In the introduction to Norse Mythology, his resonant re-creation before our very eyes of the enduring legends starring one-eyed god Odin, dangerously mischievous Loki, and more, multi-award-winning fantasy author Neil Gaiman says of the world’s many traditions, “If I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths.” He first encountered them in American comics as a child and later uncovered a deeper and subtly different understanding of their virtues, which have influenced his own writing. But it took a suggestion from Amy Cherry, Norton VP and senior editor, for him to provide his own version of these tales.
“I’ve known that he loves Norse mythology from the ‘Sandman’ series and [some of his] other books, like American Gods and even The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” explained Cherry in a phone interview with LJ. “I didn’t find anything on these myths that worked for adults and children, so I knew it was time.” Cherry cites Gaiman’s prominence, his powerful feel for the mythic, and his “amazing ability to write and enjoy that kind of myth” as good reasons to ask him to revisit Norse cosmology. But she got something more.
“I was expecting a group of myths that came together because Neil thought they were the most interesting, but what I got was this incredible narrative form, from the beginning of the gods to Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, and a new beginning,” exclaims Cherry. “As a reader, I knew the book was heading in a direction, and at the end I had that emotional reaction of wonder.”
The Norse myths come to us in fragments, having been written down by those wanting to preserve their particular truths after Christianity came to dominate northern Europe. That makes the unified arc of Norse Mythology Gaiman’s special contribution to the genre. Cherry argues that smart, careful choices allowed Gaiman to connect story lines and build characters to create the feel of a novel. “Neil had that awareness,” she observes. “He wanted to give us a real reading experience.”
Part of Gaiman’s success can be attributed to his letting the individual stories tell themselves, with any embellishment rooted in an understanding that came from dwelling with these stories and their many variations over time. (The occasional sly modernism is priceless.) As Cherry points out, Norse myths were passed down orally from generation to generation before being recorded in the Edda, and Gaiman had a sure sense of that language. “Even in the final manuscript, there were just the right changes in wording,” she confides.
“I hope I’ve retold these stories honestly, but there was still joy and creation in the telling,” declares Gaiman in the introduction. He’s triumphed on all counts, for many different audiences. Scholars such as Maria Tatar have responded enthusiastically, and no one Cherry approached for a reading said no. As she explains, “There’s a love of Neil’s literature among academics, and the response was, ‘This is wonderful.’ ” The book fits perfectly with Norton’s college division, and the publisher will do outreach to high school students and teachers as well.
In the end, of course, the book will appeal to readers of good literature everywhere. Those familiar with the hammer-swinging Thor of comics fame will feel right at home, while upmarket fiction fans can luxuriate in a master’s writing. Either way, readers will want to know more about Norse mythology. Says Cherry, “It’s what both Neil and Norton would hope for.”—Barbara Hoffert