I have finally found the time to read my Valentine’s day present. We don’t normally do anything special for it, but this year I received Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (and some chocolate).
I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s work and I love my mythology so I was extremely excited to read it. Below, you’ll find my review and a little snippet of something else.
Before We Begin
The Scandinavian mythologies have always been my favourite. When I was younger I spent some time reading the stories and myths and trying to get my hands on a copy of the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda.
Throughout my year living in Sweden, particularly, I read some factual retellings and always wondered if someone should tell the Norse tales again, in story form, and for our time. I even considered doing it myself: combining the myths with storytelling for a modern audience.
As you can imagine, I was delighted to hear that Neil Gaiman was going to do just that.
Gaiman did a fantastic job picking which parts of the mythos to include. Sadly, two of my favourite characters were not in the book. As such, I decided to share them with you. Find it below, after the review. It is the story of the wolves Hati and Sköll, sons of the Fenris Wolf.
Gaiman’s Norse Mythology reads like a cross between an historical textbook and a beautifully crafted fantasy tale, simultaneously educational and captivating. It begins in a way I wish my ancient history textbooks had been written, informative but with a storytelling slant.
After that, we get into the meat of the book and the tales are relayed, each in part, like short stories. Gaiman’s fairytale-style writing is intensified in Norse Mythology, making the book feel as if you are hearing it told aloud, passed down from some ancient chronicler or poet. To this end, the language is simple and the book is an absolute pleasure to read. I found myself breezing through easily palatable language and able to fully visualise the vivid stories as they were told.
Much of the Scandinavian mythos is dark and violent and filled with the primal lusts of the gods. Gaiman’s telling of the events, while not subtracting from this intensity, is told in a gentler way, making the book as appropriate for children as it is interesting for adults.
The stories themselves are true to the old myths while allowing for Gaiman’s creativity to shine through (after all, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda were not wildly detailed as ancient texts did not provide such information). Gaiman’s love of the old myths is very clear, not only in the book’s introduction where he attests to such, but throughout the entire telling. He adds his own touch to the myths, while maintaining the simple language and staying true to the heart of the originals. I particularly appreciated his use of the proper names and words, without making the stories confusing of convoluted. My Swedish is poorer than it was when I lived in the country, but I still enjoyed the translation of some of the Old Norse words. Alfheim, for example, literally means “elf home” and Svartalfheim, “black elf home”.
Overall, Norse Mythology was an enjoyable and informative read. I only wish more of the stories had been included, but I can imagine it was difficult to pick which ones to include and the extra research would take some time. Having said that, I feel as though the book was just the right length to suit a variety of readers.
This is the type of book you want to read aloud, to yourself, your children, or to others. I highly recommend it and it will no doubt be one I go back to read on other occasions.
My Favourite Norse Characters
Not much is mentioned of the wolves Hati and Sköll but they have always inspired interesting ideas within me when I have read of them. The story below is accurate to their roles in the mythos, but the tale itself takes many creative liberties.
The days and nights were brought, as they always had been, by the beautiful children of Mundilfari, whose arrogance in naming them after the two great heavenly bodies had angered the gods. The children bore this punishment themselves: Sol was to drive the horses who pulled the chariot of the sun, and Mani that of the moon.
With Mani and Sol to drive them, the horses moved faster and the days and nights were shorter than the had once been. The beautiful children of Mundilfari soon grew tired of their constant trek across the sky, however, and the days grew longer, as did the nights. Soon, they dragged on and on so that, in the winter, the nights felt too long. In the summer, the sun charred the land. The people of Midgard began to suffer for it, as Sol and Mani lazily drifted across the sky.
It was the Vanir who noticed first, and grew concerned. Soon, the Aesir discovered the problem and drew together to discuss it.
“We have tried speaking with them,” said Odin, all-father. “They have agreed to move faster, but they have not done so.”
“I threatened them with my hammer,” agreed Thor. “But they wouldn’t move.”
From the back of the room, there was a sigh. “Of course not, they know you won’t kill them. Then there would be no one to drive the horses.”
The gods turned towards the figure of Loki, as he smiled his smug smile across the room at them.
“Do you know how to make them move faster again?” asked Thor. He did not want Loki to help, for it would only make him more arrogant, but if anyone was clever enough to help, it was him.
Thor’s thoughts showed on his face, and Loki chuckled to himself. “Of course!” After all, he was the cleverest of the gods and no doubt he would have a plan. He just didn’t have one yet. But he would.
“Then go,” said Odin, his grey eye focussing carefully on Loki, “and convince Sol and Mani to pick up their pace.”
Loki left the hall, then, and began to wander across the lands as the long night began. He hummed to himself thoughtfully as he travelled. What would make the horses, and those who drove them, move with great haste?
In the forest ahead of him, Loki heard the sounds of chase. It was the sound of wolves closing in on their prey. He heard the frenzied cries of a horse in pain, and then the crunching of bone as he stepped around the trees and into a clearing. Blood shone in the moonlight, as two wolves devoured their hunt.
Loki recognised the children of Fenrir and, by this way, his grandchildren. They lifted bloody muzzles from the corpse of the horse and growled at him. With a grin, Loki approached, admiring their kill.
“Such a small horse,” he observed, “and only one. Won’t you remain hungry?”
When they spoke, it was with the voices of men, like their father. “This horse is the biggest we have caught!” Hati told him. The wolves were hard to tell apart, though they were both far larger than any he had seen, save for Fenrir.
“But you are bigger still,” Loki observed. “Such a shame you cannot find a bigger animal to hunt.”
“If we could find a bigger animal,” agreed Sköll, “it would be a great hunt.”
“The best hunt!” Loki told them. “You would be known throughout the land as the greatest hunters of all.”
The wolves liked the sound of this and they looked to each other with excitement. It faded quickly with a realisation.
“But the biggest horse is Sleipnir, and the all-father would kill us before we attacked his mount.”
Loki, who had birthed Sleipnir himself and given the foal to Odin, did not like the idea of his child’s death.
“That would be a very bad idea,” he assured them. “But there are four great horses, two for you each, which would make up for it. They are all as large as Sleipnir and their deaths would bring you the glory you seek.”
“Where are they?” asked Hati, delighted.
“We shall hunt them!” agreed Sköll.
Loki pointed upwards, to where Mani’s chariot shone in the sky. “They are there, dragging the moon in their wake.”
“I shall hunt them!” cried Hati, leaping to his feet and jumping as high as he could into the air. He fell to the ground, disappointed.
But Loki had brought with him Freya’s cloak of falcon feathers, from which he plucked a feather and weaved it into Hati’s thick fur. With a snarl, the wolf leapt from the ground and into the sky, pursuing Mani’s chariot.
Sköll laughed with delight, to watch his brother give chase, and turned to look at Loki. “Now me! Where are my horses?”
The sun was rising then, the long night shortened as Mani fled the sky in terror. As it emerged, Sköll’s eyes narrowed in bloodthirsty delight, and Loki knew that the wolf understood. He weaved a second feather into the brother wolf’s coat, and Sköll burst into the air, eyes intent on Sol and her chariot.
As the wolves reached the sky, they grew bigger and fiercer, their eyes glowing like fire.
Loki smiled his smug smile and returned to remind the other gods of how clever he was.
The brothers were swift, but they were not fast enough, despite their size. They could not catch Mani and Sol, and the days and nights began to turn with their original speed. Still, the continued to give chase, for this would be the most glorious hunt of all.
It is there the wolf brothers remain, locked in their chase until the time of Ragnarök comes. Then, Hati and Sköll will reach their prey and swallow them whole at the end of it all.
tl;dr – Go read Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman.