Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (Narrated by the Author)
Released 24/02/2017 (Audible UK)
The Short Version: An extremely enjoyable if man-heavy set of tales, well suited to Gaiman’s prose style and to audiobook format. But will humans of the future think his are the only versions? (Probably not.)
Rating: 8 strands of magical hair out of 10
How does one come to appreciate a mythology that no longer exists in any complete form? If I’m to understand Neil Gaiman and the rest of the internet correctly, the answer in the case of the Norse Gods is to turn to Marvel comics, and their loving adaptation of Thor and friends as part of their superhero stable over the past half-century. Certainly, Gaiman is very open and unapologetic (rightly so!) about arriving at the stories from that angle, but he’s obviously come to a rather fuller understanding of the surviving texts to write this retelling of the Gods of Asgard and the little we know of their soap opera lives. To be fair, I wouldn’t know if he’d only read/watched Thor before writing this, given that I haven’t read/watched Thor (or read the Poetic Edda), but I’m going to assume that Marvel has less high stakes blacksmithing and salmon fishing in their versions, whereas Gaiman and his literary predecessors have us well covered there – hurrah!
Norse Mythology weaves together an overarching narrative out of a patchwork of myths, mostly starring Odin, immensely wise father of the Gods; his hammer-wielding and considerably less wise son Thor; and Loki, the original* That Fucking Guy We Can’t Just Stop Hanging Around With. There’s also a rotating cast of godly relatives, giants, animals, love interests, animal love interests, and (most controversially) dwarves without Scottish accents, taking us all the way from the birth of the world to the end days of Ragnarok, and beyond into the next world to come.
I’ve had mixed success with Neil Gaiman in print, but Norse Mythology works brilliantly as an audiobook with the author’s narration – this is literally the perfect fit for his matter-of-factly magical prose style. The tales are mostly around half an hour long, which is a great length for making bread dough, tidying a single cupboard (if your cupboards look like mine), filling a moderate commute or giving yourself a bedtime story. Having come to this from the full-cast recording of Dune, which spared no expense when it came to odd background noises, I would have loved some 5-second musical interludes between chapters to demarcate them better, but that’s hardly a substantive criticism. The stories themselves hold up well, with lots of trickery and suspense and bizarre magical happenings and a sense of good mostly triumphing at the end of each story, although with enough creeping victories for evil to set up the total devastation of the finale.
Gaiman notes in the introduction that the stories that have been recorded are disproportionately those of the men of Asgard, and that the tales behind many of the women have been lost entirely. That imbalance is very clear here: Freyja shows up a few times as a loudly unwilling prize to giants who come seeking her hand in marriage, and other women like Sif and Hel also have moments, but the actors are almost exclusively men. I assume from the mention in the introduction that Gaiman is very conscious of this lack, and that it was likewise a conscious decision to remain true to the source material at the expense of using artistic license to give these ladies more screen time. On a purely personal level, I’d have liked to read “Gaiman’s newly invented version of Frejya and Sif and Frigg’s fabulous lady happenings”, but I understand why objectively that would be a much more controversial and upsetting choice – I have seen concerns elsewhere that having an author with a profile as high as Neil Gaiman risks “canonicising” this version of Norse Mythology at the expense of other interpretations.
I get this – I had only vague knowledge of any of these stories before the audiobook, and as I’m unlikely to ever seek out older versions for fun, for me this is the primary lens through which I’m going to think about these stories for the foreseeable future. One of the limitations of audiobook in particular is that you can’t easily add a bibliography for people looking to seek out more information (does the print book have one?), and I came away feeling like I had only a slightly clearer idea of where I’d go looking if I were to suddenly decide to start studying original texts and scholarly introductions to the myths. But then, far more kids since 1962 have only ever met this Thor:
Or, as of 2011, this one:
And yet the fuller, more nuanced version survives for as long as there are people to curate and look after the information we have left. If Neil Gaiman serves as another conduit for interpreting these stories at the expense of complexity for casual readers, I’d hope he acts as a gateway drug for enough future mythology nerds to keep any long-term flattening of these myths at bay. Until we all turn on each other and then get drowned by the Midgard Serpent, that is.
*Probably not the original, I think this guy has been around for all of human history.