No contemporary fiction writer gets more of his power from the mythological tradition than Neil Gaiman. Almost all of his work, from the “Sandman” comics he wrote in the ‘80s and ‘90s to prose novels such as “American Gods” and children’s books such as “Coraline,” ingeniously fragments and integrates the raw materials of myth into present-day settings and perspectives. At his best, Gaiman does with folkloric storytelling something like what Bob Dylan does with the blues and folk song tradition: He’s absorbed so much mythology that his own work flows naturally out of it, and his narrative voice is richer for its echoes of the old stories. He occasionally comes off as a self-serious For-I-Am-a-Teller-of-Tales sort, but his storytelling chops have numberless generations of expertise bolstering them.
“Norse Mythology” is something a bit different for Gaiman: It’s his rendering of 15 stories from what little remains of the pre-Christian Scandinavian myths that were recorded in and around the 13th century. It’s not quite a translation (Gaiman’s introduction notes that his sources were mostly various English translations of the “Poetic Edda” and Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda”), and not an entirely free adaptation: His additions are a storyteller’s flourishes rather than new pieces of narrative. As always, Gaiman’s a charming raconteur. The project itself, though, seems oddly superfluous.
Little remains of what seems to have been a substantial body of the Norse storytellers’ fables about their gods; some of them survived only as explanations of particular figures of speech used by poets. Even so, a handful of characters and elements of the extant stories — the hammer-wielding thunder god Thor, his father, Odin, who sacrificed an eye for knowledge, and the mercurial trickster Loki, as well as their home of Asgard — are remarkably well-known in the present day. That’s almost entirely thanks to the “Thor” comic books that Marvel Comics has been publishing since 1962, and their various media derivatives. (Ask anyone what color Thor’s hair is; you’re far more likely to hear “blond,” which is the case in the comics and recent movies based on them, than “red,” as in the Icelandic sagas that postdated the “Edda” collections. He’s “red-bearded” in Gaiman’s book.)
In fact, Gaiman’s first exposure to Asgard was “as a small boy, no more than seven, reading the adventures of the Mighty Thor as depicted by American comics artist Jack Kirby, in stories plotted by Kirby and Stan Lee and dialogued by Stan Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber.” A 6-year-old Gaiman might well have run across reprints of those earliest stories in the 1967 British magazine “Fantastic!” (He doesn’t, however, mention any of the subsequent creators who worked on “Thor” comics; a handful of 1978 issues written by Roy Thomas, for instance, adapted the same well-circulated Norse tales that are revisited here as “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants,” “Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye” and “The Death of Balder.”) In any case, the Norse pantheon stuck with Gaiman: Loki and Odin both play significant roles in his novel “American Gods,” whose TV adaptation will air this spring on Starz.
Unsurprisingly, Gaiman recognizes a ripping yarn when he sees one. The bits of the “Edda” material he’s plucked and fleshed out here are pretty entertaining on their own, and Gaiman’s takes on them play up the characterization that the extant sources only hint at. His Thor is a bit dense but has learned to work around his limitations, generally by threatening violence; his Loki is less the cackling, malign creature of the movies than a practical joker whose cruelty is somehow never quite despicable. “The Treasures of the Gods” begins with Thor discovering that his wife Sif’s hair has been stolen by Loki, and intimidating him into convincing a family of dwarfs to replace it. Jesse Byock’s 2005 translation of Sturluson’s “Prose Edda” dispatches that part of the story in two swift sentences. Gaiman’s version extends the setup to four pages of slow-burn comedy:
“Thor’s brow lowered. ‘Sif’s hair was her glory. People will think that her head was shaved for punishment. That she did something she should not have done, did it with someone she should not have.’
“‘Well, yes. There is that,’ said Loki. ‘They will probably think that...’”
Gaiman can be very funny, sometimes so much so that his own voice’s commentary upstages the story he’s telling: When Odin is given the spear Gungnir, which always hits its target, Gaiman wisecracks that “Odin had but one eye, after all, and sometimes his aim could be less than perfect.” (That archaic “but” shouldn’t fool anyone.) And he’s not above an occasional linguistic anachronism for the sake of a giggle, as when Loki praises a trick played by the giant Utgardaloki: “That was well done. Brilliantly deployed illusions. I think we’ve all learned something today.”
For the most part, though, the diction of “Norse Mythology” is that of someone telling a story to children while entertaining the adults sitting with them: “You think you can eat fast? You should have seen Loki devour his food. One moment it was in front of him, and the next it was gone and he was wiping his lips with the back of his hand.” And, as always, Gaiman’s language is quietly freighted with allusions. His version of “The Death of Balder” begins, “Nothing there is that does not love the sun”; a reader who doesn’t hear the echo of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”) will still understand that syntax as a poetic gesture.
As charming as “Norse Mythology” is, it’s still a little perplexing that it exists. Why would the world need Gaiman’s particular, straightforward take on this material, especially given his fondness for similar books by Roger Lancelyn Green and Kevin Crossley-Holland? (He credits both in his introduction — and notes that he “did not dare go back to” either of them while researching the book.) For admirers of his fiction, it’s the equivalent of going to see a rock band you like and finding that they’re just playing a set of Chuck Berry covers that night: great material, yes, and executed nicely, but less than the inventiveness we go to him for.
“I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods,” Gaiman writes, “of Lofn, the comforter, who was a Norse goddess of marriages, or of Sjofn, a goddess of love... They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.” That’s true — but even if Gaiman can’t retell them, he could certainly tell them.
Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
W.W. Norton: 304 pp., $25.95