If you stop ten random people on the street and ask them what they know about Norse mythology, you’ll probably get a few puzzled responses, in which most of the information they provide comes from the Marvel Universe. Yes, some might be able to throw into the mix some names like Odin, Thor, and Loki, but beyond that, the average person’s familiarity with Norse mythology is quite limited. In truth, the only mythology that somehow made its mark on the world is Greek mythology. Still, even in the case of Greek mythology, it’s an international affair (at least in the Western world), given that it’s one of the great empires of the ancient world, and its influence can still be seen in global culture today.
In contrast, we don’t know much about Norse culture, and a significant portion of what we do know is probably inaccurate. Perhaps it’s the physical or mental distance, but what do the Israeli audience and those northern Vikings, also known as Norsemen, have in common? Almost three years have passed since Neil Gaiman announced that he would release a new book that would unify Norse mythology. Finally, the book was translated into Hebrew, giving the Israeli audience a taste of the tales of gods and giants, monsters and dwarves, sorcery, and deceit from the distant North.
Anyone expecting Neil Gaiman’s distinctive writing style in its full capacity might be a little disappointed, because, in the end, this book consists of light folklore stories that have been passed down orally and etched into Norse tradition. Neil Gaiman functions here as a wandering storyteller who collects folklore from ancient sources and presents it to his audience in his own words. This doesn’t mean he conveys the stories without any touch of his own. On the contrary, those who look closely will recognize his subtle touch hovering above every word in the book, especially when Thor enters the scene and demonstrates his thought process… to put it delicately, it’s fascinating.
Neil Gaiman is a rock star in contemporary literature, especially in the realm of fantasy literature, so having his name on something is often enough to make it successful even before the ink dries. Fortunately, behind the big promises, there are not-so-small receipts because Neil Gaiman is one of the greatest storytellers of our time, capable of producing works in any medium he touches – be it comics, television series, short stories, or gothic novels. It’s no coincidence that he recently joined the impressive lineup of Master Class instructors alongside giants like Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, Jodie Blum, and others. But who among the readers who have followed his career over the past two decades needs the approval of Master Class to know that he is an exceptionally talented writer?
I approached this book with great trepidation after my last encounter with mythological stories ended in soul fatigue. In the early 2000s, I made a strenuous effort to conquer the Irish mythology. When I decided I couldn’t go on, I turned to Greek mythology, hoping the familiar setting would dispel the disappointment. Unfortunately, that didn’t help either, and I had to abandon this book as well. From a distance of years, it’s hard to pinpoint the main issue with these books, but if I remember correctly, they were inaccessible to the reader, even a reader with a battle-hardened mind like mine. In other words, there was something very academic about them, while mythology stories by nature are not supposed to be of that sort.
Neil Gaiman’s version of Norse mythology, although it is the result of extensive research and the integration of multiple sources of information, does not carry the same academic air, allowing the reader to feel that the stories they are exposed to are not far from those told around the campfire over a thousand years ago. In the end, this is the source of all mythologies – stories that passed from mouth to ear and created myths that continue to accompany us to this day. From this perspective, the stories in this book manage to preserve their authenticity, even if they are not written in an ancient and archaic language that would distance the modern reader.
In the end, it’s an enjoyable and enriching reading experience. While it may not be Gaiman’s best work (after all, there is a very high bar to cross after books like “American Gods” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”), it is a must-read for anyone whose heart has ever been touched by the word “story.” If they are fantasy enthusiasts that might learn about the significant influence of Norse mythology on the genre, history buffs that will gain a new perspective on ancient culture, or if just those who simply enjoy reading and would delight in spending a few enjoyable hours with a good book.
Four mighty hammers and one horned helmet.
Norse Mythology / Neil Gaiman / W. W. Norton & Company