Stories Of Mythical Proportions
Tripwire gave its Contributing Writer Olly MacNamee the task of reviewing Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Norse Mythology…
Gaiman is something of a storyteller for the modern ages, but with one foot firmly placed within the whimsical world of the myths, legends and folklore. So, it should come as no surprise that he now turns his eye to the Norse gods, and inviting us, the reader, to take up the mantle and retell these retold stories of yesteryear to our own audiences and in doing so, add our own spin on these tales that, even when they were finally recorded in writing, had changed from constant retellings across Scandinavia and beyond. These are malleable, ever-changing stories from a time when the oral tradition was the norm and, like the pagan scops, were told and retold around campfires in huge Norse communal halls. Gaiman, in many ways, is a continuation of this tradition and, while he utilises pen and paper, he does so as a more appropriate tool today; the novel. And, like the stories that take on a certain definitive version once they have been written down, Gaiman still find the ability to mould his own versions of the few remaining stories of the Norse Gods by marrying both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda together to form a single, coherent whole. With a beginning (in this case the creationist myths of the universe’s origin: of the birth of the world tree, Yggdrasil and the nine different realms of the Aesir and the Vanir), a middle (the exploits of, mainly, Thor and Loki), and an inevitable end (Ragnarok and the twilight of the gods).
These feel more like humourous fairy tales, in which the gods are the stars, but these gods are flawed. They age, they make mistakes, they’re far from perfect and can find themselves the butt of the joke at times too. For all Loki’s mischievous nature, he is outwitted, albeit by his counterpart from the wild land of the giants, Utgardaloki, in the tale, Thor’s Journey to The Land of The Giants. But, they are also pragmatic and unsentimental. They take many a-knocking, but tend to dust themselves off and get on with it. These tales are not only an insight into Viking mythology, but also an insight into their very culture and ideals. In The Apples of Immortality, for instance, the mourning Skadi looks for compensation for the death of her father. A compensation that reflects on the Old Norse traditions of law as practiced at the time; wherein all lives have a price and such disputes would be evaluated and judged on by the Althing. These judges, juries and executioners, so to speak, would meet once a year to hear such cases and decide on the proper compensation for, say, a lost life. There were very few tears lost in the old Icelandic sagas I had to heroically battle through back in my university days, but plenty of legal blood letting. All of this and more are reflected in these surviving tales.
With its imagery of Scandinavian wildlife scattered throughout the novel, and the odd changeling taking up such forms, it pulls you into the past and paints a sense of old Norse; a wild, tough frontier of lust forests, majestic mountains and gregarious but often gnarly gods.
Thor, while he may be a little bit more on the dense side than Marvel’s version – and the one most of you, I dare say, will be most familiar with – is also the Viking ideal. Not only is he as tough as they come, but he can take his ale too, drinking anyone under the table with his mighty thirst and voracious appetite! A warrior and a ‘man’s man’ you’d be happy to have on your side, but who embodies so much of this past society and their values. You had to be strong to live off the land of Norse men and women, and in Thor, we have the strongest.
Overall, these are fun, breezy stories told in a simple pragmatic style, as they may well have been told to one and all around the campfires of the past, in which all ages would congregate to hear the exciting exploits of Odin, Freya, Thor, Loki and others. But, amongst the cross-dressing and the odd puerile humoured jape, there is the shadow of Ragnarok that is cast from time to time across proceedings and reminding us, the reader, that in Viking culture, there is no escaping one’s destiny. And nor should you! From an early offering of Gjallerhorn, given by Odin to Heimdall, who “will blow the (horn) only one, at the end of all things, at Ragnarok” to Fenris the Wolf, son of Loki, who is chained up and lied to and will eventually eat the sun and the moon, also at Ragnarok, because of his treatment at the hands of the gods. See, I told you these were flawed gods.
But, these foreshadowing, matter-of-factly reported details only add to the joy of the novel, which embraces its subject matter and source material, retold in a manner that is short on description (to reflect the original writings own timbre) but big on adventure, adversaries and Aesir’s finest.
And their worse.
Now, go out there and make them your own too. Gaiman dares ya!
Norse Mythology is out now from Bloomsbury in the UK.