Gaiman's Snarky Norse Mythology Works

Neil Gaiman
Norton, 281 pages

If I Had a Hammer...
Like many kids of yore, I devoured tales of Greek gods, dragons, ghouls, and monsters. Of all the tales, though, I especially loved Norse mythology. I’m sure that Mighty Thor comic books had something to do with it, but I think it was also because there’s something more “human” about the Asgard gods. To be sure, the Greek Olympians were every bit as flawed, lusty, and petty as Norse deities, but they were also more aloof—more like bickering philosophers than exaggerated versions of people you might actually know. By contrast, Odin was a one-eyed usurper who overthrew the Frost Giants, and his bearded, cloaked, slouch-hatted appearance made him seem more like a wizard than a god. He often missed things with just that one eye, so there was plenty of mischief opportunity for Loki, who was as much a spoiled child as a god. And his brother Thor had his magical hammer Mjollnir, but he was definitely more brawn than brain.  Add the beautiful Freya, the handsome Balder, and some elves, dwarves, and giants and Norse mythology paved my way for Lord of the Rings. Besides, who can resist gods whose realm is connected to earth by a rainbow bridge (Bifrost)?

As it turns out, Neil Gaiman had the same obsession as I. Who better to update Norse mythology than he? Few understand twisted stories as well as Gaiman, the brainchild behind The Sandman, American Gods, and dark marvels such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman knows good material when he has it and possesses the wisdom not to over-tinker. He hasn’t changed the substance of the stories; his is more of a hipster’s edit. He has shortened many of the tales and has rewritten them in his own voice: direct, snarky and filled with irreverent addenda. When Odin meets Hel, Loki’s half-rotted corpse daughter who rules the realm of the dishonorable dead, he remarks, “You are a polite child. I’ll give you that.” Later, Gaiman describes Odin’s novel escape from the giant Suttung: “Odin blew some … mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.” You don’t get Greek gods doing any of that!  Nor are their moral lessons the likes of: “No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass.” Gaiman’s gods bicker like bullheaded schoolyard children and are just as impulsive, albeit more deadly. Sometimes they kill just to cover up their mistakes.

Norse gods could themselves be killed. In fact, all of them perish in a final clash with the Frost Giants called Ragnarok, the Norse equivalent of the Apocalypse and just as preordained. It is, appropriately, Gaiman’s final chapter. But I don’t want to preordain anyone’s pleasure by delving more into this book’s content. To be sure, Gaiman’s propensity for being a bit too hip and snarky for his own good is in evidence in this book but if you’ve never read the Norse myths, or have only encountered them in the dreadful Hollywood Thor movies, Gaiman should be your starting point for a deeper exploration. If, like me, you enjoyed these stories when younger, read Gaiman for a glimpse back at your childhood imagination. A final note: Too many kids are sheltered from stories such as these today in the mistaken belief they are being spared from trauma. Nonsense! Kids adore gory, off-color stories filled with monsters and giants, so let them cross that rainbow bridge when they come to it.

Rob Weir

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