Friday, March 10, 2017

Norse Mythology--Neil Gaiman

Woot! Squee!  See the fangirl dance--dance, fangirl, dance!

Yes. I am rejoicing. I have bought Neil Gaiman's latest, Norse Mythology. I picked up both the digital ebook and the audiobook, and I am very happy I splurged some of my precious ebook credits to get the audio. Some things really do qualify as added value in my word, and to hear Gaiman's expressive, focused reading of his own work is right up there. He not only knows what he wrote, and what he meant it to convey--he's enough of a performer to then get that meaning across in his reading. It's not always so: I've heard readings by authors who may have known the mood, tone, and meaning they were aiming for, but who could no more perform that in a reading than they could whup Fred Astaire on the dance floor.

Gaiman's nimble and fleet. If he were a dancer he'd be bubbly and clever as Astaire, cool as Michael Jackson was in his time, and solid and intense and amused as Gene Kelly.

So--what's Norse Mythology like?

Wonderful, not least because it brings back a lost art--the more or less straight retelling of ancient stories in a modern voice. For the past twenty and more years, the fashion has been for a sort of "Fractured Fairytale" aesthetic in any kind of myth or fantasy-related context. Much, if not all of modern fantasy writing is about showing how you can break the mold. Think of my comments a few weeks back regarding the modern retelling of the Oz stories in Emerald City, where the creators are turning themselves and their source material into pretzels to make everything old new again. And, yes--I liked it. I continue to like it. There's nothing wrong with it....except that for ages its seemed like no one attempted to retell the old material with a straight face. And, yet...

Gaiman, in his introduction, comments on when he himself first encountered the Norse myths: first through comic books and then through a popular retelling aimed at a common audience of children and adults. That's the sort of encounter many of us had with myths of all cultures. It's a good choice: it allows people of all ages and levels of interest to get a first solid, sensible synopsis, without in any way standing in the way of expanding and deepening that information if you choose.

Perhaps it's the current cultural polarization thing: mythology for the common person is sure to set alarms ringing for many Right Thoughts gatekeepers, and to set off just as many in the sacred halls of American Christian orthodoxy. Between the people concerned about incipient signs of imperialism in retellings and those fearing demonic possession of their children by the devils of ancient heathen myths, there's only a narrow window left. And, yet...

Gaiman's doing a spot-on job. His patient, intelligent voice lays out great swaths of exposition with energy but not hyper edge, knowing perfectly well what's best explained and what's best dramatized. His characters, the Norse Gods, are plausible, but powerful. He's done his homework--indeed, he assures us he spent his time with good translations of the various source materials, rather than with re-reading of previous re-tellers of the old stories. Like those older storytellers, he has gone back to the original material, and his interpretation is his own: no more than a second-hand reinventing, rather than a muddle of fourth- and fifth- and sixth-hand reports.

He's given me a stronger appreciation for Odin--a God whose primacy never made much sense to me. (But, nu, most Heads of Pantheon make limited sense to me, so...sue me.) His handling of Loki is careful and neither too sympathetic nor too accusatory. I want to re-listen to think about how he handles his female characters, but so far I'm quite happy.

Odin, by Georg von Rosen, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I may come back to this, perhaps after I read the text as well as listen to the audio. In the meantime, though, I would heartily recommend this book for your own shelves, or for any kid, male or female, whose reading skills are good enough to manage Harry Potter--at least, Harry Potter from, say, Azkaban on

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