I’ve loved the Norse legends ever since I was a child, where an Usborne Illustrated Guide played a big part in opening my eyes to the wider wonders of mythology and also kicked my reading in the direction of fantasy. Similarly, I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s work since I was a teenager and as such, I was keenly anticipating how he would tackle this source material.
It would have been easy to expect that Gaiman would mess about with the extant legends in the leftfield style we’re used to seeing him use in the likes of American Gods or the Sandman but instead, he tells the stories straight, just adding his own storytelling tone and pace to the familiar tales.
That might disappoint some, who maybe wanted to see Mr Wednesday or another version of Odin turn up, but it ends up being a good thing because, in this context, the stories need no embellishment.
The Viking legends have always stood out to me compared to the classical pantheons from Greece and Egypt because of their relatability and grimness. These were not Olympian tales for kings or designed to instil order in the lower classes, but stories for ordinary people, tales which told of Gods that despite their fantastical abilities were just as flawed and petty as mortals and who were indeed themselves mortal, after a fashion.
That mortality of the Norse gods is very important, because the ability of the Aesir to die lends their story such great weight – Osiris can be cut into pieces and put back together and Zeus is never in genuine danger of much more than a matrimonial scolding but when Thor threatens to pull Loki’s arms off or Balder has nightmares about dying, there is real peril at hand.
That peril plays into the overarching theme of the Norse legends, that the world is on course for ruin and will end in fire and flood after a period of trauma – an axe age, a sword age / a wind age, a wolf age. Ragnarok.
It is this grimness that Gaiman weaves about with his characteristic humour and some of the biases and lessons he teases out of the stories made me see them in a new light – not least the way he ties the whole thing up with the most hopeful and poetic version of the renewal after Ragnarok that I’ve ever read.
If I had any criticism of Gaiman’s telling, it would be that I think Loki is ill-served and we never get a hint that his increasingly spiteful actions might be caused by his being taunted and made to feel like an outsider by the Aesir, but that’s a highly subjective and personal view. It’s just always struck me that if Loki was always such a bad egg, then the Aesir would have taken steps long before they did, so he must have been a more positive force once and changed for some reason. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Maybe Gaiman just wanted to steer clear of ‘Loki as anti-hero’ given the popularity of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe…
All in all, I found this a pleasant and engaging read which I feel would be accessible and entertaining for readers who are new to the legends just as much as veterans like myself. These will be the versions of these tales that I read to my kids when they’re old enough.
What’s more, I feel that the story of a world which stands on the brink of ruin but will endure and be more beautiful in the end – is especially necessary in these troubling times.
Highly recommended for all.