Book review: Norse Mythology
John Erik Stacy
The Norwegian American
Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a great read and, for me, answered questions and made connections to names I know in modern Norway. As a student, I was told that the daisy-like flower Balderbrå is named for the eyelashes of Odin’s wise and beautiful son Balder. But I knew nothing of Balder’s story until reading Gaiman’s book.
This masterful rendering of the myths brings them alive in compact, Norse-like prose. Origins and relationships between gods, giants, elves, dwarves, and people are outlined in the first chapter. Each of the following chapters is a story emphasizing the deeds of one of the gods. They face contests and challenges, perform feats of bravery, swear binding oaths, compromise, and engage in deceit. In Norse Mythology the gods are (of course) not like the God we know from Sunday School. They are powerful but not all-powerful; wise but not omniscient; and immortal, but only if they avoid being killed and only until the end of everything at Ragnarök.
Neither are the Norse gods particularly good, although at times their actions benefit humanity. Like the time they created Kvasir from spit of the Aesir and Vanir, and the spit co-mingled in a treaty of peace between gods and elves. The created Kvasir* is a man of prescience and wanders the country sharing wisdom and light. He is the very source of all poetry. In the chapter “The Mead of Poets,” we read his story and face both a question and a warning:
“Have you ever wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales, and some of us do not?
“It is a long story, and it does no credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit. Listen.”
Having lived in Norway, I couldn’t help but learn something of the Norse gods. My grandmother and I read from Snorre’s Kongesagaer, where Odin appears as an ancestor god in prelude to the accounts of Norrøn kings. There are references to the ancient myths in the civic art, for example the wooden reliefs of Oslo Town Hall, one showing Thor, hammer in hand, in his chariot pulled by goats Grinder and Snarler. But I never read the stories that link these images together. Having read Gaiman’s book, I now know the individual personalities in the Norse pantheon and better understand the references made in modern times.
Neil Gaiman is well published, Norse Mythology being the most recent of 12 full-length novels (his first in 1990, Good Omens, is a co-authorship with Disk World creator Terry Pratchett). A television series based on his 2001 book American Gods was made available to cable TV Starz subscribers this April. His bibliography also includes a long list of children’s books, graphic novels, comics, and short fiction. Gaiman’s other works often draw on knowledge of ancient myths. Anyone interested in Norway should, at least, read Norse Mythology.
*Note that there is a Norwegian search engine with the web address www.kvasir.no.
John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., but soon moved to Oslo, Norway. He studied at the University of Oslo and married his wife, Robin, in Oslo. In 2003, they moved to Seattle, Robin’s home town. They visit Norway often and participate in the Scandinavian community in Seattle.
This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.