In his introduction to a reissue of the beloved children’s classic “D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths,” the novelist Michael Chabon observes that “everything that is beautiful, in the Norse world, is something that glints: sparks from ringing hammers, stars, gold and gems, the Aurora borealis, tooled swords and helmets and armbands, fire, a woman’s hair, wine and mead in a golden cup.”
To evoke such austere beauty, Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology” employs a style that can be, at least initially, somewhat off-putting to an adult reader. Gaiman’s sentences appear so simple and plain that one wonders if the book is actually intended for 9-year-olds. At the same time, the author’s penchant for short paragraphs, some of only a single sentence, adds an air of portentousness. This combination of the faux-naif and the melodramatic is then further complicated by the diction of the gods. They speak a bit like comic-book superheroes: Thor is reminiscent of a slow-witted Hulk, while Loki — the charming trickster, the wry and handsome egotist — recalls the smart-alecky Ironman as played in films by Robert Downey Jr. He is also, I suspect, a partial self-portrait of Gaiman himself. After all, Loki — to quote Chabon again — is the “god of the endlessly complicating nature of plot, of storytelling itself.”
If not quite a storytelling god, Gaiman has certainly made himself its rock star. Just as Thomas Pynchon fiercely embraces privacy, so Gaiman has sought and cultivated fame. Sternly handsome, he resembles a noir version of Paul McCartney. Followers and fans hang on his every word and tweet. At his talks and signings, the lines stretch out the door and around the block. Even this new book can be seen as publicity for an upcoming TV series based on Gaiman’s “American Gods, ” a novel suffused with Norse mythology.
At this point, review-savvy readers are probably expecting a snide dismissal of both book and author. In fact, despite the mishmash of its styles and the sometimes irritating egregiousness of Gaiman’s celebrity, “Norse Mythology” turns out to be a gripping, suspenseful and quite wonderful reworking of these famous tales. Once you fall into the rhythm of its glinting prose, you will happily read on and on, in thrall to Gaiman’s skillful storytelling.
Once upon a time, and perhaps still, these Northern myths would be familiar to almost anyone who ever attended elementary school. The father-god Odin gives up an eye to gain wisdom. Two dwarfs forge Thor’s mighty hammer, Mjollnir (although, because of Loki’s mischief, its handle proves a little too short). We learn the origin of those three great enemies of the gods, the Midgard serpent, Hel, the grotesque queen of the dead, and the gigantic wolf Fenrir. There are slapstick interludes of Thor in drag among the giants or of eating, running and drinking contests with opponents who aren’t quite what they seem. A giant disguised as an eagle steals Idunn’s apples of immortality and the Aesir — as the inhabitants of Valhalla are called — start to age. Balder the beautiful suffers his strange death, along with the promise of his eventual resurrection. Gaiman relates all these splendidly and when quiet grandeur is needed, as in this description of a magic horn’s purpose, he delivers:
“Odin gave the Gjallerhorn to Heimdall, watchman of the gods. On the day the Gjallerhorn is blown, it will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep.
“Heimdall will blow the Gjallerhorn only once, at the end of all things, at Ragnarok.”
Setting aside their exceptional powers, the Norse gods repeatedly come across as simply all too human, prey to envy, squabbling, lust and spitefulness. Gaiman views much of their behavior as essentially low comedy:
“Loki, who plotted and planned as easily as other folk breathed in and out, smiled at Thor’s anger and innocence. ‘Your hammer has been stolen by Thrym, lord of all the ogres,’ he said. ‘I have persuaded him to return it to you, but he demands a price.’
“ ‘Fair enough,’ said Thor. ‘What’s the price?’
“ ‘Freya’s hand in marriage.’
“ ‘He just wants her hand?’ asked Thor hopefully. She had two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give up one of them without too much of an argument. Tyr had, after all.”
Tyr’s right hand, we already know, was bitten off by Fenrir, an unavoidable sacrifice when the gods tricked the wolf into being bound — at least until Ragnarok, when the huge creature will finally burst the dwarf-made silken ribbon that magically holds him. By then, the voracious creature will have grown “bigger than the sun, bigger than the moon.” In that apocalyptic battle Loki — leading the forces of darkness — will attack “with fierceness and intelligence and glee.”
While Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology” transmutes the tales of ancient Scandinavia into expertly paced short stories for the 21st century, Carolyne Larrington’s “The Norse Myths” offers a wide-ranging guide to those gods and their world. Although an Oxford professor of medieval European literature, she directs her book at the general reader, providing maps, scores of illustrations (of Viking ships, works of art and fetishes), marginal boxes containing historical and biographical anecdotes, and much information of all kinds. For instance, dramatic climate change — when three winters run into one another without any summers — will be the first sign of Ragnarok.
If this is true, we should be safe for the short term. Still, as we know from “A Game of Thrones,” the subject of Larrington’s previous book, winter is coming.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
By Neil Gaiman
Norton. 293 pp. $25.95
By Carolyne Larrington
Thames and Hudson. 208 pp. $24.95