Soap opera of giants and gods

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott

A fea­ture com­mon to sys­tems of myth is their adapt­abil­ity. They have lasted, and lived to be­come myth, for rea­sons be­yond freak ac­ci­dents of his­tory. Which is not just to say there are plenty of ways for an au­thor to ap­proach a retelling; it’s to say that the man­ner of telling might be the most in­ter­est­ing story.

It also means it’s wrong to claim that English au­thor Neil Gaiman ‘‘gets’’ Norse mythol­ogy. There are plenty of ways to get Norse mythol­ogy, and few ways to go to­tally wrong. Even so, that he ‘‘gets’’ these sto­ries is the pre­vail­ing im­pres­sion one takes from Norse Mythol­ogy, a dozen-plus sto­ries that ap­proach the myths rea­son­ably ac­cu­rately, rea­son­ably colour­fully and rea­son­ably chrono­log­i­cally.

Gaiman tells these sto­ries in a plain voice com­posed of sim­ple, declar­a­tive sen­tences, sus­tain­ing a tone of as­sured, easy­go­ing fa­mil­iar­ity. He’s say­ing they are in­ter­est­ing sto­ries, pow­ered by char­ac­ters, sus­pense and sur­prise.

At a re­cent pro­mo­tional read­ing in New York, he se­lected one story, The Master Builder, in which Odin, fa­ther of the gods, re­alises that As­gard, their home, lies un­de­fended from all man­ner of dis­tant mon­sters.

“We need pro­tec­tion,” Odin says. “Giants will come. Trolls will come.” What do you pro­pose, one god asks him. “A wall,” says Odin. Ap­par­ently this mo­ment, led by Gaiman’s comic tim­ing, was quite a hit with the au­di­ence. It may be less in­ter­est­ing to mod­ernise these sto­ries than to carry them into mod­ern times.

But though Gaiman’s ap­proach seems de­lib­er­ately straight­for­ward, it’s also far from de­mys­ti­fy­ing. The Master Builder quickly be­comes a com­plex game of back and forth be­tween the gods and a mys­te­ri­ous for­eign builder. They plan to let him build the wall al­most to com­ple­tion and then stiff him on the price of the labour.

The price of the labour is Freya, a god­dess whose hand in mar­riage is fre­quently promised to strangers, and Gaiman does good, sub­tle work in draw­ing the reader’s at­ten­tion to the un­just­ness of this. So, these sto­ries are not para­bles; their me­chan­ics are his­tor­i­cally and cre­atively spe­cific, and rarely do they not get weird.

The pres­ence of gods and mon­sters does not it­self guar­an­tee weird­ness and mys­tery. Most of that is supplied by the char­ac­ters’ psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files, which are petty, ve­nal and bizarre. While it’s pos­si­ble to rea­son­ably im- agine these play­ers as tow­er­ing fig­ures of wor­ship, they are also a bit like the less savoury types who oc­ca­sion­ally blow into Ram­say Street on Neigh­bours.

In a short in­tro­duc­tion, Gaiman ex­plains his first en­counter with Norse mythol­ogy was through the Thor comics made by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (with di­a­logue by Larry Lieber). Like the best su­per­hero sto­ries, Gaiman’s take is a soap opera with grave stakes and spe­cial ef­fects. Such sto­ries show us how we might en­act our basest emo­tional im­pulses if we had feath­ered cloaks that al­lowed us to fly, or at least gi­ant ham­mers to hit things with.

It’s a pop­u­lous world, and Gaiman is good at build­ing new char­ac­ters quickly: hu­mans who en­counter the gods on their trav­els, and giants who prob­a­bly wish they didn’t. The stand­out fig­ure is Loki, be­cause vil­lains have more fun, and so do flawed odd­balls, and he is equally both. “Loki makes the world more in­ter­est­ing but less safe,” Gaiman ex­plains.

Loki has been a ma­jor part of Gaiman’s work for nearly 30 years, es­pe­cially the Sand­man comics that made his ca­reer and the novel Amer­i­can Gods. As a sort of ur-trick­ster, he’s both the char­ac­ter who makes con­flict hap­pen, thereby in­duc­ing story, and the one who is best suited to mod­ern read­ings of the self.

Thor is sim­ple and staunch; Odin is sim­ple and scary; Loki is a mess of un­pleas­ant mul­ti­tudes. The gods keep him around “be­cause his strat­a­gems and plans save them as of­ten as they get them into trou­ble”. They pay for this, and so does Loki, in a pow­er­ful tale that Gaiman presents with a light touch, let­ting its themes of fate, jus­tice and hor­ror speak for them­selves.

“It was the fact that the world and the story ends, and the way that it ends and is re­born, that made the gods and the frost giants and the rest of them tragic he­roes, tragic vil­lains,” writes Gaiman. “Rag­narok” — the twi­light of the gods — “made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and cur­rent, while other, bet­ter-doc­u­mented sys­tems of be­lief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.’’

With its chrono­log­i­cal struc­ture draw­ing the reader to­wards this in­evitable end­ing, the world of the gods al­ways feels sweet and rich, half-re­mem­bered even as you’re read­ing it. They read like trou­bled peo­ple who once roamed the earth. is a writer and pub­lisher.

The Pu­n­ish­ment of Loki, a 19th­cen­tury draw­ing by Louis Huard

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