Neil Gaiman’s latest book-length project Norse Mythology frustrates me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of Norse myths, placed in an order that’s at least nominally coherent, stretching from the beginning of the world to its ending in the disasters of Ragnarok. Generally, it focuses on Loki, Odin and Thor; Loki’s exploits in particular provide the backbone for what little continuity the stories have, although there is a general sense that we are supposed to read these characters as logically consistent people, i.e. as we would read characters in a modern novel.
My question, really, is what Norse Mythology is for. I don’t know these stories in detail, the way I know Greek mythology, for instance; but I don’t get the sense Gaiman has changed very much here. What changes do exist are largely cosmetic: the gods’ dialogue is a touch more demotic than we might expect; things are occasionally conceptualised in modern terminology (“oxygen-rich” air pumps through the bellows of the dwarf Brokk). These are changes clearly geared at making the stories relevant and accessible to a modern audience; breathing new life into them, as it were. But it’s jarring to read such modernising touches set against a backdrop of casual misogyny and transphobia which does more to date the myths than any amount of archaic diction ever could.
And, actually, none of this misogyny or transphobia is particularly necessary to the structure of the myths themselves. Thor’s discomfort at posing as the bride of the ogre Thrym in order to get his hammer back: why not use Loki, who’s already there in the scene, as a foil to make Thor ridiculous in his fragile masculinity? Loki’s anger when people mention how he gave birth to Sleipnir in the form of a mare: just leave it out! Sif leaving a council of gods in order to show her friends her new hair: again, just don’t mention it! At the beginning of the book, in the creation of the world, we meet the giant Ymir, who is both male and female at the same time. Gaiman uses the derogatory pronoun “it” to refer to Ymir; if we’re talking about relevance, how simple would it have been to use “they” instead, a real pronoun that actual non-binary people use? None of this is substantially changing the meaning of the myths; they’re just – interpretations. Looking at the stories in a different light. Which is, surely, the whole point of retellings.
Or, say that for whatever reason you don’t want to remove the patriarchal slant that lies in the myths’ backgrounds. In that case, why not lean into their archaism? This is my second major problem with Norse Mythology: it has no sense of grandeur, of majesty, of darkness lurking in great pine forests or the passes of mountains. The gods in these stories are remarkably unheroic figures, forever being tricked by Loki or by an ogre somewhere – I’d argue that this is partly a result of presenting them as psychologically consistent characters without doing any extra characterisation work, and partly a result of Gaiman’s middle-of-the-road prose, which renders even Ragnarok unimpressive.
The thing is – this is Neil Gaiman, right? Isn’t he supposed to be the king of dark fairytale, of making old stories new, of drawing meaning out of the night – according to his personal branding, anyway? Why, then, is Norse Mythology so boring?
Ultimately, what I want from a retelling, and what Norse Mythology utterly lacks, is a sense of vision. I want to know why the author is retelling this particular story; why they think it’s relevant now; what they see in it that makes it worthy of our attention, today – whether that’s a mood, a set of themes, a central character. I want a thesis, not a half-hearted attempt to modernise the surface of stories that leaves their old and destructive prejudices intact. Norse Mythology frustrates me because it represents wasted potential. There is so much in these old stories that could be made darkly, delightfully new. Gaiman has missed every opportunity to do so.