And Then I Read: NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

Cover illustration by Sam Weber.

Myths and legends have continually been reinterpreted for new audiences throughout human history, and this has been one of the threads running through Neil Gaiman’s writing career, from SANDMAN to “American Gods” to “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.” Here he turns to the Norse myths that fascinated him as a child, and still do (some of the Norse gods appear in the first two of the titles just mentioned). In his Introduction, Neil writes that he first encountered Norse gods in the pages of THOR, the comic series largely by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that began as lead stories in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY before Thor and  took over that title completely.

Image © DC Comics.

I also found the Norse gods in comics, first in BATMAN #127, cover-dated Oct. 1959, one of the first comics I ever owned. It’s not much of a story, 8 pages in which the apparent actual Hammer of Thor, in a museum of curiosities, is struck by a meteor, giving it the power to turn its owner into the god of thunder and become a powerful thief, until Batman tricks Thor into throwing his hammer at an electrical circuit box, where the surge of electricity cancels out its magic powers and returns the owner to his normal self. A silly story, but the visuals of Thor were impressive and exciting to me at the age of nine.

The next place I found the Norse gods was in a ten-volume set of stories for young readers, “The Junior Classics,” published by Collier & Son in 1918, given to us by my father’s parents. Some volumes didn’t interest me too much, but the ones on myths and legends I read over and over. Above is the contents page for the Norse myths included, not many, but enough to get a feel for the scope and depth of Norse mythology. These stories were not as appealing as the ones about Greek and Roman gods and myths, but I liked them nearly as much.

Image © Marvel.

So when I discovered Lee and Kirby’s THOR in the pages of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, probably with this issue from 1964, the characters resonated with me, even though the comics versions were fairly different from the ones in my book of myths. The exciting and dynamic art and the clever stories helped make these comics appealing, even though elements from the original myths were often few and far between.

As time went on I enjoyed later comics about the Norse gods, such as Walt Simonson’s run on THOR, but I don’t think I ever read any more about the original myths and legends, and certainly didn’t read any of the source texts, like the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda from the 13th century, which collected many of those tales previously handed down only in the telling. Seems to me the Norse myths did not get as much attention in modern media as those of Greece and Rome, though they certainly influenced writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, who incorporated Norse ideas about goblins, trolls and elves into his work, but did not write about the Norse gods themselves.

So, back to the Gaiman book. Neil has gone to the original sources and retold many Norse myths with his own unique style and approach that gives them a contemporary feel while retaining all the mystery and magic of the sources, or so it seems to me. His gods are quite human in some ways; quarrelling, boasting, scheming, and lusting, but also have the powers and magic, the uncanny strength and appetites, that set them apart from the common man. Odin is wise, but also at times petty and cruel. Thor is not terribly bright, no matter his vast strength, and Loki is always scheming and making trouble. These gods are fun to read about, and can be impressive one moment and unwittingly foolish the next, but they often have tragic stories in the long run. Neil’s telling adds dry humor, thoughtful insight and modern perceptions that help us relate to the characters even in their wildest moments. Let’s compare a section from one of my favorite stories, which the Collier book calls “How Thor Went to Jötunheim.” From the text there by A. and E. Keary:

     Once upon a time, Asa Thor and Loki set out on a journey from Asgard to Jötunheim. They travelled in Thor’s chariot, drawn by two milk-white goats. IT was a somewhat cumbrous iron chariot, and the wheels made a rumbling noise as it moved, which sometimes startled the ladies of Asgard, and made them tremble; but Thor liked it, thought the noise sweeter than any music, and was never so happy as when he was journeying in it from one place to another.

     They travelled all day, and in the evening they came to a countryman’s house. It was a poor, lonely place; but Thor descended from his chariot, and determined to pass the night there. The countryman, however, had no food in his house to give these travellers; and Thor, who liked to feast himself and make everyone feast with him, was obliged to kill his own two goats and serve them up for supper. He invited the countryman and his wife and children to sup with him; but before they began to eat he made one request of them.

    “Do not, on any account,” he said, “break or throw away any of the bones of the goats you are going to eat for supper.”

     “I wonder why,” said the peasant’s son Thialfi to his sister Roska. Roska could not think of any reson, and by-and-by Thialfi happened to have a very nice little bone given him with some marrow in it. “Certainly there can be no harm in my breaking just this one,” he said to himself; “it would be such a pity to lose the marrow;” and as Asa Thor’s head was turned another way, he slyly broke the bone in two, sucked the marrow, and then threw the pieces into the goat’s skins, where Thor had desired that all the bones might be placed.

     As soon as Asa Thor rose in the morning he took his hammer Miölnir, in his hand, and held it over the goat-skins as they lay on the floor, whispering runes the while. They were dead skins with dry bones on them when he began to speak; but as he said the last word, Thialfi, who was looking curiously on, saw two live goats spring up and walk toward the chariot, as fresh and well as when they brought the chariot up to the door Thialfi hoped. But no, one of the goats limped a little with his hind leg, and Asa Thor saw it.

Now the same section from Neil’s book, where the story is called “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants.”

     Thialfi and his sister, Roskva, lived with their father, Egil, and their mother on a farm at the edge of wild country. Beyond their farm were monsters and giants and wolves, and many times Thialfi walked into trouble and had to outrun it. He could run faster than anyone or anything. Living at the edge of the wild country meant that Thialfi and Roskva were used to miracles and strange things happening in their world.

    Nothing as strange, however, as the day that two visitors from Asgard, Loki and Thor, arrived at their farm in a chariot pulled by two huge goats, whom Thor called Snarler and Grinder. The gods expected lodging for the night, and food. The gods were huge and powerful.

    “We have no food for the likes of you,” said Roskva, apologetically. “We have vegetables, but it’s been a hard winter, and we don’t even have any chickens left.”

    Thor grunted. Then he took his knife and killed both his goats. He skinned their corpses. He put the goats in the huge stewpot that hung above the fire, while Roskva and her mother cut up their winter stores of vegetables and dropped them into the stewpot.

    Loki took Thialfi aside. The boy was intimidated by Loki: his green eyes, his scarred lips, his smile. Loki said, “You know , the marrow of the bones of those goats is the finest thing a young man can eat. Such a shame that Thor always keeps it all for himself. If you want to grow up to be as strong as Thor, you should eat the goat bone-marrow.”

    When the food was ready, Thor took a whole goat as his portion, leaving the meat of the other goat for the other five people.

    He put the goatskins down on the ground, and as he ate, he threw the bones onto his goatskin. “Put your bones on the other goatskin,” he told them. “And don’t break or chew any of the bones. Just eat the meat.”

    You think you can eat fast? You should have seen Loki devour his food. One moment it was in front of him, and the next it was gone and he was wiping his lips with the back of his hand.

    The rest of them ate more slowly. But Thialfi could not forget what Loki had said to him, and when Thor left the table for a call of nature, Thialfi took his knife and split one of the goat’s leg bones and ate some of the marrow from it. He put the broken bone down on the goat skin and covered it with the undamaged bones, so nobody would know.

    They all slept in the great hall that night.

    In the morning, Thor covered the bones with the goatskins. He took his hammer, Mjollnir, and held it up high. He said, “Snarler, be whole.” A flash of lightning: Snarler stretched itself, bleated, and began to graze. Thor said, “Grinder, be whole,” and Grinder did the same. And then it staggered and limped awkwardly over to Snarler, and it let out a high-pitched bleat as if it were in pain.

    “Grinder’s hind leg is broken,” said Thor. “Bring me wood and a cloth.”

    He made a splint for his goat’s leg, and he bandaged it up. And when that was done, he looked at the family, and Thialfi did not think he had ever seen anything quite as scary as Thor’s burning red eyes.

Neil’s skill as a storyteller is everywhere in this passage, as it is throughout the book. He tells it from the viewpoint of the children, to draw in the reader and give a human perspective. The gods are scary and powerful, and their appetites are equally frightening. He makes use of Loki to play tempter and to cause the trouble, though of course Thialfi did the wrong thing. The magic is more believable, and Thor’s concern for his goats takes first place when one is injured. Even the goats seem more real in this telling.

I doubt I will ever need to read any of the source material Neil drew on for these fine retellings of the Norse myths. His version is perfectly satisfying and wonderful in every way, and will remain my version henceforth. I highly recommend it!

 

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