Neil Gaiman,
Norse Mythology
(W.W. Norton & Co., 2017)

When I was young, I enjoyed reading mythology -- which to most people means the standard Greek and Roman myths. And that's indeed where I started, although I no longer recall which books I initially read on the subject. I read the works of Homer, Ovid and Virgil, among others, but the stories sometimes left me cold -- feeling that there had to be something better than these petty, jealous gods and goddesses who valued human lives only to the extent that some were worth seducing.

I don't recall if it was Hamilton or Bulfinch, but tucked away at the back of one of those fine collections I discovered the Norse gods, and my interests blossomed. I read what I could find -- and, comparatively, there wasn't much -- until, years later, I enjoyed a trip to Norway and found some very good books on the subject I hadn't ever seen in the States.

Decades after discovering those old Norse tales, I still have a closeted fondness for them; they are sometimes silly, sometimes even childish, but there's a grim nobility to them all the same -- the gods know their fate and march unflinching toward their inevitable deaths because it's the right thing to do.

So when I heard that Neil Gaiman -- one of the great authors of this age -- was writing a book titled Norse Mythology, I got excited. Gaiman's grasp of storytelling is fantastic, and in his hands I was sure the stories would gain new life.

It hurts to say it, but the book disappoints.

It is, let's be honest, a perfectly serviceable retelling of the familiar stories. They are as entertaining, at a certain level, as they ever were. Gaiman tells the tales in a conversational tone, befitting their origins as an oral tradition, using language that would be easy for young readers to understand. It's obvious he has a great deal of familiarity with and affection for these stories.

But Gaiman doesn't bring anything terribly new to the page. He simply tells the tales, in a manner fairly similar to versions I've read before. There's some fresh dialogue here and there, and I'll be honest, I don't remember Thor kicking a dwarf into the pyre at Balder's funeral before, but nothing here screams "fresh perspective."

The book is good, but it's not outstanding. I wanted outstanding. It's like being told to expect a rare and exquisite chocolate confection, hand crafted by a gifted candymaker, and then being handed a Hershey bar. I mean, I like Hershey bars, but -- well, you see where I'm going with this.

Perhaps my error was in reading the book at all. I've spoken with several people who purchased the audio version, and every one of them has raved about hearing Gaiman read these tales aloud. It's possible his aim all along was a recreation of the oral tradition from which these stories came, and the printed version was simply a byproduct of the process.

Check out more Norse mythology here.

book review by
Tom Knapp

11 March 2017

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