Tales from the North

Tales from the North

Norse Mythology
Neil Gaiman
Bloomsbury
2017, pp 279
Rs. 499

I  must confess that this would be my third reading of the Norse tales, stories that hold me in complete thrall each book, each reading. So my first reaction here was: Neil Gaiman doing a re-telling? Will it serve? However, Gaiman is Gaiman, and though there are no overt flourishes in his retelling of these myths, he spins tale upon engrossing tale, and the reader is left thoroughly engaged, entertained and yes, informed, too.

Let us begin with the charming dedication, shall we? ‘For Everett’, it reads, old stories for a new boy. Now transpose ‘generation’ for ‘boy’ and we are on the right track.

For the retelling of tales that are mostly familiar to lovers of world mythology, Gaiman has gone back to the Poetic Edda, a long cycle of poems in Old Norse. As befits a hardy people not given to overt displays of emotion, the narrative is of impassive, distant gods going about their lives without expending much thought on the lesser mortals... all except the fascinating, capricious, shape-shifting Loki, of course. However, here too Gaiman holds back; Loki is presented as is, with no attempt to explain, parse or justify his malevolent thoughts and deeds. But the human fascination with all such twisted beings endures, so Loki comes through far more fleshed-out than the others at Asgard.

For those not familiar with these stories, the book is a treasure trove. The basic concepts are lovely: how the earliest man was made from the ash tree; the earliest woman from the elm, which means we are all descended from the ash and the elm. There is the vivid description of Valhalla, an enormous hall with 540 doors, each door allowing 800 warriors to walk abreast, where they feast on the meat of the boar Saerimnir, who is slain each night to fill many bellies but comes alive again the next morning. There is Loki’s daughter Hel, beautiful on one side of her face, hideous on the other, who rules over her eponymous world. There is well-meaning but slightly thick-headed Thor, he of the hammer famously named Mjolnir. The author talks of the dreaded Ragnarök, the end of time, but in the future tense; for some reason, he does not enter that portal and tell us of what transpired.

It is the matter-of-fact tone that wins the day here. That and the masterly restraint that Gaiman employs. Love, loathing, betrayal, war, everything is touched on in gossamer-light fashion. The art of the author’s craft lies in the fact that this dispassionate telling, carefully leached of overt emotion, in no way takes away from the substance of these fascinating stories. You just have to read Gaiman’s description of the Fimbulwinter, the final winter that will descend on the world, plunging everything and everyone into cold, cruelty, conflict, to understand that in restraint too, lies power.

Once in a while, the reader does wonder if this book is meant only for the young-adult reader, given that here and there, a gratuitous explanation like “... the black fly (who was Loki)” creeps in. To counterbalance that, though, there are lines like this: “They swore oaths then, the mightiest of oaths, the gods and the stranger, that neither side betray the other. They swore on their weapons, and they swore on Draupnir, Odin’s gold arm-ring, and they swore on Gungnir, Odin’s spear, and an oath sworn on Gungnir was unbreakable.”

The passage describing how the gods tie up one of Loki’s misbegotten children, Fenris Wolf, in the process, coolly sacrificing the hand of one of their fellow gods, Tyr, is moving. As is this passage: “Neither side could win the war. And more than that, as they fought they realised that each side needed the other: that there is no joy in a brave battle unless you have fine fields and farms to feed you in the feasting that follows.” Our warring world would do well to ponder these words.

As with all world mythology, the crossover lines are subtle. Look at this description of Ginnungagap, the vast gap between the fire of the Muspell world and the misty darkness of Niflheim. “There was no sea and no sand, no grass nor rocks, no soil, no trees, no sky, no stars. There was no world, no heaven and no earth, at that time. The gap was nowhere: only an empty place waiting to be filled with life and with existence.” Indeed, a masterly description of Limbo.

This could be the most simplistic telling of a tale that Gaiman has ever done. It is quite a while into the book that the perceptive reader realises that the author is using a pointillist’s pen here: writing the chronicles in first, then adding the most subtle of touches at the fringe. Read this book before you go watch the next Thor movie. You’ll thank me for this advice.

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