If you have any basic knowledge of Norse Mythology and then picked a Neil Gaiman novel out of a hat, it is probable you’ll discover the author’s love for it strewn about in his many references both obvious and subtle. It’s no surprise that he would eventually be more direct and write his own take on the likes of Thor, Odin, Loki, and Balder to name a few. The result is Gaiman’s latest book, Norse Mythology.
Gaiman captures the writing style of a mythology book while adding his own flair for prose. The author has always had a deft hand with the grim and violent. He knows when to be explicit, when to be subtle, and his take on the Norse gods handles this just as well. Neil Gaiman is no stranger to third-person omniscient point-of-view for his books but pick-up a book of Greek Mythology, Celtic Mythology, or even the Bible and you’ll notice that style Neil Gaiman is capturing. It’s that use of proper nouns more often than pronouns that tell us these figures are important.
They are, at least, important to the author who begins Norse Mythology relating his own beginnings with Asgard. What started with Marvel’s version of Thor from Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Larry Lieber soon transitioned to Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green. For those like him who are approaching this book from Marvel’s comics or cinematic universe, Gaiman makes it clear that Odin is “brilliant, unknowable, and dangerous”, Thor isn’t “the brightest of the gods” and Loki is “complicated” being “not evil, although he certainly was not a force for good.”
More than regurgitating older books of Norse Mythology, Gaiman gives his own spin which could not be more clear in the role women play in his take on the gods, giants, elves, and dwarves. His Norse goddesses and giantesses fight back, stand-up for themselves, subvert their husband’s wishes, and in general, are not having the bumbling decisions the likes of Thor, Odin, and Loki makes. However, as this is a retelling, just because the women like Freya and Auruboda have stronger presence and voices in Norse Mythology does not mean they get the prominent roles they deserve.
Besides that, the only other criticism is how short the book feels. Less than three hundred pages went by in a flash and left me wanting more stories and of different gods. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is mostly the Thor, Loki, and Odin show with some bits of other gods, giants, elves, and dwarves thrown about. On the other hand, the author makes this clear when they’re the only three gods who are introduced at length in the beginning of the book. If he didn’t make tales of myth so entertaining then this wouldn’t even be a valid critique.
That’s one of the major differences between this and other books on Norse Mythology, in that besides adding the flourish that is associated with Gaiman he also adds his wit. The gods, even stern Odin, are actually quite funny. The Allfather has that dry sense of humor, his blood brother Loki is clever with his wit, while his son Thor has the humor of a boisterous loudmouth.
The stories both stand on their own and interweave together beginning with the creation of the world and the end of it. It is Thor who gives the best advice in The Treasures of the Gods you can carry with you as a theme for the rest of the book. In it, he tells his wife Sif when she asks why he blames Loki for some misfortune
“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”
As much as this version of Thor is dumber than a bag of hammers, in this respect, he is right.