Gaiman says dark stories from Nordic myth are perfect for hard times

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman says he fell in love with Norse mythology after reading reprints of Marvel Comics "Thor" stories. However, he also says he only really came to appreciate the dark side to them when he moved to the Midwest and experienced a winter that can kill you.
Beowulf Sheehan | WW Norton

Neil Gaiman is known for his fantasy writing both as a novelist for such books as "American Gods" and "The Graveyard Book," and for comic books like "The Sandman."

Now he has lent his unique perspective to re-telling ancient Nordic tales. Gaiman says the dark stories in his book "Norse Mythology" are perfect for hard times.

Like many of his generation, Gaiman first came across the Nordic myths through the medium of comic books: reprints of the Marvel Thor stories published in his native England. That led him to books of myths — and a realization.

"That the Thor of the comics was its own thing," he said. "That the Thor of the myths, the Thor of the stories, and the Loki and the Odin of the stories were much darker, stranger and more dangerous characters."

Neil Gaiman’s 'Norse Mythology'
Neil Gaiman's "Norse Mythology"
WW Norton

As he grew older he kept coming across other retellings.

"And I read them and they were what sent me to write the Nose gods into "Sandman" the comic book series that I wrote," he said.

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And finally this sent him back to the medieval Icelandic texts known as the Poetic Edda, the transcriptions of the oral literature of the the Norse people

"And they, in a lot of ways, informed 'American Gods.'"

Gaiman's 2001 novel weaves a tale of old gods, including Odin, living in contemporary America. They are preparing for a showdown against new deities formed in the crucible of the modern world. Yet Gaiman says it wasn't writing about Norse mythology that led him to truly understanding the stories. It was real-life experience when he lived in Menomonie, Wis.

"Living out near Minneapolis and experiencing the world in which a winter can kill you if it wants to and the outside becomes dangerous," he said. "And that really threw the Norse myths into focus for me."

That was the life of the people who created these stories Gaiman says. He says they feel surprisingly contemporary today, unlike Greek and Roman myths — the stories of warmer climates.

"The Vikings myths are from a harder era, and maybe it's more appropriate," he said.

He says he and his editor first discussed retelling the myths in November 2008. He began seriously working on the book in 2012. He retold the stories of Odin, the king of the gods, Thor the Thunder god, and Loki the trickster in that distinctive Gaiman style. Here's how he opens the story "The Mead of Poets," which explains the origin of the art of rhyme.

"Do you wonder where poetry comes from? Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell? Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great, wise, beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on as poetry to the world, to be sung and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane? Have you wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales, and some of us do not?

It is a long story, and it does no credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit. Listen."

Gaiman says writing "Norse Mythology" posed a particular writing challenge.

"It's like covering old folk songs," he said. "You want to do them so they sound both you are doing the folk song as best you can and you are trying to make it sound like something that contemporary audiences would recognize as music and not go 'Ah! This is a historical thing.' "

Gaiman laughs at how coincidences in his life often appear to be the result of excellent planning.

His "Norse Mythology" hit bookstores in February, a perfect precursor to the debut of the "American Gods" TV series in April, although he says he handed in the manuscript two months before shooting began. He's been hearing that "American Gods" with its struggle between deep set ideologies is perfect for our present troubled times. And then there's been the reaction he's been getting to "Norse Mythology."

"One of the things I keep hearing is how incredibly familiar the final chapter is, where we hit Ragnarok, the end of the world," he said.

However he says he's been getting the biggest laughs from the story which begins with Odin announcing what Asgaard really needs is a very large wall.