by Neil Gaiman
‘The highest and the oldest of all the gods is Odin.’
‘Thor, Odin’s son, is the thunderer.’
‘Loki drinks too much, and he cannot guard his words or his thoughts or his deeds when he drinks.’
I came late to Neil Gaiman’s fiction and have not read many of his books – yet. However, I have already decided I like him. Combining fantasy with the everyday in a light, easy-to-read style of prose, he is a lot of fun.
Norse Mythology, a retelling of old stories – some familiar, others not so, brings to life the legends of northern Europe. Odin with his one eye, Thor with his hammer and Loki and his evil mischief are there, but there are many others too, in this collection of sixteen tales of gods, giants and monsters, adapted from the pages of the Old Norse Edda.
‘It was a snake, cold of eye, its tongue flickering, its fangs dripping with poison. It hissed, and a drop of poison from its mouth dripped on to Loki’s face …’
The roots of the mighty ash tree, Yggdrasil, we learn, joins the nine worlds together. The gods, or most of them anyway, live in Asgard, the highest of these worlds. To be sure, they are a bunch of vain, gluttonous, jealous, spiteful, lustful etc etc and downright wicked beings, but for all that quite lovable too. The gods’ continual war with the giants features prominently here though, for enemies, the two ‘species’ seem to seed a surprising number of monstrous progeny.
‘Thor was already taking off his women’s skirts, with relief. “There, that wasn’t as bad as I had feared,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve got my hammer back. And I had a good dinner. Let’s go home.” ‘
If you are familiar with the work of JRR Tolkien, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, or the Ring Cycle of operas by Richard Wagner, you will already have some idea of the kind of world depicted in Norse Mythology. It is a world of heroic (and not so heroic) deeds, of improbable confrontations and of magic.
Among the best, and funniest tales were, for me Freya’s Unusual Wedding, Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants, and The Mead of Poets. In the first of these, Thor disguises himself as a woman and pretends to be Freya in order to recover his stolen hammer. The second is a tale of illusion and impossible feats, while the third tells us where bad poetry comes from, as well as good. And if you like plenty of blood and spilt guts, you will find plenty of those in Ragnarok – a sort of apocalyptic vision of the last battle at the world’s end.
Our educators in the past have tended to bring us up on tales from the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome – and to be fair, Greek mythology is great stuff. But these Norse tales are great too, and Gaiman a first-rate narrator.
‘Odin blew some of the mead out of 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.’