Spring Break is all fun and games until one of the kids – your friend’s kid! the kid she trusted you with! – steps on a shard of glass poolside which lodges at a strange angle in her foot and you find yourself at Urgent Care. At that point you’re feeling EPIC ANXIETY followed by EPIC RELIEF after the doctor successfully removes the shard and treats the minor wound. For a better way to get in touch with epic emotions – or at least stories – pick up Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, a New York Times bestseller, reviewed by regular Bacon contributor Matt Osborne today.
From Matt: Until I opened the book that is the subject of this post, I had never read anything by Neil Gaiman, and possessed only a passing familiarity with the name.
I gather from our Bacon editor that this is akin to never having heard a Jaco Pastorius record, or never having seen a Myrna Loy film, or whatever other severe deficit of human artistic experience you can conjure.
In any event, I had no Gaiman canonical frame of reference for his latest book, Norse Mythology.
I did, however, have a subject matter frame of reference. Ever since coming across the name “Asbjörn” in a book of Viking history, I have had a strong interest in all things Viking Age. This includes the mythological worldview embraced by the Vikings before they adopted Christianity.
So, as background for a discussion of Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, here are the Norse mythological basics, which I have paraphrased and simplified from John Haywood’s recent Viking Age survey, Northmen:
The center of the universe is the great ash tree Yggdrasil. Its branches line the heavens, and span a universe of giants, gods, humans, dwarfs, elves, and beasts.
At the dawn of the universe there was a world of fire and a world of ice. Where the two worlds met (the void known as Ginnungagap), the water from melting ice gave birth to a race of frost giants.
From these frost giants were born the gods, Odin among them. Odin and his brothers killed the frost giant Ymir, subsequently using his flesh to fashion the land, and his blood to fill the oceans and seas. They positioned his skull to become the sky, and scattered across its interior sparks and embers from the fire world, which became the stars.
From found logs of ash (male) and elm (female) the gods created humankind. The gods then built their own splendorous city, Asgard, which sits at a point high above Midgard, where we humans dwell. The rainbow bridge, Bifröst, runs between Asgard and Midgard. Among those who traverse this bridge are Odin’s son, the god Thor, who protects humanity from the giants.
Within Asgard is Valhalla, the great golden “hall of the slain,” to which deceased warriors of renown are spirited at death to serve as the regiment of the gods. Valkyries, who are supernatural females of exceeding beauty (think Julianne Moore), select the most valiant warriors from among each battlefield’s dead, guide these chosen fighters to Valhalla, and once there serve them cups of mead and lay before them the finest foods. These warriors will compose Odin’s army at Ragnarök, the eventual and inevitable apocalyptic battle between the gods and giants, in which they will lay waste to themselves and to the universe.
Yet, from the certain annihilation of Ragnarök, a new universe will arise, and the cycle will begin again.
There are a number of difficulties that Gaiman faces with presenting this Old Norse universe in 2017:
— First, we are centuries removed from the original oral formulations. The Viking Age ran roughly from the late eighth century through the eleventh century, and the primary prose source for these myths – the Edda of Snorri Sturluson, on which Gaiman relies in part – dates to around 1220, well after the pagan traditions had given way to Christianity.
— Second, and related to the first issue, Snorri Sturluson recounted these pagan myths through his own Christian lens, and therefore may have inserted (consciously or unconsciously) Christian-oriented themes and shadings. (There is a helpful discussion of Snorri Sturluson and the Edda in Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings.)
— Third, the surviving stories are inconsistent with one another, and the same basic story may have multiple known variations, making it difficult to construct a coherent mythical narrative, and forcing a chronicler (Gaiman in this instance) to make certain editorial decisions.
— Fourth, some of the myths survive only in fragments, or passing references. As Gaiman writes in his introduction, “I can imagine [these] stories, but I cannot tell [the] tales. They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.”
Nevertheless, what we do have left to us in full form is pretty badass. Or as the Beastie Boys would say, it’s the funky sh*t.
There is Odin removing his own eye to trade for wisdom, and preserving the body-less head of the sage Mimir (“Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye”). There is the duplicitous Loki having his lips sewn shut (“The Treasures of the Gods”), siring the world-spanning ouroborus Jörmungandr (“The Children Of Loki”), and tying a goat to his genitals as penance for a killing (“The Apples of Immortality”). There is Thor’s mighty hammer and Freya’s golden hair (“Freya’s Unusual Wedding”). There is the blood of Kvasir being drained and used to prepare the mead that gives voice to poets (“The Mead of Poets”). And there is the cataclysmic end of the universe (“Ragnarök: The Final Destiny of the Gods”).
Perhaps the most famous Norse tale is that of Thor and the serpent Jörmungandr, with Thor exerting such force to pull the serpent from the sea that he rams his foot through the hull of his ship. (To see it depicted, enter “Altuna Runestone” into Google Images.) Gaiman retells it here in “Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition.” As expected, it is the most enjoyable tale of the bunch, with a giantess of nine hundred heads, a sea battle with a monstrous serpent that spits poison, a massive cauldron that brews the finest ale upon command, a spirited escape from a hall of giants, and an autumnal feast of the gods.
The collection then takes a dark turn with the final three stories, the first of these being “The Death of Balder,” which is lovely in its sadness. To save her son Balder from a death he has foreseen in his dreams, Frigg travels (as a mother does) to the ends of the earth:
She walked the earth and exacted an oath from each thing that she encountered never to harm [her son] Balder the beautiful. She spoke to fire, and it promised it would not burn him; water gave its oath never to drown him; iron would not cut him, nor would any of the other metals. Stones promised never to bruise his skin. Frigg spoke to trees, to beasts, and to birds and to all things that creep and fly and crawl, and each creature promised that its kind would never hurt Balder. The trees agreed, each after its kind, oak and ash, pine and beech, birch and fir, that their wood could never be used to hurt Balder. She conjured diseases and spoke to them, and each of the diseases and infirmities that can hurt or wound a person agreed that it too would never touch Balder.
Nothing was too insignificant for Frigg to ask . . . .
Yet, as the title of the tale indicates, there are limits to a mother’s intercessions, even if there is no limit to her devotion.
The penultimate tale of the collection, “The Last Days of Loki,” finds Loki, who has lived a life of deceit, menace, and malevolence, finally having pushed his fellow gods too far. Loki passes the remainder of his days bound to rocks by the entrails of his own son. A serpent suspended above him drips acidic venom onto his agonized face.
Ragnarök, of course, is where the collection (and our universe) necessarily must conclude.
In this last tale (“Ragnarök: The Final Destiny of the Gods”), we learn of the destruction to come – “the age of cruel winds,” when “[d]arkness will fill the air,” and there is “[o]nly winter, followed by winter, followed by winter.” In the aftermath of this great devastation, “[n]othing will remain of the armies of the living and the dead, of the dreams of the gods and the bravery of their warriors, nothing but ash.” The ocean “will swallow the ashes as it washes across all the land, and everything living will be forgotten under the sunless sky.” But Yggdrasil will survive, as will a woman (“Life”) and man (“Life’s Yearning”) who have hidden in its trunk. The daughter of the sun also will survive, and will take her mother’s place in the sky, “and [this] new sun will shine even more brightly than the old.” The woman and man “will feed upon the dew on the [new] green earth, and they will make love, and from their love will spring mankind,” thus renewing the cycle.
Gaiman presents these tales in a straightforward, if occasionally winking, fashion. With the exception of the Ragnarök tale, in which Gaiman seems to afford himself greater freedom, there is very little descriptive prose. Rather, the language serves solely to advance the narrative. As a result, being new to Gaiman’s writing, I am not sure I came away with much of a sense of what makes Gaiman Gaiman. Perhaps he did not view it as his place to insert himself into the stories. If so, that certainly is understandable, but the book perhaps would have benefited from an introduction to each tale in which Gaiman offers his own musings.
Still, it is a fine collection to have, with the tales having been written lovingly by an enthusiast, and it is gratifying to have these old gods back in the modern discourse. (At the time of this writing, Norse Mythology is high on the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers list.)
Could you read these stories to your young kids? You could, but there is plenty of sex and violence in the tales (though not graphically depicted), and Ragnarök may not be the vision you want lingering in their heads when you turn out the bedroom light.
So, on balance, I say save the stories for yourself. You could read one or two per evening, and use them as fuel to fight your daily battle. Integrity will be your polestar, and false-heartedness your enemy. If you fail or fall, do not despair — Valhalla surely awaits you.
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(From Jennifer, sidenote: My favorite Gaiman is The Graveyard Book (ages 10 and up). It’s one of my all-time favorite books, so tender, so poignant, on growing up, also so spooky and otherworldly. For a page turner, I liked American Gods, which I think Rick Riordan totally ripped off in his Percy Jackson series, apologies to Rick, but I think you did.)
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Top image: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_luissantos84′>luissantos84 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Bifrost and Thor: http://www.messagetoeagle.com/asgard-enter-ancient-kingdom-powerful-norse-gods/
At the gates of Valhalla: http://evilspeculator.com/at-the-gates-of-valhalla/
Beastie Boys: http://djbooth.net/artists/beastie-boys
Thor and serpent: http://pyreaus.com/inspired_manifestation/2013/pyreaus_inspired_manifestation_mythical_serpents_nagas_jormungandr.htm