Irrespective of whether we always like what he does, one thing we do think fairly consistently is that Neil Gaiman is a kind of pop star. Now, you might take that to mean that he is a stellar figure within the literary firmament, and that would be true, but we mean something else as well. What we mean to say is, if Neil Gaiman was a musician then he would not be a difficult musician. He would not be the kind of person anyone struggled with, the kind of person you’d expect to challenge you. You’d expect intelligence, sure (we’re not saying he’s the Vengaboys), but he’d be someone who enjoyed the limitations of the form even as he excelled within them. He’s a kind of folktales Beatle, then (or a folktales ex-Beatle, a Paul McCartney). Which is a compliment right (even though we know that McCartney has had as many hits as misses, his hits are always pretty seismic, to the degree that all misses can be largely forgiven).
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Norse Mythology. I don’t suspect this is the kind of book that fans (or students) of Norse mythology would seek out as the definitive word. I suspect that this is the kind of book Gaiman fans will seek out, with maybe a passing knowledge of Odin, Thor, Loki et al (if we’re being honest, it may be that the vast majority of people who read this will be basing their Norse knowledge on Marvel comics – and that’s ok, it’s how I came to them, it’s how Gaiman came to them, it’s a good place to start). It may be that this is the kind of book that will introduce Gaiman fans to Norse mythology (his reference to Roger Lancelyn Green’s book, Myths of the Norsemen, in the introduction is interesting – Gaiman read it and loved it as a child, but “I did not dare go back” when he came to writing his own take on things). What this isn’t is comprehensive. What you get for your money is 16 relatively short retellings of famous stories, told – it has to be said – with a seeming effortlessness that means you lap up the book in a matter of hours. Now, we say “seeming effortlessness” knowing that therein lies Gaiman’s skill. It takes, we are sure, a lot of work to make a story feel easy in the telling. This is what we mean by pop, though. Gaiman is pop.
To begin with, there is some scene setting (for the newbies). So Gaiman introduces us to the principal players (‘The Players’/’Before the beginning and after’) and lays out the universe in which these stories operate (‘Yggdrasil and the nine worlds’) In terms of the stories we get, there are some hits – the story of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, for instance, which graces the cover of the book (‘The treasures of the Gods’). There is the story of Fenrir the wolf (in ‘The Children of Loki’) which delivers the kind of terror Gaiman is a past master of (we were reminded of The Corinthian from Gaiman’s epic Sandman). There are stories here that echo other stories, as they no doubt did or were intended (‘Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition’ for one, which feels like an unusual retelling of Fionn mac Cumhaill). There are stories here that land – as Gaiman, we’re sure, intended – with a sad, contemporary resonance, such as ‘The Master Builder’ which concerns the building of a wall, “high enough to keep out frost giants. Thick enough that not even the strongest troll could batter its way through.” (Unfortunately the Gods do get their wall and they trick the person they get to build it. Donald could learn some more worrisome lessons.) And, as you’d no doubt expect, Gaiman wraps things up with ‘Ragnarok’ (coming full circle in the way of preparing us for the next cinematic outing of Marvel’s Thor whose own Ragnarok is hitting screens in October 2017, no doubt in time for the paperback).
It’s all immense fun, of course, and just about the only downside is that the fun ends too soon. If you place this book alongside Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, which was hefty and substantial, you can’t help but wish Gaiman had got stuck into roughly the same amount of stories again (there are thousands he could have chosen) to give us a book roughly twice the size of the book we have. Sometimes less is more – but sometimes more is more too. But hey, maybe Gaiman will treat us to some more in the future. We’re willing to be polite. (We heard him when he said George RR Martin isn’t our bitch; we know that Gaiman is not our bitch either.) We’ll just enjoy what we’ve got. And recommend it for you too. It’s pop but you’ll like it.
Any Cop?: Neil Gaiman gives us a covers album of Norse myths. What’s not to like?