From American Gods, to The Ocean at the End of the Lane, to Anansi Boys (just to name a few), it is no secret that bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s magical fictive worlds find their inspiration in the ancient Nordic myths, which tell of giants, and draugr, irreverent gods, and giant wolves. But his most recent release, a compendium of the most famous of these tales, simply titled Norse Mythology, is perhaps his most straightforward interaction with his source material to date.Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a reminder that myths are made to be loved, owned, and cherished—that myths are as deeply intimate and personal as they are cosmological.
“As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wants to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from,” Gaiman writes in the introduction to his book.
And while Gaiman makes every effort to “retell these myths as accurately [as he can],” his Norse Mythology is admittedly not an academic treatment of the subject. As such, his volume simplifies a cultural history that is as rich and full of controversy and strife as were the Norse gods themselves. In an article for The Atlantic titled “The Politics of Retelling Norse Mythology,” Lisa L. Hannett succinctly summarizes the scholarly dilemma faced by anyone who dares retell the Norse myths.
Hannett claims that each author who tackles Norse mythology is like Ratatoskr, the squirrel running up and down the world tree Yggdrasil’s trunk, carrying messages from the dragon curled under its roots up to the eagle perched in its branches. Who knows what he’s forgotten on the long trip to the top? Since there’s no real “original” with which to make comparisons, it’s impossible to know precisely what a Norse tale sounded like in the first place.
The problem, in essence, as Daniel McCoy points out in The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, is that the earliest manuscripts (or fragments of manuscripts) that tell of Odin and his host of gods come from a historical period where Christianity was beginning to exert its influence on the Nordic countries. It is probable that the historical record of Norse myths were modified, altered, and amended to make them more amenable to the Christian faith which was spreading so rapidly throughout the region.
An example of this is seen in Gaiman’s iteration of the Ragnarok story, which tells of the end of the the world, but also speaks of a rebirth, of “what will come after the end,” when, “[f]rom the gray waters of the ocean, the green earth will arise once more.” Not only is this resurrection imagery reminiscent of the the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, a number of scholars argue that the idea of a rebirth after Ragnarok is itself a product of Christian influence, and not an accurate representation of Norse thought. For early Scandinavians, Ragnarok might very possibly have been viewed as the end of all things: annihilation without the possibility of rebirth. The story of Ragnarok is only one example of the ways in which Gaiman glosses over such historical discrepancies. Yet it is precisely his refusal to countenance historical and scholarly issues (even in the form of footnotes or endnotes) that makes Gaiman’s Norse Mythology such a delight.
True to the aims stated in his introduction, Gaiman offers his readers much more than a facile, rote retelling of the Norse myths recorded in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. Norse Mythology exudes its author’s passion for the subject, his genuine and heartfelt love for the worlds, characters, and creatures spoken of in the myths. Gaiman’s characteristic wit and banter-filled prose cannot help but find its way into the text. His reimagining of the creation of the cosmos is filled with the same, infectious sense of mystery and wonder as the Hempstock Farm in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. His version of Odin’s theft of the mead of poetry, a tale rife with weaponized eagle scat, giants, murder, and betrayal, reads like a campfire story told by a seasoned bard who knows these stories, and their rhythms, by heart. By taking these stories, adapting them, and making them his own, Gaiman is playing the part of a Viking skald, introducing an entire generation to these myths, making them accessible and entertaining, just as they would have been in their original iterations.
But more than an immensely enjoyable and accessible introduction to the major Norse myths—which it certainly is on both counts—Norse Mythology is, first and foremost, Gaiman’s love letter to these myths and stories of old; and it is here that Gaiman’s work is especially relevant to a Christian readership.
The Christian myth (the term myth refers to a set of stories that present a vision of the world as it is or ought to be; in this sense Christianity is a myth, albeit a true one) is much like Norse mythology, in that the Christian myth comes with its own set of scholarly disputes. In studying Christianity, it can be all too easy to lapse into an overly intellectual understanding of the faith, one that prioritizes rational theological precision at the risk of neglecting of the more relational aspects of life in and with Christ.
For Christians, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a reminder that myths are made to be loved, owned, and cherished—that myths are as deeply intimate and personal as they are cosmological. More specifically, Norse Mythology reminds us that myths are fundamentally affective in nature, designed to capture our emotions, our affections, and our hearts. The Christian’s joy and delight in reading the Scriptures is, in a way, similar to Gaiman’s love of the Norse myths.
May the stories of Odin, Thor, Loki, and other mythological characters compel readers to consider afresh the story of a man who parted a sea, a donkey that spoke, and a God who took on flesh. Through the hearing the stories found in the Bible, through experiencing the telling—and retelling—of the redemption narrative, may Christians come to love these old stories, and their Author, with all their hearts.