Myths! * Neil Gaiman * Ragnarok and Whatnot * 2017
Books are an evergreen joy, and it barely matters when in life you read a good one. I read the Harry Potters in my mid-twenties and I clearly love them as much as I would have if they had been a part of my actual childhood. Of course I had my own set of influential books growing up, which I’m not sure I could improve upon given the miraculous option of sending newer books back in time to myself. I had The Lorax for whimsical lessons in ecology, I had Harriet the Spy for learning that being an introvert is not an excuse to be a little bitch, and I had Where the Red Fern Grows to fuck me up emotionally. RIP Old Dan and Little Ann, you beautiful hillbilly smell-hounds. I also had a whole mess of glorious non-fiction books and almanacs from which I could hoover up useless tidbits of information that have made me a formidable Trivial Pursuit player. And, of course, there were the collections of Greek mythology. The stories of Zeus and his dysfunctional family were fascinating. Especially since I had access to the cool versions with the murders and stuff. What I did not have, what I did not even know existed, was a similar book about the Norse myths. If I could send a book back in time to twelve-year-old me, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology would be a strong contender.
I never had that experience, sadly, so instead I come to this book with a hodgepodge of cultural detritus in my mind instead of – and I use this term so very loosely – the canonical stories. I know, settle down, you can’t have a canon if there’s no reliable source, you know what I mean. What I have, up until pretty much now, is ephemera. I read the stories in this collection trying not to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of Thor and Loki in my head. I mostly failed. Also this year, I played through God of War, which was all about this stuff. It was a great game, but of course the game takes a lot of liberties with the source material. That’s the great thing about mythology, though. Since there’s no hard and fast source, anyone can pretty much do whatever they want with it. The “characters,” or the gods and their freaky buddies, basically have one or two characteristics and are otherwise fair game. It makes sense that Marvel made Thor a superhero back in the day. Superheroes are basically our modern day myths, with the same broadly-drawn template characters in lieu of gods.
The reason I think this stuff would have clicked better for me as a kid is fairly simple: my imagination was better. Actually, let me rephrase. My imagination was wilder, less structured. Reading through Norse Mythology now, I’m having a pretty good time. It’s cool having a more grounded referent for these figures and myths which I’ve lacked until now. Back then, though, these jerky gods would have lived in my head. Loki would be compelling and terrifying by turns. I probably would have over-sympathized with the giants, sensitive little wiener kid that I was. Norse Mythology would have been one of those books I pored over, again and again, skipping around to my favorite bits. Probably revisiting the more grisly stories more than is healthy, but still, it would have just resonated more. That’s not to say that adult me didn’t appreciate this. It’s just that my awful, reified, adult brain files Norse Mythology under “reference” as opposed to “this is the raddest thing I’m going to live there in my mind.” That’s okay. Adulthood happens.
In the beginning is the beginning, and in the end is the end, but in the end is also the new beginning. That the end is also the beginning is the very idea of apocalypse. Pretty much every social worldview, ancient or otherwise, operates on this kind of comic timeframe. Cycles and cycles, and the midpoint of each is a cataclysmic destruction of the old to make way for the new. The Norse were no different, they were just a little more flamboyant than some. Ragnarok, the end of the Norse mythology cycle, is framed as an epic battle between the gods and giants (yes they have proper names, but get the book and you can enjoy the glossary there) where just about everyone kills each other and in so doing destroy the Earth. Whoopsie! Of course there are survivors, and it these who will recreate the world and set forth a new cycle. This is a bit different than the Christian vision of apocalypse, in which the Earth is destroyed but the new revelation is that of eternal life in heaven, rockin’ with Jesus and the boys. The point is the same: the old crumbles and gives way to the new. The main difference is the flavor of the text, and the kind of sick cover you want on your metal album, Thor all ripped out and whipping his hammer around or like, Satan.
Make no mistake, Ragnarok is metal as fuck. First of all, you’ve got Loki, who according to the mythology is currently in an unpleasant place. He is, at this very moment, in some dark unknown place, strapped to a cold stone with the entrails of his dead son and unable to move as vicious poison continuously drips into his eyes. It’s no fun being Loki. However, when Ragnarok rolls around, he’ll get his. Endless winter will reign the land, sending the balance of the world into chaos. Loki will escape and round up a bunch of pissed off giants, and enact their revenge upon the Norse gods who, let’s be honest, suck every bit as much as their Greek counterparts. Odin and Thor and the rest get what they deserve. Of course, the price for their comeuppance is the destruction of the planet and the gruesome and painful death of humanity, but you know, that’s how it goes in the apocalypse.
Obviously there’s more going on in Norse Mythology than the end of all things. I just have a specific interest here at Apocalypedia. All the Norse gods are mercurial dicks, but that’s part of the fun. There’s no real rooting interest when everyone sucks, so you may as well sit back and enjoy their hijinks. I enjoyed Freya quite a bit, as the sad, powerful goddess who is extremely sick of being used as a bartering chip by her brothers. “If you do x, you can have Freya’s hand in marriage!” “Yo, how about you get my hand upside your head and you can go marry yourself.” Probably the only real disappointment is that there just isn’t enough of this stuff. That’s hardly Gaiman’s fault. As he points out in the introduction, very little Norse mythology actually survived. That’s what happens when this stuff was orally transmitted (a technical term that just sounds gross) and never written down until it was mostly too late. In fact, the only reason we have what we have is because these things were referenced in other writings considered worthy by the people doing the writing. Not unlike the heroic monk(s) who wrote Beowulf in the margins of their Church writings, we have only a handful of these myths because of a few guys in monasteries who weren’t total squares. Well that’s okay. Maybe after Ragnarok happens we’ll do it better on the next go-round.