Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

I love the Norse myths and am always interested in a new telling of them, so I've been looking forward to seeing what Neil Gaiman would make of them ever since reading about this book sometime last year.

I must admit that I balked at paying for the physical book though (and find writing about an e version surprisingly hard - I normally have the physical book sat next to me when I'm doing this, staring at my phone isn't nearly as inspiring). It's full price is £20 (it's £16 in Waterstones, £13.60 on Amazon) which would be fine but to fill the 300 or so pages the type is both quite large, and widely spaced. It could easily be half the physical size, which would take up considerably less precious book shelf space (the main reason I'm not fond of Hardback books), and book making resources. I think this might only be the second time that I've chosen to buy an e version rather than a physical book, it's certainly the first time I've done it because the physical book has been so unappealing as an object.

Now for the content - the bit that really matters. There's a short but really good general introduction, a   brief introduction to the 3 major players (Odin, Thor, and Loki), the stories, and then a comprehensive glossary. Without being dumbed down it's also a version which would be suitable for children - it's all good.

The introduction touches on the things that I personally find so appealing about Norse mythology; firstly that these "are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights, and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them". These are gods that seem to have come first from Germany, then travelled to Scandinavia, before spreading south and west through Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and northern England (Leicester was a Viking city, I wonder who they worshipped here). The Norse Gods also seem particularly fallible, prone to getting drunk and making mistakes - even Odin, despite his hard won wisdom, hasn't the vision to see he's sowing the seeds of his own destruction. And then there's Ragnarok - the end of the gods rather than the end of the world. Is it still yet to happen or has it already happened? It's the assumption of a new beginning after Ragnarok that makes the cycle so intriguing to me.

What I hadn't realised is how much of this myth cycle has been lost, Gaiman suggests that what we have left is the equivalent of only having the the deeds of Theseus and Hercules from the Greek and Roman cycles. There are goddesses aplenty for example, whom we have names and attributes for, but whose stories are lost. There are other figures such as Angrboda, the mother of Loki's monstrous  children who remains shadowy, a character just begging to be fleshed out (Gaiman draws specific attention to her in the introduction, I can hope that he'll write her a story some day).

The source material for this telling was (a collection of different translations of) Snorri Sturluson's 'Prose Edda' and the 'Poetic Edda' with a bit of picking and choosing as to which tales to include and what to leave out. The result hangs together well, doesn't get bogged down in repetition or detail, and is family friendly. The relative lack of characterisation is in keeping with the original sources, and also I think, the spirit of story telling. There are embellishments here, touches of humour and observations - but crucially there's an explicit invitation to the reader to tell these stories, and in the process make them their own.

I've read enough versions of these stories now to find them old friends (wearing new clothes each time), and value this collection for being admirably clear and concise, as well as being a simple pleasure to read. I'll buy a copy when it comes out in paperback and be pleased to have it in my library.


  1. It sounds like they wanted to make the hardback feel 'epic' by making it bigger than it need be, which I can understand but is a shame and a waste of resources.

    I think I shall probably buy it though... as I too love the Norse stories.

  2. I'm pretty sure I'll get a paperback copy because I think it's a good retelling, and I don't begrudge Bloomsbury, or Gaiman, making money out of it. I do begrudge the shelf space but that's my problem. A few reviews on Amazon have bought up the same issue about the formatting though - and I'd be interested in what you think when you have a good look at the book.

  3. I shall wait for the paper-back edition before I embark on this one. Big books are difficult for me to handle and I am really not that keen on the Kindle for this kind of writing.

    BTW, have you heard about the new gin from Oban Bay?
    I expect I shall buy a bottle the next time I go to Oban.

    1. I don't much like reading books electronically under any circumstances, I do sometimes use the kindle app on my phone but not often. I think the paperback is a much better bet!

      I hadn't heard about the Oban gin, so thank you for the tip. I think we're planning a trip to Mull in April, so if I see it I may well get a bottle :)

  4. It's no good - I went into my local bookshop and they had signed editions...