London: Bloomsbury, 2017
XIX + 279 pp
The impact of Norse mythology on western culture and, particularly, British culture is enormous but often underestimated. Four of the seven days of the week are named after Norse gods, two named after pagan gods and the remaining one is named after a Roman god (the Romans demonstrate their influence through the names of many of the twelve months of the year). Most people have at least heard of Odin and Thor and might recognise the lightning bolt and the hammer, although knowledge is more likely to come from the Avengers these days. Yet the real nature of the original figures has been obscured by the imposition of monotheism and centuries’ of propaganda trivializing their lives and personalities. The great advantage of having a polytheistic view of the universe is that it can be acknowledged that some gods are better than others and that none is perfect. There is no need to pretend that the supernatural big brother is all-perfect and all-knowing and all the palaver about trying to explain how a good god permits evil to persistently to prevail, often unchallenged, can be forgotten. Instead, we can reflect in a more mature way on the nature of reality, the nature of our obligations to others and to society and, indeed, the answers to the great questions of life, the universe and everything.
Any retelling of these tales, to refresh and reinvigorate our interest, would be welcome. This one, by Neil Gaiman, is already apparently the biggest selling title of 2017 and the sales figures will probably only increase when his best-known book American Gods begins to be screened in television form later this year (as I heard on the Guardian Books podcast the other day). Despite Gaiman’s fame and renown, I had not read any of his books before (on the basis that I cannot read everything) but this seemed to be a good place to start and so I picked up a copy at San Min in Taipei the other week. I am glad that I did because this is a very readable and enjoyable collection of tales and one which covers both most well-known episodes and some lesser known ones as well. We have the opportunity to meet of course Odin and Thor but also Tye, Heimdall, Hel, the Fenris Wolf, the world-circling serpent and the unavoidable and inscrutable Loki. Thor is a bit of a buffoon but every creature is afraid of his hammer and without him Asgard would certainly be conquered. Odin is slightly enigmatic and has made a sacrifice of himself to himself, hanging from the world-tree Yggdrasil and giving up an eye to gain wisdom. His two ravens are constantly whispering the events of the world into his ears, as if he were connected with a precursor to the internet or at least to Twitter. He appears to be more creative than destructive but a little more about him would have been welcome. As for Loki, he is the principal mover behind many of the events, for good and ill and, even when he is not, he is often called upon to rescue the situation. He is not presented as evil or mischievous so much as he is constantly active. He has children who turn into monsters but that does not appear to be his fault as a parent. It is tempting to play the game of which god represents which part of the human psyche and this is one of the strengths of the book in that it is possible to consider the personalities of mythic creatures developed in the pre-Freudian era. That he is able to recreate these myths in a language different from the ones in which they were created is probably an advantage in this respect as he is freed from the need to use well-established adjectives and descriptive titles.
There remain many mysteries in this world of myths: why are there so many different realms, for example and why are the giants so much more powerful than the gods? What are the elves and the dwarfs (or dark elves)? What is the source of the magic and the magic artifacts that give the gods dominion over the world? The events that take place in a previous iteration of the universe and it is the death of the gods at Ragnarok that ushers in the current universe when mankind is born from Yggdrasil to claim mastery of creation. We do not live in the same world as the gods, therefore, who presumably cannot be judged according to our concepts of ethics and morality, unlike the gods of Greece who continually meddle with the lives of ordinary people, as well as princes and generals.
There is a slightly cartoonish element to this book in that dirty, sweaty and visceral descriptions are absent. Giants die often in multitudes but in silence and more or less off-screen. Gods and goddesses occasionally make love but have no body parts. It is a book that would not scare the horses. However, it is a very enjoyable book and one which is likely to inspire many people to take a more sophisticated approach to the myths that have done so much to influence the way we see or at least describe the world.