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Neil Gaiman, the author who brought you American Gods, retells the most famous and well-loved stories about the most tragic of all ancient gods: the Norse gods.
There’s surely no better way to get an introduction to the beauties of Norse Mythology.
Who Should Read “Norse Mythology”? And Why?
If you like TV shows such as Vikings and you are interested in finding out more about the culture of these demigods or movies such as Thor, and you want to learn all about the genesis of this god – then Norse Mythology is surely a book that should have already piqued your fancy.
If you’re a LOTR fan, then, what are you waiting for: dwarfs, giants, elves, red-bearded hammer-waving gods and beautiful, alluring goddesses – the Norse myths have everything Tolkien has.
Finally, if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan – well, that’s a given.
Neil Gaiman Biography
Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman is an English author of novels, short stories, graphic novels, comic books, and films.
A self-described “feral child who was raised in libraries,” Gaiman is widely considered one of the most skilled, critically acclaimed and beloved fantasy/horror/SF writers alive.
The first author to win the Newbery and Carnegie medals for the same work – The Graveyard Book – Gaiman has so far authored classics in almost each of the genres he’s interested in.
For example, the comic book series The Sandman was one of the first few graphic novels ever to be on the New York Times Best Seller list. In addition, several of Gaiman’s novels – such as Stardust, American Gods, and Coraline – are considered masterpieces; all three have been adapted into successful movies or TV series.
Find out more at http://www.neilgaiman.com/.
Norse Mythology is neither a novel nor an original work: it is a series of interconnected Norse myths, somewhat reimagined by Neil Gaiman and retold in his well-liked style.
In other words, you can read much more about each of the myths retold in this book on, say, Wikipedia; however, you’d be missing all the fun and the pretty unforgettable Neil Gaiman flavor.
Here’s a great example on how effortlessly Gaiman combines dark imagery with humor, taken from the chapter titled “Freya’s Unusual Wedding;” you don’t need to know the characters to enjoy it, but if you want to meet them, see below:
‘Your hammer has been stolen by Thrym, lord of all the ogres,’ [Loki] said. ‘I have persuaded him to return it to you, but he demands a price.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Thor. ‘What’s the price?’
‘Freya’s hand in marriage.’
‘He just wants her hand?’ asked Thor hopefully. She had two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give up one of them without too much of an argument. Tyr had, after all.
‘All of her,’ said Loki. ‘He wants to marry her.’
‘Oh,’ said Thor. ‘She won’t like that.’
In the “Introduction” to Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman explains three things:
• The cultural and literary significance of Norse mythology;
• The difference between the traditional representations of these gods and heroes and the way they have been reimagined in popular culture; and
• The sources he used and how he used them to retell these myths and stories as accurately as he could, and as interestingly as possible. (Mostly these include many different translations of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, the verses of The Poetic Edda and A Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek).
In the “Introduction,” Gaiman also explains how he fell in love with Norse mythology, and how he was fascinated to learn as a child (mostly via reading and rereading Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green) that, unlike any other gods, the Norse gods came with their own doomsday.
Yup, you’ve heard that right: according to all prophecies, the Norse gods are destined to face the frost giants in a battle to end all battles called Ragnarök (or the Twilight of the Gods), and they (all of them) are supposed to die:
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. Ragnarök 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.
“The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place,” concludes Gaiman, “with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.”
And these are some of them.
“Many gods and goddesses are named in Norse mythology,” informs us Gaiman at the beginning of his book. “Most of the stories we have, however, concern two gods, Odin and his son Thor, and Odin’s blood brother, a giant’s son called Loki, who lives with the Aesir in Asgard.”
Suitably, the first chapter introduces us these three characters, the main figures in Norse mythology:
• Odin, the highest and the oldest of all gods; “he wears a cloak and a hat and only has one eye, having traded the other for wisdom. He has many other names including all-father, Grimnir, and the gallows god.”
• Thor, red-bearded, Thor is Odin’s son and the strongest of all gods; he is the Aesir god of thunder and is “straightforward where his father Odin is cunning, good-natured where his father is devious;” Thor’s weapon is called Mjollnir and is a remarkable hammer forged for him by dwarfs.
• Loki, the most complicated character in all of Norse mythology; “very handsome[…] plausible, convincing, likable, and far and away the most wily, subtle, and shrewd of all the inhabitants of Asgard,” Loki “makes the world more interesting but less safe. He is the father of monsters, the author of woes, the sly god.”
Before the Beginning, and After
At the beginning of everything, there was nothing but the Niflheim, the mist world, formless and shapeless, and Muspell, the fire world, always burning.
Between these two worlds, there was nothingness and a “yawning gap” called Ginnungagap; it was here that the first creature was born, neither male nor female, bigger than all gods and giants there have been or ever will be: Ymir.
In addition to Ymir, from the ice there sprang another creature: Audhumla, a harmless cow whose milk nourished Ymir for eons.
One day, in his sleep, Ymir gave birth to three giants, one female; and another Audhumla licked a man from a block of ice: Buri.
Now, this Buri married Ymir’s daughter, and these two had a son named Bor; Bor married Bestla (daughter of Ymir’s son), and these had three sons: Odin, Vili, and Ve.
In an attempt to create something out of the nothing, Odin and his brothers killed Ymir and from his body and brains and blood created all the nine worlds.
The gods and the giants are enemies ever since the murder of Ymir.
Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds
Yggdrasil is the name of a mighty ash tree, the most perfect of all trees in the world; it is the tree which connects all the nine worlds created by Odin and his brothers.
The second chapter lists all of them:
• Asgard, the home of the Aesir, where Odin, Thor, and Loki (and all the others live);
• Alfheim, the realm of the light elves, “as beautiful as the sun or the stars;”
• Nidavellir (or Svartalfheim), the home of the dwarfs (aka, the dark elves) located beneath the mountains;
• Midgard, the world of humans, our world;
• Jotunheim, the world of the frost and the mountain giants;
• Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir, another race of gods; after a brutal war, now the Aesir and the Vanir live in peace and often visit each other in their respective worlds;
• Niflheim, the dark mist world;
• Muspell, the world of flame; and
• Hel, well, basically, Hell.
Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye
This is a brief chapter retelling the story of how Odin got his wisdom from his uncle Mimir, the keeper of the spring of wisdom in Jotunheim.
It’s Norse mythology, so it’s both unpleasant and heroic: Mimir asked for Odin’s eye and Odin plucked it out.
After Mimir is killed by the Vanir, Odin took his head and still keeps it near the spring and asks it for advices.
The Treasures of the Gods
Many of the stories begin with some mischief by Loki; this one’s not an exception.
As a prank, Loki shaves off Sif’s hair, long and beautiful, “the color of a field of barley at the end of summer.”
Sif is Thor’s wife.
“Loki Laufey’s son,” said Thor, “if you do not put her hair back right now, I am going to break every single bone in your body.”
“Dwarfs,” shrieks Loki, recalling that these are capable of making just about anything – even golden hair.
In the end, Loki convinces the dwarves to design much more than Sif’s golden hair – aka, all of the treasures of the gods, including Thor’s hammer.
How did he convince them?
By promising them his head; however, he didn’t promise them their neck, and that’s why he got away alive and well from all this.
OK, not that well: one of the dwarves, Brokk, sew his lips: they were on the head, after all.
The Master Builder
“The Master Builder” shares basically the same structure with “The Treasures of the Gods.”
A mysterious man comes to Asgard and promises the Aesir to build them an impenetrable wall around their realm; all he wants in exchange: the hand of the goddess Freya.
She is the goddess of – among other things – beauty and sex, so get used to men wanting her hand in exchange for a big favor.
Now, the gods don’t want to agree to such an exchange, until they are convinced by Loki, who in turn, hides a card up his sleeve: deadline.
And the deadline for this mysterious man is six months.
However, what neither Loki nor the other gods know is that this man’s horse, Svadilfari, is a magical one; and it becomes apparent that the deadline should be no problem for the mysterious man.
“You made this mess,” say the gods to Loki. “You fix it.”
And Loki does: he disguises himself in a mare and seduces Svadilfari; afterward, he even gives birth to an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, Odin’s favorite!
The Children of Loki
This chapter tells the story of how the handsome Loki seduces the giantess Angrboda, who in turn gives birth to three monstrous, evil children:
• Fenrir, a mighty and vicious wolf;
• Hel, the queen of Hel, the realm of the shameful dead, who did not die nobly in battle; and
• Jormungundr, “the Midgard serpent. One of Loki’s children and Thor’s nemesis.”
Freya’s Unusual Wedding
An ogre named Thrym steals Thor’s hammer, the most powerful and fearsome weapon ever created.
He vows to return it to Asgard on one condition only: if he is given the hand of Freya in return.
The gods – and Loki, in particular – have another plan: they agree but have no intention of following through with the terms.
Instead, Thor and Loki disguise themselves as Freya and her maidservant respectively and go to the ogre’s castle.
At the moment when Thrym brings out Thor’s hammer at the wedding banquet, Thor steals it and slays all the ogres.
The Mead of Poets
This is the longest chapter of Gaiman’s North Mythology, but it’s not exactly the most interesting ones.
It concerns the mead of poetry, a mythical drink which is such that makes everyone whose lips touch it either a skald or a scholar; unless you connected the dots yourself already, skald is the Norse word for poet.
The mead of poetry was created from the blood of a wise man named Kvasir after he was killed by the dwarves Fjalar and Galar.
After some time, Fjalar and Galar also killed a giant named Gilling and his son Suttungr came to the realm of the dwarves to revenge him; the dwarves offered him the mead of poets in compensation; he accepted it and gave it to his daughter Gunnlöd to keep it.
Years passed before Odin found out; under a false name, he went to work for Suttungr’s brother Baugi proposing to work for nothing but a few drops of Suttungr’s mead.
However, Suttungr would give none.
So, Odin transformed into a snake, stole the mead and then turned into an eagle and flew away with it; afterward, he gave the mead to both the gods and the men worthy of it.
Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants
This is a strange story.
Thor and Loki travel to the land of the giants, Jotunheim, as guests of the giant king named Utgardaloki.
Utgardaloki challenges his divine guests to many competitions and Loki and Thor lose all of them – to their utter dismay and surprise (after all, they are gods!)
However, Utgardaloki later reveals to them that he beat them only through the use of illusions: they didn’t try (and failed) to consume more than Logi or run faster than Hugi, but they competed against Wildfire and Thought themselves – which is what the words “logi” and “hugi” actually mean in Norse.
So, in a way, this is a story about how even the Norse gods don’t really understand ancient Nordic languages.
The Apples of Immortality
Loki – as if it is possible to have a good story without him – is captured by a giant with a Chinese-sounding name, Thiazi.
So as to earn his freedom, Loki promises Thiazi that he will steal Aesir’s apples of immortality and that he will bring them to Thiazi.
Loki does that and, as is only usual with him, this merely creates bigger problems: now the Aesir is mad with Loki and forces him to retrieve them.
Loki says OK and has no choice but to fight Thiazi.
Fortunately – for him at least – he kills him and retrieves the apples.
The Story of Gerd and Frey
The story of Gerd and Frey is a story of love – you know, the Romeo and Juliet kind that’s bigger than even the threat of death.
Frey, an Asgard god, falls in love with Gerd, a giantess.
In order to win her love, he needs to prove it by granting the giants his magical sword, the one which is prophesized to save him in the final battle, the Ragnarök.
And you know what he does?
He gives up the sword.
Gaiman thinks he shouldn’t have:
The beautiful Gerd filled the hole in Frey’s life and the hole in his heart. Frey did not miss his sword, and he did not replace it. When he fought the giant Beli, he killed him with a stag’s antler. Frey was so strong, he could kill a giant with his bare hands.
Even so, he should not have given his sword away.
Ragnarök is coming. When the sky splits asunder and the dark powers of Muspell march out on their war journey, Frey will wish he still had his sword.
Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition
Thor’s fishing expedition with the giant Hymir wouldn’t have been remarkable or interesting if it hadn’t included a meeting between Thor and Jormungandr.
If that name rings a bell, that’s one of Loki’s sons, the enormous serpent lurking in the seas of Midgard.
Thor nearly catches it and kills it – but the emphasis is on nearly.
Unfortunately, Jormungandr would survive until Ragnarök when it will be killed by Thor, who won’t tread more than nine paces before falling dead himself, having been poisoned by Jormungandr’s venom.
The Death of Balder
Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg, is both known as “the beautiful” and loved as such by everyone in Asgard.
Did we say everyone?
We meant to say “everyone but Loki.”
After Balder dreams of his own death, his mother Loki makes all living things vow never to hurt her son; and all do so willingly – with the exception of the mistletoe.
Of course, Loki uses this information and makes a magic spear which he subsequently gives to Balder’s blind brother Hod, who then (guided by Loki) kills his brother with it.
There’s only one vile enough to plan all of this – realize the gods.
And that’s the demise of Loki.
The Last Days for Loki
After the death of Balder, Loki flees Asgard to escape punishment for his vicious crime.
However, the Aesir eventually find his whereabouts and catch him.
Being bound to a rock for all eternity – with the entrails of one of his sons!
That’s the Viking Prometheus for you!
Norse Mythology Epilogue
Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods
Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology ends the only way a book on Norse mythology should: with the Norse apocalypse, the Ragnarök, the battle to end all other battles between Loki, his children and the giants on one side and the Aesir on the other.
Everybody dies in the end, including Thor (killed by the poison of Jormungandr) and Odin (killed by Fenrir); in addition, the world of humans is consumed in its entirety by fire which leaves nothing but ashes behind it.
Loki, the master planner behind it all, both kills and is killed by Heimdall.
Seeing the destruction around him, “it is done,” whispers Loki, dying on the battlefield. “I won.”
However – and fortunately – Heimdall knows that it is not.
Grinning through golden teeth flecked with spittle and with blood, Heimdall says:
I can see further than you can, Loki. I can see all the way to the world-tree… Surtr’s fire cannot touch the world-tree, and two people have hidden themselves safely in the trunk of Yggdrasil. The woman is called Life, the man is called Life’s Yearning. Their descendants will populate the earth. It is not the end. There is no end. It is simply the end of the old times, Loki, and the beginning of the new times. Rebirth always follows death. You have failed.
So, there is hope, after all.
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“Norse Mythology PDF Summary Quotes”When something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time. Click To Tweet He said nothing: seldom do those who are silent make mistakes. Click To Tweet Loki was not evil, although he was certainly not a force for good. Loki was… complicated. Click To Tweet That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most. Click To Tweet Read the stories in this book, then make them your own. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is an excellent introduction to the world of gods and tricksters imagined by people who were, in a way, gods themselves.
Some of these stories will undoubtedly remain with you long after you close Gaiman’s book.
Just as they stayed with Gaiman and with countless of generations before him.
And it comes with a bonus: a great BBC audio adaptation!
So you can enjoy this book twice!