On Gods and Monsters

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (Bloomsbury, 2017)

Neil Gaiman, American Gods (Headline, 2001; 2004)

“‘None of this matters. The world is burning,’” says Loki at the conclusion of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. He is dying on the battlefield at Ragnarok and, as far as he can tell, the gods have been destroyed, as has all life on Midgard (or earth), including humanity. As the old saying goes, some people just want to watch the world burn. 

It isn’t hard to see why Loki would appeal to a writer like Gaimain, just as it isn’t hard to see why he has held such fascination over the centuries. He is unpredictable, fiercely intelligent and yet also fallible and (self-)destructive. As Gaiman observes in his opening account of the “players” to feature in Norse Mythology, “Loki makes the world more interesting but less safe.” His cunning frequently saves the Norse gods, known as the Aesir, though just as often he is saving them from trouble of his own making.

A case in point would be the tale of the “Apples of Immortality,” and their guardian Idunn, whom Loki tricks into being kidnapped by the giant Thiazi. Loki betrays the gods to save his own skin (Thiazi, in the shape of a huge eagle, dangles him in the sky until he promises to lure Idunn to a trap), only to then be forced by the now decrepit gods to find a way to retrieve both Idunn and her youth-making apples.

Suffice to say he pulls it off in spectacular fashion, rescuing Idunn and coordinating the plan to destroy Thiazi. However, this story contains a few of the cracks that are to return to haunt the Aesir: namely, Loki’s unpredictability and willingness to change sides when it suits him, coupled with the ominous threat of violence on the part of the Aesir when they are crossed. “‘Do not hit him,’ repeated Odin, and he peered at Loki with his one good eye, now glaucous grey. ‘I want him to be whole and unbroken when he is tortured.’” Ultimately it is precisely Loki’s unpredictability (and the fact that he is a terrible drunk) that results in the god’s losing patience with him once and for all, while his subsequent imprisonment and punishment at their hands is extreme (he is bound in a cave, with burning poison dripping on his face and only his loyal wife, Sigyn, for company and relief). It’s hardly surprising that, upon finally escaping his torture when the world ends, he declines to side with the Aesir at Ragnarok.

There is a nihilism to Gaiman’s Loki, drawn from some inner anguish. He is an outsider, parallel to, and so not quite part of, the created world brought to life by his blood brother Odin, the All-Father. He drinks too much, he makes mistakes, and at times he acts for the sheer furious, destructive hell of it (for instance, when he inexplicably arranges the murder of Odin’s favourite son, Balder). In some of the stories, he appears as a kind of Dr Who figure (for which Gaiman has written frequently), capable of solving seemingly intractable problems through courage and intelligence, but damaged, and as a consequence of that damage, balancing precariously between heroism and monstrosity. (This has become an increasingly prominent part of the Doctor’s character over recent seasons.)

Indeed, one reason for the attractiveness of these tales is precisely the fact that the gods exist in a world of compelling moral ambiguity, that is to say, a world in which even Odin, the All-Father, acts in accordance with his own inscrutable (and debatable) agenda. As such, the world depicted by Gaiman in Norse Mythology is a rich and complex one, and in his introduction he acknowledges the extent to which it has been an ongoing part of his imagination “from his first encounter with Asgard and its inhabitants […] as a small boy.” Gaiman’s rendering is immensely readable and at times comes to life in unexpected and enjoyable ways. In particular, the female gods shimmer with fierceness and independence, one particular highlight being Freya’s curt response to the prospect of being married to the ogre Thryme in exchange for the return of Thor’s stolen hammer.

And yet there is an imbalance to this work, which becomes clearer when held alongside Gaiman’s earlier novel, American Gods, for which Norse Mythology stands simultaneously as a sequel and a kind of prequel (these are the original Norse gods after all). Indeed, American Gods is particularly topical given that it is currently being presented to the world on Amazon Prime as a television series starring Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane.

In American Gods, one of the major insights articulated by Gaiman (and shared in the novels written by his old friend Terry Pratchett) is that the gods need humanity: they need to be believed-in in order to exist. Consequently, and in a literal sense, the gods are created by humanity, and so they reflect the various attitudes, customs and beliefs held by human beings. You might say that they are an imaginative expression (or image) of humanity and its values. And in American Gods, the old gods (like Mr Wednesday, Mr Nancy and Mad Sweeney the leprechaun) are fading away like yesterday’s Big Brother contestants to be replaced by a new generation of popstar gods, such as Media and The Technical Boy.

The plot of the novel hinges on the fact that the old gods are determined not to go quietly, with Wednesday (code for Odin, although as we find out later in the novel, an American Odin) right at the heart of the wheeling, dealing and scheming. However, the key point is that, in American Gods, we are introduced to this strange world through the eyes of Gaiman’s human hero, Shadow Moon, an ex-convict hired by Wednesday to act as his bodyguard. The gods becomes discernible as Wednesday gradually pulls the wool away from Shadow’s eyes, allowing him to recognise the various gods that he meets on his travels, whilst at the same time frequently pulling the wool over his eyes through various deceptions and half-truths. Shadow is our means of making sense of the “players” in American Gods, and he also helps us to relate to (and learn to like) the desperate, tragic and morally questionable supernatural beings that he encounters.

In contrast, one of the odd aspects of Norse Mythology is the absence of human beings. Some are mentioned: the work begins with an explanation of the origins of humanity and concludes with the final two human beings in creation, Life and Life’s Learning, squirrelling away in the world-tree, Yggdrasil, to save themselves from Surtr’s fire at Ragnarok. However, with the exception of the fleet-footed Thialfi, who appears briefly in “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants,” there aren’t any people in these stories.

This is important because it creates an imbalance of scale. Gaimain’s gods are superhuman in the most literal sense. They are more cunning, more powerful, more courageous, more beautiful and at times more stupid than ordinary human beings. But without a human figure to provide perspective, they are overinflated and clumsy. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly given Gaimain’s own career (and original encounter with the myths), cartoonish, which is to say that while the reader can marvel at the unpredictability and strangeness of the Norse gods and their actions, it is ultimately the monster in the midst of the Aesir, the old trickster Loki, to whom we are drawn as the world burns. In fact, strangely, it is hard to disagree with him when he claims that “‘None of this matters”, and that, really, is a pity.