Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse-mythologyPerhaps the most striking thing about Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – amazing cover and jacket aside – is that it reads like a Neil Gaiman novel. Indeed, it could possibly fit in as an extended prologue to American Gods. So how is it that an author of comic books, children’s books and the occasional adult novel turn existing myths – from a culture not his own – into something personal and inclusive to all?
Norse Mythology is Gaiman’s interpretation of classic Norse myths, inspired by his personal interest. This stems from Gaiman’s love of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Thor which Gaiman read as a child. So -what we have here is a relatively short retelling – and not a re-imagining – in a series of 16 tales from the dawn of creation to Ragnarok – the Norse end-of-times. You can read each tale in isolation, or taken as a complete piece there is a rough structure, as we’re introduced to all the favourites (Odin, Thor, Loki, Frigg, Baldur, Heimdall, giants, dwarfs and all the rest) and how they came to be the characters that some might know and love.
Is it a novel? I don’t think so. A collection of tales. Certainly. Anyway, the book of stories opens at the beginning of course. We learn how the nine realms and other classic locations (Asgard, Hel, Midgard, Valhallah, and the rest) came into being. We learn of the World Tree – Yggdrasil and the first gods (Buri and Borr) and how it led to Odin becoming the All-father. There are stories of the tribalism between races: Aesir (wise Odin, mighty Thor, beautiful Baldur, etc.), Vanir (Godess of love, Freyr for example, who everyone seems to want to wed), Asynjur (Frigg and Nanna amongst others), the frost giants, other giants, including one who own enormous beer-brewing cauldrons (Hymir), norns, dark and light elves, and creatures such as the giant wolf (Fenrir) who is also the son of Loki (and his other offspring, including Hel, and the world serpent Jörmungandr). It’s amazing how many children these gods have!
And of course we’re introduced to the first humans, created by the gods, Ask and Embla.
So why are they so readable and why has Gaiman made these his own. I’m not familiar with the detail of Norse mythology. I know a little from my younger days and a little more from the Marvel comic book universe. I don’t know how accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the characters or the events are. I’d hazard a guess at them being spot on! But Gaiman’s gods are fallible, human, lusty, lucky, vain, inconsequential, foolish, dumb, brave and mostly fortunate. They make rubbish choices when it comes to life and love. The story of The treasures of the gods tells of how Odin got his arm ring and Thor got his hammer for example, but these gifts are undeserved. Meanwhile, The Death of Balder has a ridiculous plot point. But Gaiman doesn’t try to re-write it. You get a real sense of these characters. Not necessarily as Gods, but as us; prone to error and goodness and, well, being human. Not all the stories are so black and white, hero and villain.
So Gaiman’s re-telling is really the story of how the Norse Gods came by their godly powers. Almost a comic book origin story. It is little different from the Marvel universe . . . give ordinary people powers or tools to make them godlike and they become corrupt. It’s a combination of the humanity Gaimen instils in the characters and his ever-readable, brilliant prose style that makes you feel like this is a fresh and original telling. Witness:
There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to Loki for advice.
And:
“How terrible. How Sad. You have killed my brother,” said Loki. But he did not sound sad. He did not sound sad at all.
This writing has wit and quirkiness and charm. As exemplified above, brevity is perhaps the key. There aren’t long arduous passages of description. This book is the art of storytelling. There’s no criticism of the characters’ actions, nor preaching about the outcomes. Gaiman writes all the right words in all the right places.
Gaiman tells his tales of Norse Gods we can in someway relate to. That is what makes this a terrific book. You don’t need to be a scholar of any mythology, or even a fan of Gaiman’s previous work, to find something here. There are battles and romances, gods die and are reborn, there are lessons and adventures and fun to be had.

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The Joy of Reading The Golem and The Djinni

The Golem and the DjinniThis is not a review. This is not a critical analysis. This won’t have a plot outline or a critique of the writing; either its style, content or factual accuracy. It isn’t an examination of the themes or a plea for anyone else to read this book. There are dozens of great reviews of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni out there. Go find some.

This is a celebration of reading really good book, one that speaks to its reader in a multitude of ways. I remember reading a few reviews and recommendations late last year and my curiosity was piqued. I like a bit of mythological fantasy and I enjoy simple but effective story-telling. So I put my reservation in at the library and waited. Or rather I didn’t. I simply ploughed on through the other books in my reading pile. In the last few months I’ve really got my reading mojo back thanks to Adam Roberts, Pierce Brown, Adam Christopher, Graham Joyce, Lauren Beukes, Neil Gaiman and others. The Golem and The Djinni crept to the front of the pile and I picked it up on 8 February. My edition was 486 pages long. I usually read between 200 and 300 pages of fiction a week. I also read comics and I’ve also got a non-fiction on the go at all times (in this case Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright). I finished The Golem and The Djinni on 17 February, reading all 486 pages in 9 days, not picking up Going Clear at all during this time, and only reading one comic.

Which is odd. Because The Golem and The Djinni is definitely a book to take your time over and savour. It is a book that you want to consume and digest. But also a book you want to keep reading -– all the time. Cliché’s are thus because they are true. For me, this was unputdownable (except when I was asleep). I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. I couldn’t wait until my lunch hour to get some reading in. I was annoyed when I had other things to do which blocked my path to the book.

Why did The Golem and The Djinni work for me? There are several reasons. First, the elegant writing. Then there are the interesting characters. No card-board cut-outs but well rounded characters, each with traits you can sympathise with, and all with many shades of grey. There are important texts and subtexts within the story. It is proper character driven narrative; simple but effective storytelling. Wecker doesn’t over-complicate things, despite a wealth of protagonists, each with a back-story and a fitting climax (except one, which I won’t spoil). The narrative takes its time. As it should. What you take from it is that she not only understands how it feels to be certain ways, to react to certain stimuli, and she understands how to put that understanding into a novel. Into a meaningful story. She has taken rivers of silk and weaved them into wonder; the ocean of a climax when they all come together in the end.

The Golem and The Djinni is about immigration and mythology, cultural clashes and acceptance. But it is also about conformity and choice within society. About fulfilling roles, especially those gender-specific ones. It is about fitting in when you don’t, about personal freedoms shackled by responsibility. Loneliness. Finding the other misfit and connecting because of your differences. Yet still feeling alone. The Golem is better in most ways than all those around her, yet must act less so. I feel many of these things that Wecker writes about and it is a joy to read them told with such thought-provoking characters and in an interesting universe, without laboured world-building. It is a book about what it means to live, to exist, to be a human. In some ways, this is a science fiction novel without the science fiction; they have themes in common – understanding humanity and its place in the world. The Golem and The Djinni is a book, a novel, a story that felt like it was written just for me (and I’m confident that others who have enjoyed it felt a similar personal connection), and that is the sign of a really good book.

The fantasy elements are neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment. They are part of the narrative and they are devices that I particularly enjoy. That’s just a thing. But it’s the little touches that enhance my enjoyment – such as the fairy-tale animals The Djinni creates, or the imagery of the desert palace brought to the imagination with Wecker’s deft touch.

“A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted; exultation of spirit; gladness, delight.” OED, 2014

Pleasure – to be gained in immersing yourself in Wecker’s world, and journeying along with the protagonists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Satisfaction – Wecker doesn’t let you down in terms of narrative, prose or character. The mythology fits with the story of immigration in America at the end of the 19th Century. The story satisfies with almost every aspect of its construction.

Delighted – to read such a well-written and entertaining book that also spoke to me personally.

Exultation of spirit – sometimes, and especially when I’ve read a boring or badly written or un-engaging book, I feel flat. What’s the point of all this fiction and storytelling malarkey? What’s the point of wasting hours on someone else’s poorly thought attempts at creativity? On the other-hand, when reading something like this, feelings of inspiration and positivity abound (even though the subtexts within the story generally reflect my negative view of society).

Glad – that I read The Golem and The Djinni and that it was written.

I wouldn’t say, however, that it was a brilliant book. It is not the book I expected. I thought it would be more of a straight forward urban fantasy. However… [Spoiler alert]. Now. I enjoyed the coda, and it made sense in terms of the story. However, it remained a fiction and produced the ending that the characters perhaps deserved. It wasn’t the one I wanted, me being me. I would have preferred an emotional wallop in the climax. I was hoping for something along the lines of the climax of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, when Will and Lyra realise that they must separate. But maybe that wasn’t what was required to conclude the story? What I took from this book is a great story minus the heart-wrench of reality (although it does mean that the main protagonist’s stories continue, either written or not). A personal shame, because The Golem and The Djinni is ‘only’ a really great book and a great read. But what a joy to read. And this is why I read. To enjoy a story and to take a deeper understanding of myself from it.