By: Ajay Patri
Neil Gaiman, in his introduction, is quite clear about a few things regarding this new book of his. One, the way his own works in the past have been influenced by the Norse myths (anyone who has read his seminal series The Sandman will know this to be true). This is, in its own way, a homage to the source of his inspiration. Second, how the passage of these stories down the years owes much to a rich oral tradition that has gradually fell into disuse and the absence of written accounts which means that there are inevitable gaps in the narratives. Gaiman, by his own admission, does not seek to fill these gaps by embellishing the stories; he is merely retelling them in his own inimitable fashion. The result is a book that is foreshadowed by its rather staid title: funny and serviceable for the most part, but not particularly thrilling.
The stories present a roughly chronological account of most major myths surrounding the Norse deities. They take us from the time before the formation of the worlds to the adventures of the gods and goddesses till the final battle of Ragnarok. For anyone who has an inkling of Norse mythology, or who has played that popular video game Age of Mythology, the contents of the book should come as no surprise. It’s in the telling of it that Gaiman’s skill as a storyteller shines through.
For Gaiman wisely decides to take a slightly irreverent, almost tongue-in-cheek attitude, while relating these stories. This is wholly appropriate for the tales being told, for the Norse gods and goddesses do not subscribe to the idea of divinity as being a state of flawlessness, to be revered and feared and emulated by puny humans. Instead, they embody, to a large extent, the qualities that define human beings themselves. They are capricious, greedy, ambitious and often self-centred to a fault. They can also be, when the right mood strikes them, generous and kind to each other, prone to trust and make unbreakable oaths that often land them in trouble. And, true to a distinct human-like nature, they hardly ever learn from their mistakes.
These mistakes can often be attributed to Loki, that mischievous and most charismatic of all the Norse gods and goddesses, a trickster who is constantly plotting against his fellow deities and at the same time, saving them before things get out of hand. He is sly, manipulative and a virtuoso troublemaker. It is little surprise that the tales that have Loki in their midst are the most fun to read, from the way he needles Thor, the strong but dim-witted thunder god, to the way he lands himself in trouble and still manages to weasel his way out through sheer craftiness.
And through all this we have Gaiman pulling the strings expertly, telling these tales with a mixture of head-shaking disbelief at the antics of these so called deities while also alluding to the cultural remnants of these stories that are still present amongst us, from the names of the week that originate from the old Norse pantheon to the amusing origins of bad poetry and fishing nets.
However, despite Gaiman’s assured writing and Loki’s manic presence, one still can’t shake off the feeling that this collection could have been so much more. Part of this can be attributed to the fractured nature of the narratives, where one is left to rue so much that has been lost over the ages. The characters aren’t as well-etched as their potential suggests and their motivations are often hard to decipher. Part of it can also be because the stories being told here are a wee bit sanitised to make them palatable to a younger audience. One cannot help but wonder if there is a bigger version of the book, an author’s cut that is more ribald and violent as befits the stories of these admittedly libertine gods and goddesses.
The tales do get darker as the book progresses. We go from stories that border on the slapstick, such as Thor dressing up as an ogre’s bride to retrieve his stolen hammer, to ones that deal with death and loss, where Loki’s tricks take on a more sinister turn and bring him to a state of permanent conflict with his fellow deities. It all comes to a head when the final battle dawns, without too much of a preamble. Ragnarok as Gaiman describes it is a fight staged on a wide field, the gods and goddesses we have followed through the pages of the book going up against frost giants, undead warriors and monsters that include a giant wolf and a sea serpent with venomous fangs. It’s a fantastic piece of writing to end the book with, a chapter that is brimming with action and in which minor characters and throwaway actions from earlier stories take on renewed significance as the world goes down in flames as has always been foretold.
Given this firecracker of an ending, it’s a pity that the rest of the book cannot match the intensity of these final chapters. But for a laidback diversion, and an instructive introduction to Norse myths to boot, this book is a great place to go. As the book suggests, there are no perfect gods and goddesses. Perhaps there are no perfects books either.
Ajay Patri is a lawyer and writer from Bangalore, India. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, Literary Yard, Muse India, Spark, Open Road Review, Out of Print, Eunoia Review, among others. He is currently working on his first book.