Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Year of First Publication: 2017

Number of Pages: 293

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Mythology

Note: this post contains an affiliate link.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the Greek myths. What began as a school assignment quickly turned into a passion as I began to learn more and more about the classical world. I dabbled a little in other mythologies (mostly Egyptian and Irish), but as far as I was concerned, nothing could match the beauty of the Greek stories.

My preference is still for the Greeks, but I’m now finding out that the Norse myths are a lot of fun too.

As you could probably guess from the title, Norse Mythology is a collection of some of the best-known Norse myths as told by one of the world’s greatest living fantasy authors, Neil Gaiman. According to Gaiman himself, his main sources for this project were translations of the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, the two ancient Icelandic documents from which we derive nearly all of our knowledge of Norse mythology. He then took those stories and rewrote them in his own words.

I suppose I should mention now that my knowledge of Norse mythology effectively ends with this book and Bulfinch’s Mythology. I have no idea how true or untrue Gaiman is to the original Eddas, nor can I tell you how this book measures up to other retellings. All I can tell you is what impression the stories themselves made on me.

Odin by Arthur Rackham. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

So, this book has been on both the New York Times bestseller list and Amazon’s Top 100 Books list ever since its release in February. It’s been a huge success, and I think there’s a good reason for that, one that doesn’t have to do with Gaiman’s notoriety as an author or the Marvel Cinematic Universe: while the world of the Norse myths can be very dark and harsh, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through these stories. No matter what kind of harrowing adventures these characters get into, the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose (eventually). I know I’m not the first person to observe that our entertainment has gotten dreadfully cynical as of late, full of anti-heroes and ambiguous villains. There’s something to be said for a good anti-hero or a complex villain, but every now and then, you want to be reminded of brave warriors and heroic courage, to steal a line from C. S. Lewis. This is what myths and legends are for, and this is why, no matter who you are, how old you are, or where you’re from, these stories will resonate with you.

In addition to being rollicking fantasy tales, the Norse myths can also be very funny. For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that Norse mythology is dark and serious all the way through, so I was surprised when I found myself laughing—hard and loud at 1 o’clock in the morning—over some of these stories. It’s not a type of humor that everyone will necessarily enjoy: some of it is a little dark and most of it is crude. But I laughed nonetheless.

Another thing that surprised me in this book was the narration. I anticipated that the tone in these retellings would be similar to the tone that Gaiman uses in his adult fiction, things like The Ocean at the End of the Lane or “’The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains’” (both of which I highly recommend, by the way). Instead, the vocabulary is simplified and there’s less of that sense of mystery and suspense that you sometimes see in Gaiman. But, because this book is intended for all ages, I can understand why he would choose to adopt a more straightforward writing style.

That’s all for now. What about you all? Who’s read this book and what did you think? What other books on Norse mythology would you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

One thought on “Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

  1. I’m midway through reading this book now. I’m a small branch librarian so when one of my patrons wanted it I gave it to them first (I’m not saying it was easy), but it’s just come back. I agree with what you say about the straightforward tone. I wonder if that’s part of the way the originals were told. I was surprised at how much humor still comes through, despite that. I’m looking forward to finishing the rest now, and here’s to some happy endings!

    Liked by 1 person

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