Norse goddesses cry, “Me too, Neil Gaiman!”

Book review

Rebecca Snow
Nine Mile Falls, Wash.

Neil GaimanAs some readers and critics insist, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology stories might be best appreciated via the audiobook, in the voice of Gaiman himself. They began in ancient times as oral tales, after all, and are meant to be absorbed that way. But after reading the book, I know I won’t bring myself to bother to listen to the audio version. I have a hard time believing Gaiman’s prose comes close the rhythm of the compelling tales told through the long Norse winters around a fire.

While his retelling of the stories is well written and often funny, Gaiman’s prose lacks any emotional weight for me until the final chapters, when the beloved god Balder is murdered, Loki the trickster is finally bound and tortured, and the long-awaited Ragnarok occurs to end the world and begin the cycle of life anew. I found myself caring about Loki—the least likable character—the most, because Gaiman made him by far the most interesting, probably because he is and has been the most interesting of the Norse gods since the tales were first told. Whenever Loki was missing from the page, I slogged through the stories a few paragraphs at a time, even though I have a vested interest in the Norse myths. My mother was born in Norway, and I enjoy using and reinventing the mythology in my own fiction.

Gaiman makes Odin and most of the other gods less interesting than they could have been, and the goddesses and other female characters are overshadowed by males more than necessary. Gaiman does a good job of showing the deceit, treachery, and absurdity of the masculine roles in each of the myths, but he does so with a tongue-in-cheek humor that diminishes every tragic consequence.

In the final battle of Ragnarok, for example, the god Tyr battles the hellhound Garm: “Tyr will stop him, Tyr the one-handed, and they will fight, man and nightmare dog. Tyr fights bravely, but the battle will be the death of both of them.” I may have laughed a little at “nightmare dog,” but I know Gaiman is capable of more interesting, imaginative details. I couldn’t care less about the Tyr he describes, because he makes him meaningless here, even though he was one of the braver and more selfless gods, sacrificing his hand for the sake of the gods early in the tales.

Odin may have sacrificed one of his eyes for wisdom, but his ways are full of crafty misogyny and selfish deceit, elaborated at length with a humor that makes the stark tragedy of his behavior seem silly. “Another bite and a crunch and a swallow and Odin, the all-father, greatest and wisest of all the gods, is gone as well, never to be seen again.” Good riddance, but I wish I could feel something about all of Odin’s horrible actions finally coming to an end, besides a bit of a chuckle rising into my throat and a sense of relief that I’m almost finished with the book.

Gaiman turns Thor into a ridiculous oaf from the very beginning. Yes, we laugh, and maybe Gaiman is trying to emphasize the absurdity of his behavior, but he doesn’t balance his humor with a sense of horror that makes the reader want to shed one tear for the chaos and violence resulting from Thor’s—or any of the gods’—actions.

Perhaps because Gaiman hadn’t read stories from the ancient texts beyond the Edda, he leaves out Odin’s rape of Rind altogether. In the History of the Danes by the Danish monk Saxo Grammaticus, Odin knows the avenger of Balder’s death must be the child of a human princess, Rind, as detailed by the Oxford scholar Carolyne Larrington. Her book The Norse Myths, by strange coincidence, came out the very same month as Gaiman’s book. Odin attempts to seduce Rind and fails, so he rapes her instead. I can hear Rind whispering, “Me too” into Gaiman’s ear. Here is Gaiman’s sanitized version of the event (though I would assume he left the rape out unintentionally as it is left out of the Prose Edda as well):

“While Hermod was in the underworld, Odin had had a son to replace Balder; this son, named Vali, was the son of Odin and the goddess Rind. Before he was a day old, the baby found and slew Hod. So Balder’s death was avenged.”

Every detail, aside from Rind’s role as mother, is focused on masculine triumph. Gaiman does go into more detail in other stories involving female characters, especially Odin’s seduction of Gunnlod (although she is pretty much reduced to a stereotypical role; saying her lips are one of her “best features,” she is briefly valiant when she realizes she has been duped). But Gaiman’s bemoaning on the lack of tales about goddesses rings hollow in his introduction to the book. He may not be able to “retell the tales of Eir” and other goddesses because the myths “have not come down to us,” but he could have used a lot more imagination, I think, in retelling a host of available stories, featuring females like Freya and Sif. He tells some of them, yes, but the focus is primarily on the male characters.

This could be, of course, because the myths themselves focus more on the male, but today we need a reimagining, a feminine elaboration, a creative, emotional “me too” hiding in the shadows of all the myths focused so much on the masculine.

This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.