My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review covers both Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology and Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes.
Unlike their Greek counterparts with whom most readers are far more familiar, the Norse gods impose little order upon the world. The best they seem able to do is withstand a greater chaos, for a time. Of course, they are rather chaotic themselves, as well as violent, willful, lusty, sometimes ridiculous and quite often treacherous. Only Odin seems to spend much time thinking about the future or the role of humans in this world, but that concern for humans is self-serving, as he seeks, favors, and betrays warriors in order to swell the ranks of his forces for the final battle at the world’s ending.
Now both Carolyne Larrington, the eminent and accomplished scholar of Old Norse, and Neil Gaiman, who surely needs no introduction, have published volumes on Norse Mythology within days of each other. It’s all so convenient the Norns might have had a hand in it. Each of these books is interesting and entertaining, but in quite different ways.
Gaiman, as one might expect, opts for a more dramatic treatment of his subject, retelling a selection of important myths at varying lengths, all building towards the climax of ragnarök. His tales are at times touching, at times quite funny. There’s a moment near the end, for example, where Kvasir, the wisest of the gods, guides Thor, not the wisest of the gods, to understanding the importance of a net Loki had created and destroyed, a moment which strongly reminds me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which Sir Bedivere explains to the peasants how one determines who is and who is not a witch. Yet the fine and frequent humor of Gaiman’s treatment obscured for me, as it also did in his earlier American Gods, the overwhelming sense of loss now and disaster to come that haunts the world of gods and men in Norse mythology. In the end it seems reduced to a joke and a game, as a dying Heimdall gleefully informs a dying Loki that the last laugh is on him. The book’s last words 'And the game begins anew' only reinforce this impression.
Larrington, like Kvasir with his recreation of Loki’s clever net, captures more of what she seeks. By not focusing narrowly on the drama of the tales she captures more of their tragedy, and suggests more of their meaning for Norse and more broadly for Teutonic culture in general, since these tales were told from Vinland to the Volga and across the centuries before and after the North became Christian. Her inclusion of the part humans play in Norse Mythology -- of Sigmund and Sigurd and all their bloody-minded, bloody-handed kin, more accursed than the House of Atreus, more trapped by the needs of the gods but without the least final justice, doomed in every sense – gives the world of gods and men a fuller, rounder shape. For the tales involve us. The twilight of the gods is also our own. By including humans, the unwilling and often unwitting players in the doom of the gods, Larrington allows us to understand better the world which told these tales, because through them, as Lewis put it in Surprised By Joy, ‘pure “Northernness” engulf[s us]: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity….’
I did not laugh as often reading Larrington’s book as I did Gaiman's, but I nodded more and learned more. I would suggest, however, that they are most profitably enjoyed together.