On New Versions of Old Tales

I saw Neil Gaiman read from his new book, Norse Mythology, at the Town Hall a few weeks ago.  He said he wanted to do a retelling of the Norse myths because of the way these stories had “infected him” as a kid. I’d say the infection is still evident. Gaiman has been doing retellings of these myths from the very beginning of his writing career. Odin and Loki (Low-Key) appear in both American Gods and The Sandman comics. And more recently, Odd and the Frost Giants is about a boy who sets about saving Odin, Thor and Loki. 

He’s not alone. Norse mythology has been the bedrock of a lot of great fantasy from Tolkien to G.R.R. Martin. The inevitable battle between good and evil, à la Ragnorak, is pretty much “Winter” in the Song of Ice and Fire. Ice and fire, frost giants, light elves and dark elves, dragons, trolls and dwarves, mystical ravens and giant eagles, Midgard and Middle-earth, the All-father and the All-spark, the Wall — Norse mythology is the source of all of this. Odin the Wanderer in his gray cloak and drooping, broad-brimmed hat and tall staff  is basically Gandalf the Gray.

In fact, there have been so many great re-imaginings of Norse tales, that the originals really pale in comparison. Gaiman said at the reading, retelling these stories was like doing doing a cover when the original sounds a little tinny and you need to kick it up with some bass. So this is how he did it.

Skogtroll (Forest troll) by Theodor Kittelsen

First, he found the humor in the stories and in the relationships between the gods, because they are kind of funny. And then he found the tragedy in them. They are all- powerful gods and yet, no matter how strong or wise, their world is going to end one day in a blaze or fire and of ice and there is nothing they can do to stop it.

At the Town Hall reading he twice brought up a review in the Wall Street Journal. He seemed to want to set the record straight about his decision not to include the “rapey bits” in the story of "Freya and the Giant". He explained that there are two versions, the Poetic Eddas and the Prose Eddas and he simply chose the version that didn’t involve rape. He also said if there had been more stories of women with agency he wouldn’t have had a problem including the rape, but as it stands, there simply weren’t. It is nice that he includes the story of how the male god Njord has to be married off to make amends for Loki’s transgressions, and not Freya.

No doubt there is much to bemoan about Viking history and culture. As far as people go, they weren’t great. They glorified violence. There were two kinds of death in this culture, the good kind, in which you died bravely in battle and spend eternity fighting and partying in Valhalla or the other kind, in which you went to Hel. You could live the life of a saint and die peacefully in your sleep, and for this you went to a cold dark mist world for all eternity. I guess there wasn't a lot of incentive. I have to think, though, based on how quickly the pagans adopted Christianity, there must have been a lot of Norse folks who thought all that pillaging stuff was bemoanable too.

Say what you will about how many of them chose to make a living, they did have a lot of cool stories.