“That is why Odin is called the all-father. Because he was the father of the gods, and because he breathed the breath of life into our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents. Whether we are gods or mortals, Odin is the father of us all.”
I have a confession: Usually when I hear about a book that contains mythological stories containing gods and what they were like, I roll my eyes. As such, I was worried about reading Gaiman’s take on Norse mythology. It is something that is completely alien to me, and it is in a genre that I don’t really enjoy on a regular reading basis.
And, despite all of my fears about if this wouldn’t work out for me, I actually really enjoyed this somewhat-modern retelling of Norse mythology.
Once again, good job, Gaiman!
Where to start with this one? I guess I should really begin by talking a little about characters, just to break it down a bit. Let’s start with the all-father.
Odin was a wonderful character, really. You could tell, in every story in which he took part, that he really cared for the gods and the people of Asgard. He was kind (most of the time), reasonable, and was always willing to step up and do what was best for those in Asgard. Throughout all the stories, he remains at the throne of Asgard, watching over all the other gods, often settling disputes or finding ways to solve problems. He was a good leader. Gaiman says of Odin:
“[He] knows many secrets. He gave an eye for wisdom. More than that, for knowledge of the runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself.”
Honest to God, I couldn’t stop thinking of this when I read that!
Now, let’s move on to Thor, who honestly reminded me a lot of this bruiser:
I think it was how brash he acted, how he always seemed to lean toward force when considering options to solve a problem. I will admit, in one of my favorite stories from this collection, he pretty much took center stage, and I loved seeing, in every story he was in, that there was a sort of impatience about him that reminded me a lot of Bigwig. I couldn’t help it.
“‘She won’t go through life bald,’ said Thor. ‘Because, Loki Laufey’s son, if you do not put her hair back right now, I am going to break every single bone in your body. Each and every one of them. And if her hair does not grow properly, I will come back and break every bone in your body again. And again. If I do it every day, I’ll soon get really good at it,’ he carried on, sounding slightly more cheerful.”
Don’t mess with the thunder god!
Next I want to talk a bit about Loki, whose character kind of confused me, honestly. In the beginning, he hangs around with Thor and the other gods, and even though he’s known to be a bit of a troublemaker as the trickster god, he’s still valued by the other gods as a blood brother to Odin. In the stories, he is not entirely trusted, and in the end, he ultimately couldn’t be trusted. What started out as plain mischief ultimately turned into a corrupt monster who would go on to be slain at the end of the world. The way this change was carried out confused me a bit, because in one story he could be doing something as silly and petty as cutting off Thor’s wife’s hair…. and in another he could be tricking a blind god, Hod, into killing Balder, a god of whom Loki was jealous!
Once the other gods punish him for tricking Hod, we don’t know how it will end, but the final story in the book makes it clear: Loki has been corrupted through and through by a combination of his own nature and the actions driven by that nature. And he is out to destroy both the gods and the world in which they live at that point.
“‘Nothing to say, Heimdall of the nine mothers? When I was bound beneath the ground, with the serpent’s poison dripping into my face, with poor Sigyn standing beside me trying to catch what venom she could in her bowl, bound in the darkness in the intestines of my son, all that kept me from madness was thinking of this moment, rehearsing it in my mind, imagining the days when my beautiful children and I would end the time of the gods and end the world.'”
Odin, Thor, and Loki are the main “players” (Gaiman’s word, not mine) in this collection of stories, though other gods are mentioned in the stories, these three bear the most weight and bear the greatest importance. Stories cannot move in the author’s intended direction without certain characters, and the three Gaiman focuses on show their importance in many ways in all the different stories.
On the topic of stories, let’s discuss them head-on, shall we?
In the beginning, the first few sections didn’t grab me (mainly those being origin stories and the beginning of the world in which the gods live), but once we got going, the pacing picked up significantly. I particularly enjoyed “The Treasures of the Gods,” “The Master Builder,” “Freya’s Unusual Wedding,” and “The Mead of Poets.”
All of these stories have a charm to them that made them hard to put down and made me want to read on.
I’ll just give brief synopses of the first three I listed and discuss how they impacted me:
In “The Treasures of the Gods” we learn how the gods received the items that popularize them in culture: Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir, a ship that can be folded up and stored away, Skidbladnir, and a scarf made of real gold to replace Thor’s wife’s hair (which Loki cut off while she slept, which started the whole story). It is a gift-giving ceremony, but it is also a sort of contest between the builders Brokk and Eitri and the sons of Ivaldi (all dwarves). Loki went to Brokk and Eitri for help in crafting a wig for Thor’s wife after betting to the sons of Ivaldi that they were worse builders than Brokk and Eitri, but Brokk and Eitri don’t trust Loki, so they give him a wager: If they make better gifts than the other builders, they get to cut off and keep Loki’s head. The sons of Ivaldi lose the contest, and Brokk and Eitri get to cut off Loki’s head, only to learn that they can’t because they can only take his head, when they would need to cut off the neck as well to get the head. In the end, Loki gets to live.
I liked this story. I’ve always had a personal love for stories involving some type of gift-giving that would impact the character who gets the gift later. While Thor’s hammer is really the only one we see continuously after that, it’s still nice to see the gods be given these gifts as a sort of way of honoring them. Kind of like how, in Christian tradition, bread and wine is given to God. Of course, the gift giving in Norse mythology is literal, unlike the Christian tradition, but I was still reminded of it, nonetheless.
“The Master Builder” was another good one.
Odin wants to build a wall to protect Asgard from its enemies (as its only protector, Thor, had gone off to fight giants), but he realizes that it would take years to do so. The next day, a stranger arrives and proposes to build a wall in exchange for the sun, the moon, and the goddess Freya’s hand in marriage. Of course, the gods are not so keen on giving him any of these things, and that’s when Loki comes up with a plan: give the stranger only one season to do it, and he can have what he demands as payment. Thinking the builder can only fail to do this, the gods allow him to build the wall. This ends up backfiring, as they start to realize that the stranger built the wall very quickly and efficiently, something a normal man cannot do. Suspecting that the builder is actually a giant, Loki devises a plan to take away the stranger’s efficient and hard-working horse, the main reason he was able to get all the supplies that he could as fast as he could. Loki distracts the horse by summoning a mare, which distracts the animal long enough so the wall cannot be finished before the season is over. The gods expose the giant and he is killed by the returning Thor shortly afterward. The gods then finish building the wall themselves.
This story was particularly entertaining. Seeing Loki mess up the way he did and then actually work to fix everything so the gods and all of Asgard are safe was particularly satisfying. I also liked how Thor, even if he was only returning from his trip, killed the giant with no hesitation. It is kind of a deus ex machina, but it was so well-executed that I don’t even care. It showed that, again, Thor is not to be messed with. And it was nice to see that lying giant get what was coming to him.
“Freya’s Unusual Wedding” is probably my favorite out of all the stories.
Thor wakes up one day to find that his hammer has been stolen. At first wondering if Loki stole it, but then realizing that even Loki wouldn’t dare to steal the hammer, Thor asks Loki to find out who did. Loki goes out and finds the ogre who did, who will only give the hammer back if he has Freya’s hand in marriage. Freya, of course, does not want to marry the ogre, so Loki and Thor disguise themselves as maidens and go to the ogre’s living place, with Thor disguised as the bride Freya and Loki her companion. When Thor doesn’t do a good job (at all) of hiding his ravenous appetite, the ogre starts to get suspicious, although Loki comes up with an excuse which the ogre buys. Finally, during the ceremony, the ogres bring out Thor’s hammer, and once Thor gets it back, he proceeds to knock all of the ogres out and he and Loki flee the wedding.
I think it’s worth mentioning that this story was actually really funny. Imagining Thor in a bridal gown and veil was honestly hysterical, and it really made the story move very quickly, and the ending was very satisfying. Even when he’s in a wedding dress, Thor is able to kick some serious butt! I particularly liked how, although Thor wasn’t too happy to be playing the bride, Loki went in there as his female companion without any qualms. It was nice to see them work together to get Thor’s hammer back, even if it was extremely embarrassing having to do so.
I also want to give special mention to the final story in the collection, “Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods” because I particularly enjoyed how the story was wrapped up. It really is your traditional end-of-the-world scenario, but I liked what happened after all was said and done. The gods who died on the battlefield became little chess pieces, and Balder was resurrected along with Hod (the blind god I mentioned earlier) and they pick up all the pieces and create a new game, in a sort of “rebirth”-like scenario. That was a really great way to end it.
All in all, this was an affectionate retelling of the Norse myths. Gaiman’s love for these stories is more than clear in this work and it is well-crafted with modern language that makes it fairly easy to comprehend. That said, it is not a traditional Gaiman story: those looking for his trademark spooky fantasy may be disappointed on that end. That said, I would recommend this to any fan of mythology and any Gaiman fan who is willing to give this new territory a try.
All that said, I leave you with Mjollnir, Thor’s hammer!
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