For reference, this is a re-read, and sort of an accidental one. A few days ago, I ended up with far more time to read than I expected, and rapidly finished Popol Vuh, Fantastic Voyage, and The Diamond Sutra. For some reason, this book was still on my Kindle, and it sounded more appealing than diving into Plato’s Dialogues, or the collected works of Aristotle, so I decided to fill that unanticipated reading time with a re-read of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, which proved to be an excellent choice: it was just as good as I remembered it being.
In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more on this second read-through, partially because of my current context. As you know if you’ve been following along with the weekly reviews for awhile, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading this past year or so books that deal with either myth or ancient history, whether its the mythology of Iceland or Tolkien, and that has led me to my own thoughts about mythology and history, including a rapidly growing novel that draws from such ideas and formats for much of its inspiration. In many ways, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology feels like a similar project, a retelling of old myths in a new way. Instead of telling a new story inspired by those older sources, Gaiman actually retells a sampling of real, classic myths.
They are engaging and approachable, and Gaiman manages to insert his characteristic style without detracting from the mythic feel of the tales. There is humor, which also doesn’t feel out of place, and surprisingly complex character development, for all that this is a collection of loosely linked short stories in which the characters are largely assumed into existence and never fully explained. It’s not a comprehensive compilation of Norse myths, and it is not intended to be one; it is a selection, and each is retold masterfully by one of the more unique and interesting writers of modern fantasy. The first time I read this, I was actually inspired to do something vaguely similar, but as an in-world project…I’m afraid that’s still very much a work in progress.
If you’re familiar with the Marvel superhero movies, you will inevitably compare Gaiman’s mythical Thor with the science fiction superhero Thor, and Gaiman even admits that he was originally inspired to learn more about Norse mythology from reading the comic books upon which those movies were based. I was personally surprised by just how much research the creators of those comic books/movies must have done, because their science fiction Norse gods were in many ways surprisingly true to Gaiman’s presentation (which is theoretically closer in tone, style, feel, and substance to the original mythology). One does wonder how many people similarly will pick up a book like Norse Mythology after reading or watching Marvel’s Thor to learn more about the myth behind the modern story.
I consider Gaiman to be one of the more unique fantasy authors, which means that while I almost always enjoy his books, I tend not to seek them out as often as I should, because he is a very good writer. Norse Mythology manages to be just as unique as his other works, while staying true to classic mythology, so whether you’re interested in reading something you might not have come across before by a great author, or you want to learn more about Norse mythology, I encourage you to try Gaiman’s retelling of these classic tales.