It’s a place of ice and fire, filled with mighty giants, clever dwarfs, and magical animals, a place where playful deceit and outright treachery rule. And it’s headed toward a long, long winter and a final battle. No, this is not George R.R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but the Norse myths that clearly inspired many of our popular fantasy worlds.
In this collection, master storyteller Neil Gaiman provides an elegant retelling of tales tied to Norse gods. Gaiman avoids sounding too old-fashioned or too modern, yet manages to employ cadences that are at times biblical. “Before the beginning there was nothing—no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.”
In his introduction, Gaiman explains how he discovered Norse myths as a child through comic books. When he turned to the actual tales, he was surprised to discover that Odin, the “all-father” was “brilliant, unknowable, and dangerous.” And despite all his thunderous power, Thor was “not the brightest of gods,” and the trickster Loki, his blood-brother, was “complicated.”
Gaiman begins the collection with a series of chapters that explain the nature and origins of these ambiguous gods and the worlds they inhabit. It is an odd place—with a gossiping squirrel that lives atop the “world-tree” and a rainbow bridge that allows the gods to travel between the different worlds. Beyond the apocalyptic Ragnarok, the “end-times” promise of a last battle that runs through the collection, the reader will find many other parallels to Christianity. For example, a terrible serpent lives in the bottom of the sea and Thor—son of the all-father—is determined to crush its head. Through Loki, the tales also examine the seductive, capricious, and destructive sides of evil.
While many of the myths encapsulate nuggets of wisdom (Thor fails when he tries to wrestle with old age), many more offer pure amusement worthy of a campfire tale (Thor has to dress up as a woman to get his magical hammer back from a giant). Parents, be aware that such humorous stories often drift into PG-13 territory, especially when Loki gets involved.
That said, I would recommend this book to readers from the middle-school age and older, especially if read out loud together as a family. Gaiman’s collection provides an easy entry to stories that are at once amusing, bizarre, terrifying, and profound. (W.W. Norton and Company)