Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on). But if I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths.

There is little dispute that Neil Gaiman is an exceptional writer with a unique imagination. His American Gods is one of the finest novels of contemporary fantasy today. It draws on myths from around the world and particularly Norse mythology in its portrayal of Odin. It now comes full circle with Mr. Gaiman going back to the source material for his book, Norse Mythology.

Drawing from the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Neil Gaiman presents a retelling of the ancient Scandinavian myths of names we know, Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya. So much of what we have now in modern culture these days retold in cinematic form. Marvel movies are pretty far removed from the source. Nothing wrong with that as the nature of myths evolve. And I must admit that while reading Norse Mythology, I kept hearing the voices of Chris Helmsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

It is by coincidence that this is the second book based on classical mythology I’ve read this year this year. Madeline Miller’s Circe a narrative novel told in first person full of passions and covering how one character has witnessed the great age of Greek myths. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a series of tales beginning with an introduction to the gods and creation to the twilight of the god, Ragnarok. Nevertheless,I can’t help but contrast the two in that both of these books are excellent ways to introduce students to ancient myths. Gaiman’s book, I believe is suitable for young audiences though. Ms. Miller’s book has a few more mature subjects in them.

Even though the book is suitable for minors, don’t let that fool you. It is an engrossing set of stories and told in a comfortable manner that grabs a hold of you by the hand and leads you to a storyteller’s campfire. Gaiman cut his teeth in comic books, and I can see these tales as pieces of sequential art in my mind rather than a movie. Well, except when Thor and Loki are bantering with each other. I see a Marvel movie.

Speaking of Thor and Loki, they come across as somewhat different from their cinematic counterparts. Thor while still strong and powerful also comes across as rather dim. Loki is still brilliant and charming but does not come across as pure evil. He also tends to drink too much and likes to prank the gods. Out of all the character’s he comes across is certainly the most complicated.

The book runs just under three-hundred pages and goes by quickly. It includes a cast of players, a glossary, and notes on each story. It is as if he did write this as a school book. So If you forget something you can reference it easily in the book. The writer’s notes are in the end and are short takes on the sources materials for each story told within the book. I would have preferred that Gaiman added these notes at the beginning of each story though.

One of my favorite tales is “The Treasures of the Gods,” where, through a series of tricks that started as a bad prank against Thor’s wife, the gods of Asgard acquired several great treasures, including Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. It is highly amusing and is the first of the more detailed stories once past the introduction of the main characters.

It all ends in Ragnarok, though. And even though it signals the end of the gods, it comes across as a rather beautiful sequence in the cycle of life. Certainly Neil Gaiman has a gift of prose, and since he also does the audio version, he has a gift for narration as well. Ragnarok certainly comes across as the most beautiful doomsday I’ve ever read.

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

In the end, this is a very accessible book of stories tied together about gods and their often petty interactions. It’s a comfortable, dramatic, often amusing read. If you’ve not read any Neil Gaiman before then this is a good introduction to him. If you are a veteran Neil Gaiman fan, then this is a nice little entry into his bibliography. Either way, I don’t think you will regret picking this up.

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Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

 

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My experience with Greek mythology was first instilled by the movies of Ray Harryhausen. I loved Jason and the Argonauts as a kid and still do to this day. I may have read some condensed little bits of Greek myth while in middle school. It was not until I attended college that I was exposed to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And although I found Homer interesting, overall I thought The Odyssey was pretty dry. Maybe it was just the translation I read.

Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe is in no way dry or boring. It takes the old myths that we are familiar with and weaves them together into a narrative that is captivating, engaging, and fresh. Reading Circe is akin to sitting is a great hall after a meal while a poet recites tales of love, passion, loss and magic. The lights are dim and a crackling fire is burning on the hearth.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun. A seemingly black sheep of the family she is exiled after showing kindness to Prometheus who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mortals. It is here that Circe’s story begins to take off. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia. On this island she hones her craft of herbcraft, referred to as pharmaka. To the gods it is considered witchcraft.

But even in exile she receives visitors. The first is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He doesn’t care about her exile status and finds her fascinating. He brings her news of the outside world, of the wars of man and the petty squabbles between the gods.

We later get glimpses of Circe’s family. Her sister is Pasiphaë, wife if King Minos of Crete, and mother of the Minotaur. Her brother is Aeëtes, King of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Through her eyes we get a unique perspective on the old myths that so many of us grew up on.

Circe is probably best remembered as the witch that Odysseus encounters and basically shacks up with for a year while returning from the Trojan Wars. And true to the spirit of her narrative, Miller presents a different perspective on the familiar tale as told by Homer.

Madeline Miller has managed to take the old and present it as something that is fresh, and told in a style that is engaging and hard to put down. The language flows smoothly and is almost conversational in ton. It’s perfect for the first person perspective that it is written in. Of special note, the audiobook, as narrated by Perdita Weeks, is exceptionally performed with nuanced storyteller like performance. It is Perdita Weeks’ first book narration and I hope to here more of her performances.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is the perception of women in the world of the Greek myths. Miller explores that not only with Circe, but with Medea and Penelope as well who had been given short shift in most other interpretations. Jason and Odysseus are not the heroes that they have often been portrayed as and the reason why Circe changes any men that come to her island to pigs is understandable and as far as I’m concerned better than some deserved.

What Miller has done is something special and hopefully can be taught alongside Homer and Ovid in Classics courses in the future. Despite it being a retelling of stories thousands of years  old, its style is modern, and relevant. Highly Recommended.