Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the telling of a select group of Norse myths with the signature humor and down-to-earth prose of Neil Gaiman. It’s a fascinating collection of stories and is well-ordered so that the reader is often familiar with references to past events from earlier stories.
After an introduction that explains how Gaiman first became interested in Norse mythology both through the comics and then actual mythologies, there are a couple of chapters that largely provide background before delving into the chosen Norse myths in great detail. One of these chapters gives extended “bios”—if you will—for three of the most prominent characters: Odin, Thor, and Loki. Then there are a couple of chapters that both convey the timeline and of the spatial dimensions of the nine realms of the world the Norse created.
There is a brief story of how Odin lost his eye in the pursuit of wisdom that’s entitled “Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye.”
It’s from this point on that the stories are substantial and complete. The first of these stories is entitled “The Treasures of the Gods” and it’s about of how Loki created a competition among dwarf master craftsman. Loki does this in order to keep Thor from beating him with Mjöllnir after the god of mischief stole the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif (one of the items to be judged by the gods was stipulated to be a set of hair that would reattach and be as beautiful as Sif’s original hair.) The competition was Loki’s way of using a clever ploy to make the fix without it costing him anything and while at least sticking it to the dwarfs a little. The story is also well positioned as some of the items that are gifted to the gods in the competition are seen repeatedly in later stories. Loki creating mischief is a recurring theme not only in Norse mythology, but in this collection of myths specifically as they make for some particularly humorous tales.
“The Master Builder” is about a builder who shows up right as the Asgardians need a wall built. He claims that he can build it improbably quickly in exchange for the sun, the mood, and the hand of Freya (the most beautiful Norse goddess) in marriage. While all the other gods consider the price too high—not the least of whom being Freya—Loki convinces them that it’s an impossible task and that they can get free foundations if they give the builder a set timeline (a fraction of what he stated) and set another limitation or two. When they are on the verge of losing, the gods—suspecting the builder isn’t what he appears—agree to cheat.
“The Children of Loki” concerns a second family that Loki that is kept secret from the Asgardians. The three are an odd bunch: a girl who is half beauty / half corpse, the creature that becomes the Midgard serpent, and Fenrir wolf. Most of the story deals with the wolf child and the fact that they will only release the creature if they know that they can later bind it, but its strength is such that it seems to be able to break any binding. This story also explains why the Norse god Tyr has only one hand.
“Freya’s Unusual Wedding” This story revisits the idea of someone trying to negotiate Freya’s hand in marriage. Freya proves unwilling to take one for the team in order to fix the problems of other gods—in this case Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, has gone missing and the thief says he will give it back as a wedding gift. This time it is Heimdall—rather than Loki—who hatches a clever plot that will save the day.
“The Mead of Poets” This story revolves around a god of wisdom named Kvasir who comes into being after a strange treaty agreement between the Aesir and the Vanirs. Kvasir is killed and his blood is used to brew mead that is said to give imbibers the ability to write great poetry. This time it is Odin who saves the day and retrieves the mead. It also offers a humorous explanation of from whence bad poetry comes.
“Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants” Thor travels with Loki, and—eventually—with a bondservant named Thialfi (how Thialfi comes to be with them is part of a prank that Loki pulls that is explained at the story’s beginning.) The three were each subjected to a competition to see whether they were worthy, and it appears they weren’t.
“The Apples of Immortality” This is another tale that begins with a traveling trio including Thor and Loki. When Loki gets himself into hot water, he agrees to hand over the Apples of Immortality, which go hand-in-hand with the goddess who oversees them, Idunn. Without Idunn’s apples the Asgardian gods age and die like humans. Loki first has to hatch a plot to surrender Idunn, and then he’s forced by the angry and aging gods to carry out a plan to get her back.
“The Story of Gerd and Frey” This is a love story in which the god Frey (brother to the aforementioned Freya) is smitten with a woman named Gerd. Frey promises his magical sword, capable of defeating any attack, to his manservant in order for him to ask for Gerd’s hand.
“Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition” Thor needs to borrow the huge mead cauldron of a giant to make a massive banquet happen. Thor goes on a fishing trip to help grease the wheel with the giant, who is very attached to the cauldron. Thor shows both his legendary strength and dimwittedness, but ultimately wins a bet that will grant him ownership of the cauldron.
“The Death of Balder” Balder is one of the most beloved Norse gods, and he dies as the result of one of Loki’s vicious mischiefs. To call it a prank would seem to trivialize it, but that seems to be how Loki views these acts. When the overseer of the underworld (where the dead who didn’t die gloriously in battle go), Hel, agrees that she will release Balder if all the creatures of the world agree that he was beloved, Loki outdoes himself.
“The Last Days of Loki” Adding insults (literally) to the injury of having been responsible for the death of Balder, Loki heads off into exile, but is pursued by the Asgardian gods.
“Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods” Here we have a description of how the Asgardian end of days is to play out. The Norse gods aren’t immortal, but Ragnarok is the end of a cycle, but not the end of all existence.
As I mentioned, the first couple chapters offer more backstory than the extensive myths through the rest of the book. This works well as it gives the reader the necessary background in a readable and palatable fashion. Another nice feature is a glossary that includes all the named characters and major places mentioned throughout the book. The section of mini-bios at the front only covers Odin, Thor, and Loki, and so it’s beneficial to have a list of all the various other gods–a number of whom (e.g. Freya, Frigg, Heimdall, Tyr, etc.) play major roles in one or more of the stories.
I’d highly recommend this book. It’s extremely readable, humorous, and educational to boot.
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