Review: "Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman

Review by Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen. Rasmussen is a historian of religion living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Read more from Rasmussen here.

The cover of the first edition of Neil Gaiman's  Norse Mythology  features a rather idiosyncratic depiction of Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir.

The cover of the first edition of Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology features a rather idiosyncratic depiction of Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir.

Since its announcement back in summer 2016, Neil Gaiman’s retellings of narratives from Norse myth have been anxiously awaited by many Gaiman readers, particularly those with a heart for Nordic religious heritage. They’re not likely to be disappointed: in Norse Mythology, Gaiman retells some of the best known and narration-friendly myths from the corpus in a fluent and captivating manner. The book is well worth recommending as an introduction to Norse myth.

Gaiman’s book is mostly based on the works of Snorri Sturluson, who, it may be uncontroversially said, is today considered one of history’s great narrators. Yet Snorri was speaking to a very different audience, perhaps one that was well familiar with the material about which he wrote. And so, for the reader who doesn’t feel like taking on the 800-year-old works of this medieval Icelandic nobleman, Gaiman’s contemporary retellings are a nice, entertaining, and enjoyable introduction from an excellent storyteller. Gaiman places himself in the material, so to speak, and, for example, often links together narratives by adding elements that that produce motivation where the source material is a bit more mysterious. This creates a captivating, smooth flow throughout the read.

This approach can also yield pleasant surprises. In a couple of cases I believe Gaiman’s way of weaving together narratives even produces convincing and even meaningful new interpretations. One example is his retelling of a narrative in which Thor meets a boy and a girl at a farm, Þjálfi and Rǫskva. In Gylfaginning, we’re told that Thor has two particular goats that lead his wagon. Thor can also slaughter and eat them whenever he pleases—they’ll simply regenerate. Well, as long as their bones aren’t broken. But in order to get to the bone marrow Þjálfi, the boy, hungrily breaks into one of these bones when he and his family feast with the god. The next morning, Thor discovers that one of his goats is limp. At first he’s very angry but later he calms down and takes Þjálfi and Rǫskva as his servants. Gaiman alters the tale by adding that Loki tempted Þjálfi into consuming the marrow with the promise that Þjálfi would gain some of Thor's strength.

Gaiman probably added Þjálfi’s desire for Thor’s power because it created tension, motivation, and flow in the story. But in fact the addition of this little detail adds a new dimension to the tale. In academia, there is a tradition of reading this narrative as a reflection of sacrificial practice: the bones of a sacrificial animal cannot be broken because they are gifted to the deity. The bones belong to the god. This is a common motif found in other cultures as well: the sacrificial animal may be identified with the deity through sacrifice—the animal becomes the god or is filled up by the god before being killed. According to this comparative interpretation, Þjálfi’s may have violated the laws of sacrifice by drinking the marrow of the bones.

There’s meaning here: the identification between a sacrificial animal and a deity means that drinking the marrow can be read as an attempt to steal some of the essence of a god. And when Þjálfi, encouraged by the trickster, performs this transgression, it actually works. Perhaps not in the way that he had imagined—but he does become Thor’s companion. Some researchers have noticed that Þjálfi is in fact a rather important agent in a number of narratives, an entity that behaves heroically even in the presence of the supremely ferocious god Thor. For example, in a narrative about Thor and Hrungnir, Þjálfi provides Thor with crucial backup assistance while the god kills the jǫtunn. And there are a number of indications that Þjálfi may have in fact been a bit of a deity himself in the pre-Christian era, perhaps a function of his relation to Thor. As is common among trickster figures, Loki’s creative trick spins something into existence. Compare, for example, Prometheus’s role in the trick at Mecone as found in Hesiod’s Theogony, in which a very similar event occurs in the context of a sacrifice. Þjálfi does acquire some of Thor’s power and, in turn, becomes something like a god himself. And there’s something about the way it happens that strikes me as mythologically meaningful. It's not like, say, drinking a magic potion in a computer game. Þjálfi eats the marrow and something happens as a consequence of that act—Thor acquires him as a servant—which effects the transformation that Loki in Gaiman’s myth had promised Þjálfi. Þjálfi is in fact transformed from an everyday farm boy into a minor deity, a central player in the few myths about him that have come down to us.

It’s unlikely that Gaiman is aware of any of this. Gaiman is not a scholar, but he is certainly a natural writer, a man who has had his quaff of the Mead of Poetry—mythology naturally flows through his pen and he’s in his element when he himself is weaving the story.

Throughout Norse Mythology, Gaiman hones in on particular moments that appeal to him. One can’t expect his choices to coincide completely with one’s own. In the story of the love-sick god Freyr and the beautiful Gerðr, he completely omits the whole crux of the eddaic poem—the strange, threat-based seduction with which Skírnir wins Gerðr for Freyr. Skírnismál, the lay from which Gaiman’s narrative is ultimately drawn, culminates in threats of black magic towards Gerðr. In the face of the ravages of such malicious spells, Gerðr yields to Freyr’s wishes—but only in exchange for his divine sword, a bride price to the jǫtnar. What does this all mean? This weirdly aggressive love, where the fertility god is subdued by heart-wrenching passion for a jǫtunn, who he must subdue with threats and curses—exactly how is this an icon of love? It certainly means something, and I would have liked to have Gaiman spin a narrative around that, not just skip over it as if Freyr and Gerðr’s strange and ancient divine courtship is something that we can all just assume to understand from our own concepts of love and relationships. 

There are several places where I particularly appreciate Gaiman’s approach. He creates a tremendous moment at the end of days battle, where Loki fights the enigmatic god Heimdallr. Gaiman seems to sense the importance of this situation, an importance that has not received a huge amount of attention in scholarship. But he doesn’t really expand. In tradition, Heimdallr is linked to concepts of order and distinction. He is represented as the origin of the pre-historic caste system of the age from which the Poetic Edda originates. He is thus connected to notions of society and social order. Heimdallr is the quintessential guardian of the passageway between sections of reality. In a sense he is a patron of things having their place, and he sounds the alarm at Ragnarǫk, the imminent breakdown of cosmic order. This is evident in Heimdallr’s fight with Loki, who represents chaos and the breakdown of distinctions. Perhaps Gaiman sees this—I’m not sure. Perhaps he just leaves it un-analyzed, an admittedly legitimate approach that he adheres to in most of Norse Mythology. He refrains from analyzing and expanding too much on what means what— after all, his goal here is to retell these narratives, not dismantle them.

Another nice Gaiman addition to established Norse myth appears at the very end of Norse Mythology. After Ragnarǫk, the new gods find chess pieces in the grass of the newly reborn world—chess pieces! Related stanzas in the Poetic Edda refer to tafl, a word which is cognate with modern English table, and is generally thought to denote a boardgame mentioned in saga literature. However, converting tafl—whatever it was at the time exactly—into chess pieces makes this element of the narrative understandable for us today. We know what chess is. Chess is an aggressive tactical game, a classic metaphor for war and intelligence, in fact a very good metaphor for Norse Mythology's vision of reality as an intricate weave of difficult, dangerous and sublimely human forces and interests. The new gods look at these chess pieces and see that they represent the gods in general. There are Thor and Odin and their opponents, the children of Loki. The catharsis that Gaiman creates in that paints the whole story as a game of chess that ends only to begin anew. Perhaps we are all narrative chess pieces in the myths, generations after generations searching for meaning and power. Again, Gaiman injects a tiny innovation that naturalizes the story for the contemporary reader, rendering it with an elegant mythological and existential meaning.

In general, I can certainly recommend Norse Mythology to Anglophone readers wishing to make their first acquaintance with Norse mythology, but it’s notable that Gaiman is best here when he is being himself, when he is inventing. This is visible in the little ways that he invents and ties together these millennia-old stories, stories that are at the end of the day—quite frankly—really, really weird. And though I enjoyed much of what he does with these narratives, I do miss the dominant presence of Gaiman’s creativity. Before reading, I was excited about meeting Mr. Wednesday of American Gods again. I expected that perhaps I’d find the Mead of Poetry in ayahuasca shamanism. Maybe I’d even be immersed in the incredibly dynamic, inclusive mythic imagination that Gaiman has to date so famously conjured, which fans have come to expect since his work with Sandman.

From the standpoint of one who grew up with Norse myth from childhood—I was born in Denmark—I feel positive about Norse Mythology. Yet it is hard to be swept away by yet another retelling of the best known Norse myths. So, please Mr. Gaiman, if you are reading this, don’t stop drawing from Nordic religious heritage! You’ve worked through the basics, the crown jewels, but there is so much more just begging for the Gaiman treatment. 

For example, there is other closely related material from Old English sources, myths that are only hinted at in the Icelandic material, or narratives that come from other sources such as the Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. There are archeological finds of a temple at Gamla Uppsala, Sweden with broad doors and walls of spears, and of a lava cave that appears to have been made into a temple dedicated to the fire jǫtun Surtr. There’s an immense history of people reinventing Norse deities in more surprising and fantastic ways than you can imagine. Rarely discussed records contain fascinating folklore. Consider these examples: Peasants claimed to have seen Odin riding ahead of dead warriors from a 16th century battle. A priest destroyed a Norwegian idol of Thor as late as the 19th Century. Mystics in 16th century Sweden conjured up runic kabbalah with one hand while inventing the modern Swedish language with the other. During the witch hunts, Icelandic priests forsook Christianity to clandestinely write down their devotion to Odin in secret runic poems. Today, Norse gods manifest in vodou rituals somewhere in contemporary, globalized Scandinavia.

I’d like to again meet Mr. Wednesday, this authentically contemporary, truly North American reinvention of Odin, who casts runes to seduce an almost underage woman at a cafeteria in small town America. I’d like meet Loki posing as the chauffeur in a big limousine with darkened windows. And—in our 2017 integrated Atlantic world—I’d like to see Anansi, the West African trickster whose songs of charm and troublemaking gave humanity to human beings, sharing a cigarette and a quick remark with Odin on a road trip to Ragnarǫk.

Updated April 11, 2017. Gaiman's responses may be viewed here and here.