Saturday 16 December 2017

Playfulness and cruelty from Nordic legends

Fiction: Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, Bloomsbury, €20

Dungeons and dragons: Game Of Thrones (which stars Emilia Clarke as dragon queen Daenerys) owes a great debt to Norse mythology
Dungeons and dragons: Game Of Thrones (which stars Emilia Clarke as dragon queen Daenerys) owes a great debt to Norse mythology

Hilary A White

Between his seminal Sandman graphic novel series, children's books such as Odd And The Frost Giants and on to the grandiosity of American Gods, Neil Gaiman has found a place within the fantasy-horror realm to weave overt touchstones of ancient mythologies into the foreground.

Norse legends, as he prefaces in this edition, would "probably" be his favourite of all such divine lore ever since he fell in love with the Jack Kirby's Marvel superhero incarnation of Thor as a boy.

An obsession took hold, and further reading revealed to the young Gaiman that the mighty Thor was in fact a little dim. He also learned that Loki, depicted by Stan Lee's comics as an evil deviant, was not purely an outright baddie but instead was just "complicated".

And so, as the hero/villain dynamic has undergone a mutation in this age of Game of Thrones (one of a few modern franchises, it becomes abundantly clear, that owes Norse mythology a great debt) the 56-year-old's compendium is timely.

Gods are as meddlesome and self-serving as governments or corrupt cops, and walls are conjured between worlds to keep perceived threats out.

Tests turn up across these 15 tales that require indirect logic, and pride usually goeth before a fall.

In academic texts (based on runic lore, archaeological remains and finally Icelandic Christian anthologies with the introduction of the Latin alphabet in 1270), the sagas of the gods of Asgard can be notoriously convoluted and prone to sidetracks. Gaiman strips them all down to their essence and presents them here for novelistic digestion by way of his trademark uncluttered language and seams of wry humour that bring colour and respiration to these fables.

A glossary is provided at the back for Nordic words used and a short introduction to the three main players is given before the storytelling commences.

These are Odin (the bellicose, power-hungry "all-father"), Thor (Odin's strong, straightforward and virtuous son), and Loki (cunning, clever, treacherous).

Around them swirls a cast of shape-shifting creatures, frost giants, light elves, undead soldiers and rival gods.

"Midgard", the realm of us puny humans, is encircled by a giant poisonous snake. Often these poor unfortunate underlings are just going about their own business only to have Thor and Loki turn up demanding food and ale.

This will then lead to an intricate series of events that results in the learning of a pithy truth or a mute resolution from which the gods walk away.

"It didn't take much to make the gods laugh," Gaiman's narrator sighs at one point.

Purists may balk but Gaiman is right to somewhat embrace the brawny, dunderheaded Thor of Marvel, who in Freya's Unusual Wedding wears women's clothes to pull the wool over the enemy's eyes.

Elsewhere, when Thor kicks a dwarf into a fire out of irritation, it makes him "feel slightly better and made all the dwarfs feel much worse". This playful tone almost brings Gaiman's retellings close to children's literature territory, but cruelty, conniving, sly seduction and hammer-smashing are never far from the smorgasbord.

This is what Tolkien surely paid heed to all those years ago when he pilfered from this tradition (nasty trolls, dwarves toiling away beneath mountains). Similarly, when we read here about vengeance upon whole families or backstabbing war manoeuvres, not to mention talk of the endless "Fimbulwinter", the omnipresent Game of Thrones suddenly doesn't seem that fresh of face.

This rich heritage deserved revision, for sure, but it took Gaiman's affection and atmospherics to make it sing so powerfully.

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