Perhaps our current obsession with all things superhero inspired Neil Gaiman to return to some source material. In his new “Norse Mythology,” Gaiman, one of our reigning myth makers and the author behind such fictions as “American Gods” and “The Graveyard Book,” takes a stab at retelling what he calls his “favorite sequence of myths,” starring the wise Odin, the brash Thor, the mischievous Loki, and a host of other gods and monsters.
These stories have survived the ages for good reason. Some of pop culture’s most engaging, and lucrative, entertainments sought inspiration, or stole outright, from the tradition of Norse tales. Take Gandalf and Thorin, characters from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” whose namesakes can be traced back to “The Prose Edda,” the 13th century text that recorded parts of the Nordic cosmology. We can tell an elf from a dwarf or a troll and know what powers Thor’s boomerang-like hammer Mjölnir possesses, largely because of the thievery of J.R.R. Tolkien and Marvel creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Any travelers from Middle-earth or the Marvel “Avengers” universe dropped into Gaiman’s novelistic reboot will find this fantastical place familiar ground.
“The world is a flat disk, and the sea encircles the perimeters. Giants live at the edges of the world, besides the deepest seas,” Gaiman writes in the collection’s first tale and creation myth, “Before the Beginning, and After.” “The seas that girdle the worlds” were formed from the “blood and . . . sweat” of a giant that the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve killed. “It had to be done. There was no other way to make the worlds.” A sense of doom, duty, and destiny seep into many of these 15 stories. But don’t look for simple battles of good vs. evil. The gods and heroes are as cunning, brave, quick-witted, and vengeful as we’d expect, but also foolhardy, illogical, and stubborn as the humans who dreamed them up. Many a legend turns on deceit, flattery, shape shifting, and disguise.
And humor. In “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” Thor’s hammer has been stolen by the ogre Thrym, and Loki schemes to get it back by offering him the goddess Freya’s hand in marriage.
“ ‘He just wants her hand?’ asked Thor hopefully. She has two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give one of them up without too much of an argument . . .
‘All of her,” said Loki. ‘He wants to marry her.’
‘Oh,’ said Thor. ‘She won’t like that.’ “
Later, on their way to trick the ogre, Thor dresses as a woman, and quips, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Gaiman is aiming for his own voice. He says he avoided rereading the versions he grew up with, such as “Myths of the Norseman” by Roger Lancelyn Green or Kevin Crossley-Holland’s “The Norse Myths.” Aside from the occasionally labored, Yoda-like syntax (“Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink”) Gaiman finds the right balance. He captures an appropriately legendary tone, while being more irreverent than previous tellers. Expect drinking contests, and farting. Readers needing a “That’s the god of what?” refresher will find the glossary of names handy.
As a novelist, Gaiman was likely tempted to imbue his heroes with rich inner lives and back stories, but he manages to keep plots clean and the chatter of inner thought spare. Still, even gods have doubts. In “The Children of Loki,” Odin exiles Loki’s monstrous bastard children — a serpent, an undead girl, a wolf — to various unkind fates. Later “he wondered if he had done the right thing. He did not know. He had done as his dreams had told him, but dreams know more than they reveal, even to the wisest of the gods.” Again and again, we’re reminded how cruel and surreal myths can be. Gods are tortured, betrayed, murdered for no good reason. Disembodied heads and eyeballs float in wells, as oracles. Our heroes sleep in a giant’s glove, thinking it a cave.
Taking a few modern liberties with the stories, Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology” delights in the gods’ petty machinations as much as their heroics. In these accessible, retold tales, fantasy is odd, and real, and dire. They remind us that even as the Norse gods wielded war hammers and magic spears, and smote giants that once ruled the earth, still they could not rule their own fragile destinies.
For it all concludes with Ragnarök, the Norse armageddon, when every heroes dies. “I shall tell you how it will end,” the story goes, extra poignant given our angst-ridden present. “It will begin with the winter.”
By Neil Gaiman
Norton, 293 pp., $25.95