by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman has held a lifelong fascination with Norse myths and legends. As a young boy, he read a comic about the Norse god Thor. Throughout his writing, the theme of Norse mythology has been interwoven. His comic Sandman uses Odin, Thor, and Loki in recurring roles and features locations mentioned in Norse legend. His novel American Gods also takes many elements of Norse mythology and places them in the present day.
His latest book, Norse Mythology goes to the core of the myths to present them in an understandable, modernized manner. Gaiman opens with the Nordic creation myth. 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 in the fire world glowed and burned. “Muspell was light where Niflheim was gray,” 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, forming giant glaciers. The glaciers in the north were covered in fog and ice, but the embers and sparks from Muspell melted the ice in the south. 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 its 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, who grew into men, creating other worlds and making people whom Odin breathed into life, making him the All-Father.
Gaiman introduces 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. In “The Treasures of the Gods,” Sif wakes up with hair missing. Thor assumes that Loki is responsible because “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”
When confronted, Loki admits he did it because he was drunk. What follows is a long and amusing tale of Loki nearly losing his head, accidentally getting Thor his hammer and Sif regaining her hair.
Norse Mythology is like your favorite dysfunctional family. They are constantly at odds with each other, but underneath is a tangible fondness. Fans whose only exposure to the Norse gods is the Marvel movies will find the same vexatious Loki and kind but slightly dense Thor.
Gaiman strips away the flowery language and re-tells the myths in a straightforward, easy-to-follow way. Known for his characterization, he brings the ancient gods to life and allows the reader to believe, if only for a moment, that the old myths are real.
Devoted Gaiman fans 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. Gaiman’s comic Sandman: Seasons of Mists includes Thor, Odin, and Loki, as well as other characters drawn from different cultures, including Japanese and Egyptian mythology.
Norse Mythology presents the stories with humor and makes them accessible to readers of different ages. While there is some sex, violence, and 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.
Readers may want to investigate Gaiman’s Trigger Warning or Edgar and Ingri 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 conversational tone quintessential to Gaiman’s work.
The d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is aimed at young children and will be a welcome addition to fans of their Book of Greek Myths. Filled with color illustrations, 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, 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 read that will leave readers eager to learn more of Nordic culture and myths. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.