I wanted to get this book since it was published, but my book buying ban got in the way last year, so I was happy to come across it during my trip to Stanfords in May. I even mentioned it in my review of the American Gods, hoping that it would do justice to Norse mythology.
I loved the Greek and Roman mythologies, ever since my mum gave them to me to read when I run out of fairy tales. My favorite by far is Mythology of the Greek and Romans by Zygmunt Kubiak (unfortunately it was never translated). He presents myth in its most profound dimension, as “history that never happened, and yet is happening always,” as a record of universal human experience. From the pages of his works, ancient literature offers us a lesson in clarity of vision, in perceiving without illusion the bitterness and pain of human existence. This is what makes this book so moving and easy to relate to. As you can see on one hand the bar was set pretty high, but on the other I really have never read any Norse mythology, so I really looked forward to it.
I read it in two sittings, the stories read great, Gaiman builds his narrative through several stories building up as expected to Ragnarok, as if he tells them to us like a bard would. We get to know all the main gods and through their adventures we start understanding their relationships. From a fairy tale perspective this is a great book, but it is not a mythology for me. It lacks the depth and the understanding, we get a series of well researched stories with roughly sketched characters, described by their one or two main features. I was interested in the plot, but I could not get invested in the characters, nor did I find any general observations about human condition. What puzzled me most was that Gaiman takes for granted that the gods are the way they are, but really why is Loki so devious? Why sometimes he saves the gods only to betray them in the next second? Why did Odin sacrifice himself to himself? To gain wisdom, but then in the myths he doesn’t seem to do much with this wisdom, so why the suffering and the effort? What does all of this tell me about humanity?
All of those questions were not only left unanswered, but almost got lost in the action packed plot. It was fun to read, really, I just expected more. This is a great book if you want to introduce someone to mythology and convince them it is not boring, but actually full of good stories, but it is not a book for someone looking for the bigger picture. I may be too harsh, Gaiman did have a difficult task, especially now with the Thor franchise butchering the Norse mythology and gaining so much popularity. This is now the third one of Gaiman’s books that I read and I feel like I’m not the intended audience, maybe it’s time to stop.