Stories

 
© Beowulf Sheehan

© Beowulf Sheehan

 

Thanking the Gods for Neil Gaiman's 'Norse Mythology'

We still worship the old gods here. And where there are Norse gods, there are always giants, trolls, and other monsters.

That is why we live in the Troll Capital of the World. That is why in the little village of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, our brewery, and even our computer repair shop, proudly feature trolls in their names and on their signs. That is why statues of trolls stand guard, as ever-present reminders that life is often weird and ridiculous, outside our dentists, our banks and our Mexican restaurant. That is why the Sons of Norway ride through our summer parade on top of a dragon-studded float that looks like a Viking warship. That is why, when your child makes a new friend on the playground, that child’s name is often Freya or Bjorn.

And that is why, when people ask us about our ancestry, we might say the names of our grandmothers or grandfathers, but what we are all really thinking is, “I’m descended from wise Odin and mighty Thor.”

Whether we are Lutherans, Sikhs, Catholics, atheists or devout agnostics, these deities are part of our lives.

When people voyage to a new land, where they plant grains, raise livestock, and build a new life together, they tend to flash freeze their native culture and bring it with them. Such was the case with the Scandinavians who first left the manic, epic landscapes of Norway and made their way to the relatively docile, rolling wilderness of Wisconsin. When they set sail, they brought with them a version of Scandinavian culture that was locked in time, like a portable time capsule. Here, along with their crops and their cattle and their human offspring, they cherished and preserved their heritage, which was forever immune to whatever changes would occur in the places they left behind for the New World. And while they had converted to Christianity by then, the old gods had not yet completely faded from view.

People think gods want to be worshiped. What they really need are caretakers. Someone to tell and retell their tales; to keep them alive and brimming with all the fury and beauty that are in their natures. And our old gods could have no better caretaker than Neil Gaiman, whose new book, “Norse Mythology,” doesn’t just keep them alive; it simultaneously elevates them and brings them down to earth in a way I, personally, have never seen before.

Gaiman is one of the most famous authors in the world. For the first 35 years of my life, I always thought of him as a comic book writer, a title that, for me, ranks only marginally below saint or superhero. Then, when our daughter was born, I discovered that Gaiman is also a prolific author of children’s books. (His tender, refreshingly sincere “Blueberry Girl” actually brought me to tears when I first read it to my swaddled infant daughter.) He has also written a variety of popular novels that, like so many good books, tend to defy categorization.

Now Gaiman has turned his considerable talents to our gods. To the diverse pantheon that we like to consider our extended family.

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, “Norse Mythology” will significantly change our relationship with them, because for all our adoration, most of us know very little about the Norse gods. A reading of Gaiman’s new book allows us to see them in a new and far more human way. The beginning to the chapter entitled “The Mead of Poets,” which is about halfway through the book, could easily have served as an introduction to this entire work. “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?”

 

This wonderful book holds the answer to this and much, much more. You will learn that when you look up at the clouds by day, you are seeing Ymir’s brains, “and who knows what thoughts they are thinking, even now.” You will learn that Loki makes the world “more interesting but less safe,”  a wonderful blast of praise and damnation sitting side by side, without even a comma to separate them.

You will read tales that are grim, and those that are majestic. You will also laugh, in all likelihood, when you find the gods romantically entangled with various animals and giants, or when they pass wind midway through battle.

I’ve always been fascinated by these old stories. But they were, I thought, more like ancient monoliths than modern tales. They were like immense, immovable mountains. Beautiful to look at, but not much more. In “Norse Mythology,” Gaiman breathes life into the mountain. Under his care, the old granite gods rise up and shake off their age. They feast, engage in various hijinks, die, come back to life, and seem utterly alive, flawed and divine, all at the same time. Some have compared Gaiman to Loki, the trickster, but here he is far more like Idunn, who returns time and time again to feed the gods the apples of immortality, restoring their youth, their beauty, and their power.

It’s no small trick, bringing our ancestors back to life. And it is a wonderful thing for those of us who feel inexorably linked to them. It’s the type of gift for which one might even thank the gods.

-by Matt Geiger

Editor's note: This story will appear in the March 16 edition of the Mount Horeb Mail newspaper. Geiger's debut book, "Raised by Wolves & Other Stories," is available now.