BOOK REVIEW: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-UltronAvengers: Age of Ultron opened across India today, April 24, 2015. This film is set sometime after the events of the second films in the Captain America and Thor solo “trilogies.” We know this because Thor is on Earth and the Falcon (in a cameo) makes an offhand comment indicating that he’s spending time looking for Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier. Furthermore, we know it because the opening scene is the Avengers working as a team to take down Baron Von Strucker’s fortress (re: Captain America 2 end-credit scene) in a fight to obtain Loki’s scepter. This scene suggests that the team has been working together for a while in taking down Hydra bases of operation globally. (Many have jokingly inquired why Steve Rogers (Cap) wouldn’t have called in his avenging friends during the events of the Winter Soldier film.  This film reinforces, rather than solves, that riddle.) At any rate, that opening scene contains an awesome action sequence.

The core premise of the film will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers for this film–not to mention the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films and post-credit scenes. Tony Stark (Iron Man) tries to “create a suit of armor around the world” and the program–dubbed Project “Ultron”–goes terribly awry.  After Ultron comes into existence, he quickly moves to co-opt the Maximoff twins (better known as The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.) Because the twins have an axe to grind with Tony Stark, they willingly side with Ultron. The Scarlet Witch is instrumental in Ultron’s plan. If you haven’t seen the trailers don’t finish this sentence, but for others it will be apparent that the Scarlet Witch’s mind control is used to pit some Avengers against either themselves or others.

The tone of this film is different from the first Avengers movie. In the first film much of the tension springs from unfavorable first impressions and standoffishness. Now the characters know each other and love-hate relationships are rife–some more loving and some more loathing than others. This may make it easier to relate to what’s going on between the major characters. The strained relationships inside the team remain an important factor, and are crucial to the films going forward–most notably Captain America 3: Civil War.)

While the trailers may have led one to believe this would be a big film for Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) given the flashback scenes, it’s actually Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) who has a more pivotal and revealing role in this film. (Perhaps to the chagrin of the many who wonder why he’s even on the team.) However, the evolving relationship between Romanov and Bruce Banner gets a fair amount of screen time–though the need to pack a lot into the film given the huge cast makes this drama feel a bit thin. The twins and their tormented past are also critical to the tone of the film. They hold an event from the past against Stark, but they are ethical people at their core.

The Vision is the character that has been held closest to the vest by Marvel. I won’t say much about Vision to avoid spoiling anything other than that it’s an intriguing character. I was worried that either the way this character was created or the effect he had on the story would be a disappointment, but it wasn’t.

I think James Spader did an excellent job of playing Ultron–a character that vacillates between being childlike and being a grim psychopath. (One may not get the childlike part from the trailers, but this is a brand new intelligent entity, and so it’s clever to show that.)

Like the first Avengers movie, this one has its bit of deus ex machina (bolt from the blue solutions to once insolvable problems), but it’s not the perfection of story that makes these movies engrossing. (I didn’t find it as deus ex machina as the first film–though there is at least one moment that springs to mind.)

What sells these films is: a.) the witty dialogue;  b.) the stunning visuals of the action sequences; and c.) the tension between characters both friend and foe. (Probably not in the aforementioned order.) On those three items this film doesn’t disappoint.

I won’t even bother to recommend you see it, as I’m sure–like everybody else on the planet–you will.