4 stars. Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the epic pantheon of Odin, Thor, and Loki. I came to this book with a casual familiarity with Nordic myth and left with a sense of its richness, grandeur, wit, and stoicism. Gaiman gives a very straightforward storytelling in modern language. I suspect these stories would work very well if read aloud; the prose seems geared towards being related by a storyteller.
I particularly like the characteristic of Norse mythology that its gods are not archetypes; like humans, they are contradictions of traits and neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Odin is brave and knowledgeable, yet conniving and selfish. Thor is strong, yet ultimately a little simple. And then there’s Loki, the consummate troublemaker who acts out of a sense of mischief rather than evil and winds up being both the cause of and solution to many of life’s problems.
Norse Mythology covers the gamut from creation to destruction, covering topics from the epic end-of-the-world battle of Ragnarok to the quest to borrow a three mile deep cauldron for brewing beer. These stories are gleefully puerile on occasion, such as Loki tying his privates to a goat to elicit laughs or Odin farting out the mead that causes bad poetry. Gaiman’s straight telling of these parts adds to the hilarity.
The strength and weakness of this volume is the same: Gaiman is very true to the surviving source material, which both makes this book valuable as a literary reference to the pantheon and restrains his creativity. I expected it to be a little more, well, Gaiman! Had he turned his inventiveness loose, I think I would have felt more resonance with the characters and stories than I did.
It’s testament to Gaiman’s talents that I feel that Norse Mythology is merely entertaining, educational, and enjoyable instead of mind-blowingly awesome. (Fortunately, American Gods is out there for a taste of what the author can do with the Nordic pantheon!)