“Before the beginning there was nothing – no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.”
~ Neil Gaiman (Norse Mythology)
The Norse gods are unlike any other gods.
They are not invincible, indestructible, or all-knowing. They are not without their insecurities and weaknesses. The gods are not flawless. They can be rash and headstrong; they are easily fooled and surprisingly petty; they are vain, competitive to a fault, moody, and jealous. They drink too much and get themselves into trouble. They fall in love and ache with all the yearning of a sex-starved teenager. They are slaves to their fate, and they fight it with as much fear and ambition as we do.
They are the very image of humanity – only amplified.
In his retelling of some of the greatest Norse myths ever told, Neil Gaiman has brought the gods to life. Literally. They spring up before our eyes after the creation of the giant Ymir, when the fires of Muspell met the ice of Niflheim.
First he introduces us to the players of the game: Odin, the all-father, the wisest and oldest of the gods; Thor, son of Odin, the volatile thunderer and strongest of all the gods; and Loki, god and yet not god, the craftiest and shrewdest of the Aesir who hinders them as much as he helps them.
There are times when Loki is so clever and his ideas so ingenious that you want to kiss him. And there are times when you just want to smack him as hard as you can. Even Freya is not what you would imagine a goddess of beauty and fertility to be. She is fierce, angry and strong; even Thor would rather play the part of a blushing bride than dare to induce Freya’s wrath.
These are the players, and Gaiman walks us through the game with all the skill and finesse of a truly exceptional wordsmith. I practically flew through this book. And when I finished it, I closed it and then opened it up to the very beginning and read it again. This is the sort of book I want to read aloud to my closest friends as we sit around a roaring fire and the frost creeps in around us.
The power of Gaiman’s language conjures up the Bifrost. It transports you not just to Asgard, but through all the nine worlds as we join the gods on their journeys and adventures through the lands of dwarfs, giants and elves. We climb the branches of Yggdrasil to watch as Odin hangs beneath it in a sacrifice to himself. We can’t help but snigger as the dwarves, Eitri and Brokk, work together to forge Thor’s famous hammer, Mjollnir, despite Loki’s best efforts to hinder them.
But perhaps the most magnificent thing about Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is how he shows us that in spite of the gods combined knowledge and wisdom, their insights into the future, their immense power and boisterous confidence, they are as much afraid of the future as us.
It is their very efforts to change the future that assures their own doom. They are afraid. And that fear goes down to their very core.
It is Odin’s terror of Fenrir’s strength which drives him to create the magical bindings that hold him, ultimately turning the wolf against the gods. It is the Aesir’s refusal to attempt to understand the frost giants that keeps them as enemies when they might have been allies; after all, they have more in common than they realise. It is their binding of Loki deep beneath the earth as a poisonous snake drips venom into his eyes that fulfils the prophecy of the dead wise woman. Her words haunt Odin: “No one will come to see me now until my husband, Loki, escapes from his bonds and returns to see me, and Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, tearing all asunder, approaches.”
The Norse gods are the ultimate tragic heroes because no matter what they do and how they prepare, they are doomed to die. And yet, they’re not necessarily doomed to fail. After the final battle between the gods and their enemies, there will be a fiery inferno that incinerates all, and after the end of the world will be the beginning of a new one.
And so the game begins anew.
I can only hope that someday Neil Gaiman will decide to write a second volume (and perhaps a third and a fourth) filled with more adventures from Norse mythology that I can read aloud to friends around our own roaring campfire under the stars.