Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’ Shows Us a Better Way to Write Folklore

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Who doesn’t have fond memories of curling up with an old copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology, curled at the edges and filled with countless (but brief) adventures of the world’s most famous heroes? Legendary stories don’t really get old, but Neil Gaiman has shown us how they can be re-told better than ever. With Norse Mythology, Gaiman has perfected—or at least advanced—the art of writing fables.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is bound with a common theme, a continuing story, and all of the Nordic fables in his book point to the same place: Ragnarök. The end of times. The apocalypse.

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It’s different than the film (which appears to share the plot of Mortal Kombat).

From the very start, we are told about Loki’s children who will fight on the wrong side in the last war. It’s charming to hear about the origin of Thor’s hammer, but the tale ends with a stark reminder of that weapon’s final use. Loki’s pranks are enchanting and hilarious, but each a bit darker than the other, and eventually the reader cannot escape the conclusion that this trickster will be the architect of a tragedy.

I studied a bit of Norse literature in grad school (a bit, mind you), and I was impressed at how well Gaiman told his stories in the style of the Norse storytellers, with all of the unexpected cleverness and depth hiding behind short sentences and simple dialog. It’s quite a challenge for a writer to make a story come alive while embracing older narrative styles, but Gaiman nails it.

It would be great to see more mythology reinterpreted with a theme. Imagine a collection of Greek myths where the gods fear they will be forgotten as they watch society advance without them, until Zeus and his children quietly climb down from Mt. Olympus to live as men. Or a book of Native American folklore beginning with many faces staring out to sea for inspiration and ending with the arrival of strange ships. Perhaps the simple inclusion of a coherent narrative could make any mythological collection into an unforgettable experience.

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