habitual trickster like Loki around).

The individual tales in Norse Mythology are mostly episodic but arranged in an arc covering the origins of certain characters, natural phenomena, artifacts, and monsters, all building up to Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon in which the enemies of the gods will overwhelm them in battle, destroy the world, and leave a new order in its place. The stories swing back and forth from the melancholy to the humorous—sometimes within the same yarn.

Fittingly enough for sagas that once were told and retold in the humble hovels and great halls of the northlands, Gaiman has released an audiobook of his latest work with himself as narrator. His lively dramatic reading, very reminiscent of the late, great Douglas Adams' audio performances of his own Hitchhiker's Guide series, makes this work the masterpiece that it is. And I think this is my first “I read this—with my ears” review where I would not recommend the prose by itself without the audiobook. That’s not a knock against Gaiman as a master of the written word. God knows (or Odin, Freya, or Thor knows—take your pick), he is a great writer and I sense that some of the more poetical passages and turns of phrase originate with him and not the original texts. But this is a work that is meant to be spoken aloud, much like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The episodic nature that rations the grand saga of the gods into chunks that can be understood across multiple storytelling sessions, and the expository language that reminds the audience who is who (and often who is disguised/shapeshifted into what), both speak to the traditions of oral storytelling. My favorite tale, and the one where Gaiman really shows his chops as a one-man performer is “Freya’s Strange Wedding Night,” a humorous episode falling just short of half an hour and utilizing such comedy mainstays as the Gilligan Cut and men poorly disguised as women. I was struck that our TV sitcom isn’t as new as we imagine it.

So if you want to honor that tradition of oral storytelling, I would highly recommend that you get an audio copy of Norse Mythology and give it a listen, even if you only hear one or two episodes in a sitting. Before we watch Odin as a con man in American Gods or Thor duking it out with the Hulk later this year in Ragnarok, it would be worth your time to dig into the origins of these iconic myths. It’s a far more accessible adaptation to English ears than an opera by Wagner.*

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 13, 2017. Learn more at

*—Editor’s note: the opinions expressed about Wagner’s operas are those of the author and do not represent the views of Nerds who Read or its antediluvian editor.