Neil Gaiman is distinguished from other modern fantasy authors in that he is closer to a traditional story teller than almost anyone else. Myth teller would be even more accurate; and myth is the root of all story.
The great mythologies of the world run through Gaiman’s work like a red thread. From his famous graphic novel series Sandman ro his epic road novel American Gods, in which he investigates the fate of the gods that were brought along by peoples from all over the world into the great Melting Pot America, gods, legends and fantastical myths have always been dominant motifs in his work.
Now, in his most recent book, just published, Garman sets out to retell some of the iconic stories from the Edda, the ancient collection of Germanic myths that gave us Odin, Thor, Loki and their journey towards Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods.
From the beginning of the world (which involves a giant cow licking a man out of a block of ice) to the end, which is Ragnarok, Gaiman offers the reader a selection of the most prominent tales found in the Edda. While the original stories (but what is original in story-telling anyway?) are incredible in themselves, Gaiman makes them a little more relatable for modern readers by gently enhancing the inherent humor and the picturesque in them.
An example for this is the story of how the gods bind Fenris wolf with the chain Gleipnir. Fenrir, who mistrusts the gods, refuses to try breaking the suspicious chain unless one of them puts their hand in his mouth, to be bitten off if there is treachery and the gods refuse to release him. Only Tyr, god of war and the only one who ever dared to feed the fast-growing wolf, steps forward. Now, in the original, the gods betray the wolf and Tyr loses his hand and that is that. In Gaiman’s version, a kind of friendship between the shunned wolf and the courageous god who came to feed him exists, which makes Tyr’s act of bravery in risking his hand something more important and impactful: an act of friendship. In the Gaiman version, the moment Fenrir realizes the gods have betrayed him, he exchanges a look with Tyr, his friend, who gives his content and lets him bite off his hand to atone for the other gods’ betrayal. In the example of this story, you can see Gaiman’s approach to the complex of legends in a nutshell.
Loki, Thor, Odin – the central players, as Gaiman introduces them, and also the other gods and dwarfs and elves and giants, in his writing become incredibly vivid, funny figures, whose interactions are surprising, often bizarre and deeply human. This is also so in the Edda, but Gaiman brushes away some of the dust of the past to show modern readers through a more contemporary lense how wonderfully wise and weird these stories are. Mentioning wonderful and weird, Gaiman also enhances the imagery of these myths. His prose turns the mythical up to eleven by stressing the sheer bigness of the giants, the strength of Thor, the cunning and craftsmanship of the dwarfs. Reading it, one experiences the pure, innocent fun of exaggeration.
Bottom Line: A loving, respectful and very entertaining homage to an important heirloom of universal culture. Read.