Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Review

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology in a bookstore brought back a memory from childhood: I’d been lying on a sofa, around seven years old; the sun was peeking through the curtains, and boy-me was clutching a book of myths I must have received from Christmas, feeling, despite the warm weather, very, very cold. I had been amazed at how much the book was drawing me into its icy world. There was an ornate drawing of some sort on the left page of a man going into a cave, and the text on the right talked about how brave he was for entering somewhere dangerous. That’s all.

I have a poor memory at the best of times, and most of what I read as a boy has vanished as years go on, but I remembered this. I needed to find out which story it was which had stayed lodged within my sieve-like brain after all these years, and so I snatched up both a hard-copy and an audiobook of Gaiman’s retelling so that I could stay completed immersed in these stories over the following days.

Gaiman’s soothing tone works incredibly well with bombastic stories like the Norse myths, rather than the comparatively constrained affair of his novels. His work has always been most interesting when it ventures into the surreal, such as in the Sandman comics, and so I went in optimistic and wasn’t disappointed.

There’s such a sense of fun here that it’s hard not to be tickled at nearly every page by both the delightful tone and raucous interpretations of dialogue. Characters like Thor are just delightful to be around, acting as the comic relief in a book which I expected to take itself extraordinarily seriously.

Eventually, around halfway through the middle, I realised it likely hadn’t been a cave in the story from my childhood, but a mountain-side needing to be cracked open. I realised the man I remembered hadn’t been a man at all, but a God. I realised that it had been Odin, and that the version I was now reading—where Odin tricks, fucks, and abandons a giantess—was likely very different from the one I’d found as a child. It was no less entertaining for all that.

Nostalgia plays a part in why this drew me in so much I don’t doubt, but Gaiman knows just the right way to pace a short story, and so knows just where to tweak old tales to keep things zipping along for modern readers.

I think the reason that this retelling is such an astonishing success is that if there’s one set of myths tailor made to become a comedy, it’s the Norse ones. Its characters are both endearing and frustrating, lovable and appalling; their values are so different to ours that their struggles for glory come across as comical, and Gaiman plays up these differences to tap what could be alienating for amusement.

Laugh-out-loud funny is a term which is overused, but there was a moment here which had me shaking in the middle of a train, trying desperately to look normal and failing miserably:

Gaiman’s interpretation of the tale I had loved so much as I child, in which Odin drinks the mead of poetry, ends with a chase scene. A giant has turned into an eagle, and Odin needs to quickly lose him before entering Valhalla.

The wise, temperamental king of the Gods decides that sharting (yes, sharting) mead into his enemy’s eye is the best way to handle this situation.

I really, really liked this book.

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Ragnarok: End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt – Review

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“This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories.”

During World War II, in the lush English countryside, a young girl discovers Norse mythology. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt uses a child’s perspective to explore how stories, even ones from a place very different to our own, can give us somewhere to escape to during difficult times.

Whether you feel this book succeeds or fails at recapturing the magic of ancient myths may depend entirely on which section you’re reading at that moment. While the writing is often beautiful, for example, the prose gets so purple at times Violet from Charlie and the Chocolate factory would be proud. I like over-the-top, expressive language but in a book this short, which tries to cover a lot of myths with a very small page count, I was left wondering why so much focus was being given to the types of flowers blooming back in England. Equally, some sections exploring Norse mythology are far more interesting than others.

The rhetoric of many Goodreads accounts and book-blogs circle around  likeability and relatability; in other words, current day readers valuem the degree to which you can empathize with characters. Because they are so different, a novel about the Norse myths solely would be a hard sell. I think this is why Byatt uses the third-person perspective of a thin child in rural England. She wanted to give us someone to connect with while still exploring the strange and twisted stories of Odin, Thor, and many other less recognizable figures. Unfortunately, the child is, while more grounded, flat as a character.

It’s often said that the superhero genre could be seen as a modern version of mythical storytelling. There are a number of similarities: super-powered protagonists, varying interpretations from multiple authors across generations often about world-ending events. The thing that really separates them, though, is that superheroes have human concerns. Deities? Not so much. Superman is relatable to a modern audience; he wants to date Lois Lane; he has a nine-to-five job which he struggles to balance with his private life; he looks dorky in glasses. Thor, as presented here, like to hit things and drink. That’s really all there is too him. Odin is… stern? Sort of? Angry, too, I suppose.

Gods’ concerns are higher than nine-to-five jobs: they have Ragnarok looming in the distance, and ice giants skulking, and mead to dine on. The children of Loki, however — a snake and wolf which are growing to unstoppable size — but are utterly fascinating. Byatt’s does a great job drawing you into the minds of these strange creatures and making you understand their motivations and very inhuman instincts. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about any of the Gods except Loki, as they never leave the page as anything more than inexplicably angry cardboard cut-outs. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been developed more. Byatt never feels the need to show us what makes them act the way they do the way she did with Fenrir the wolf and Jörmungandr the snake.

This whole book ends up feeling shallow, which is shame, because the potential was there for something truly engaging. Instead we were left with a short introduction to Norse mythology that isn’t as interesting as the real book the main character is reading sounds.