The first time Neil Gaiman wrote about the Norse gods, they were the con men at the heart of American Gods, subsisting off petty grifts in belief-starved America. Now, with Starz’s anticipated TV adaptation of American Gods set to debut later this year, Gaiman has returned to the Norse myth cycle in Norse Mythology, a kind of D'Aulaires-style book of Norse myths that gives them the structure of a story.
It’s no wonder Gaiman turns to the Norse gods over and over again, because they have one of the most appealingly bloody and petty mythologies of any pantheon out there. Loki, the trickster, is forever murdering and maiming for the sheer glee of it. Thor, the god of thunder, endlessly bashes heads with his hammer at the slightest offense. Odin, the All-Father, thinks nothing of plucking out his own eye.
And Norse mythology has been increasingly in vogue over the past few years, perhaps as a side effect of the popularity of Marvel’s Thor movie franchise. In books, the most beautiful and stirring of the recent retellings is A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, the story of the apocalyptic destruction of the gods. Byatt’s Ragnarok is lyrical and positively teeming with imagery: As you read, you can vividly imagine the dripping maw of Fenrir the wolf as he prepares to swallow the world, the sea frothing around the Midgard Serpent as she frolics in destruction.
But Ragnarok is uninterested in story and the satisfactions of narrative, which Byatt considers to be counterproductive to the project of myth. “Myths are often unsatisfactory, even tormenting,” she writes. “They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible.”
Gaiman holds the opposite view. He thinks that myths do tell satisfying stories, and that the Norse myths are more satisfying than most, because of the promise of the apocalypse in Ragnarok. “Ragnarok,” he writes in Norse Mythology’s introduction, “made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.”
And so Norse Mythology, in contrast to Byatt’s Ragnarok, is determinedly a collection of stories with narrative arcs and conclusions, peopled with characters who have consistent, coherent psychologies. Gaiman’s voice is not so much heightened and lyrical as it is grounded and calm, with a wry, ironic sense of humor that spills over into the characters’ dialogue.
Loki spins his lies with an oily, winking smoothness. Thor is straightforward and single-minded. And even the gods who feature only briefly in these retellings have distinctive voices. (“I hate you so much,” says Freya sardonically to Loki, after one of his schemes gets her engaged to a frost giant.) As in nearly all retellings of Norse mythology, Loki is the star here: His love of chaos is the narrative engine that sets each story in motion, and watching him lie his way out of trouble and then back into it again is one of the chief pleasures of this book.
Shaping every narrative arc is the knowledge that Ragnarok is coming, and that with each myth the gods bring themselves closer to their own destruction. And that foreknowledge, as Gaiman says, is what makes the gods “tragic heroes, tragic villains.”
But all the same, they remain true to their essential natures: Tragic they may be, but they are also, as they always have been, petty. Odin farts the mead of poetry into a giant’s face (and thus creates bad poetry). Loki shaves off the goddess Sif’s hair because “[i]t was funny. I was drunk.” The gods join together to bind Fenrir the wolf, who trusts them, with treachery: It’s a tragic moment, because the betrayal is what leads Fenrir to swallow the world, but it’s also petty, because after they tie up Fenrir they all stand around mocking him for a while.
Throughout the book, Gaiman keeps his characters walking a fine line: They are powerful and immortal and divine and tragic, but they are also childish and peevish and petty. That tension is part of what powers the stories as they move, inexorably, toward Ragnarok and the apocalypse, and it’s how Gaiman plays between the two extremes that keeps this retelling fresh, vital, and compelling.