We have forgotten the shape of the universe. We have forgotten how everything started, where it came from — and most importantly where it is going. We have forgotten the truth, and that is what mythology is for. Not for facts. Facts never tell you the whole truth of things. Mythology reminds us of the truth that all of us, every person who has ever lived, has always known but perhaps has forgotten.
So Neil Gaiman must remind us of what the Norsemen, the Vikings, knew to be the truth behind the world. Or rather worlds, for there are nine of them. He helpfully begins his book with a description of each, how they came to be created, and how they are all connected by the tree Yggdrasil. Then the stories can properly begin.
You can be forgiven for thinking that the stories of the Aesir, these gods, are all grimness and woe. The image of the stern Viking warrior wrapped in furs against an unmerciful winter is ingrained deep. But that is another truth Gaiman reminds us of: that these stories are remarkably compelling and often hilarious. Imagine that Viking warrior sitting by the fire with a cup of mead telling the story of how the mighty Thor once wore a wedding dress to get his hammer back, and it’s hard to keep picturing him as stern. More likely he’s laughing his guts out; at the idea of a god disguising himself as a woman, at Loki’s explanations for the “bride’s” gluttony…or at the hidden truth he’s being reminded of: that men are not above emasculating themselves to gain the symbols of their masculinity.
The sagas of the Norsemen have cast a long shadow over Gaiman’s career from his days writing The Sandman, through his breakout novel American Gods, to the children’s book Odd And The Frost Giants. When he says in the introduction that he would probably pick the Norse stories as his favourite cycle of myths, anyone who has followed his work wouldn’t have a hard time believing him. They could probably suss it out for themselves by now, anyway.
Norse Mythology is by no means an exhaustive retelling of every story and variant. Instead it’s trim and taut and makes for perfect fireside reading, silently to yourself or aloud to others. Not to mention a wonderful, non-scholarly introduction to the myths that have sometimes been lost to public view under a mountain of academia. Gaiman reminds us of the truth: these are ripping good stories and we’re lucky to have them.
Like the decorative patterns on the front cover’s image of Mjollnir (Thor’s hammer), Gaiman weaves together the stories he’s selected into an interlacing tapestry. “When something goes wrong,” says Thor in the first major tale, “the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.” This early, wry joke is made more bitter in re-reading because, of course, it all really is Loki’s fault. He evolves from simple mischief-maker to a character of real malice, culminating in the tragic death of Balder which is in turn only the last foreshadowing of Ragnarok. The “fate of the gods”, the future end of all things, turns out to be Loki’s fault. But it is also partly the Aesir’s fault. The story “The Children of Loki” shows how the gods’ own fear and pride stokes the wrathful vengeance of Fenrir and sets the stage for their demise.
Ragnarok is of course the first thing that comes to mind when people remember the Norse myths. And of course it contributes greatly to their aforementioned grim and woeful impression. But Gaiman reminds us of one last truth before we close the book: that after the nine worlds end, they begin again. The gods have fallen, but their children live on after them. Spring inevitably follows even the harshest winter. Ragnarok is not only a story of death; it is also a story of renewal.
The worlds as they were may be gone forever, but thanks to Neil Gaiman they — and the truths of which they reminded us — are not forgotten.