Violently absurd

The world as we know it is surrounded by a wall made from the eyelashes of a giant. Our first ancestors were two pieces of driftwood carved by the gods. The gods' ancestor, in turn, was licked out of salty ice blocks by an enormous cow.

When it comes to origin myths, few can rival the Norsemen for violence and absurdity. British writer Neil Gaiman mines these qualities with relish in his tales of the Norse gods, among them one-eyed Odin, the hammer-wielding god of thunder Thor, and the clever, amoral trickster Loki.

It is not his most original endeavour. Those familiar with the mediaeval Icelandic Poetic and Prose Eddas will find little fresh insight within these pages.

  • About the book

  • Title: Norse Mythology
    Author: Neil Gaiman
    Genre: Fiction
    Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • $38.95
    Books Kinokuniya
    Paperback, 304 pages

  • 3.5
    out of 5 stars

But for most readers, whose knowledge of the Norse pantheon is probably gleaned from the Marvel movies starring Chris Hemsworth as Thor, it is an attractive introduction to the rich world of these myths.

While the book hews closely to the Icelandic originals, it is not without its Gaiman-esque flourishes, such as injections of humour delivered with a straight face.

Thor, for example, is portrayed as not too bright and having severe anger management issues. "I'm going to kill somebody soon," he declares at his brother's funeral. "Just to relieve the tension."

Gaiman also gives a voice to the goddesses, who endure much sexism in the myths.

Norse Mythology

The beautiful Freya, who is constantly being promised away in marriage to get the gods out of their messes, channels her outrage in a small earthquake. "What kind of a woman do you think I am?" she demands, as Thor and Loki cower.

Gaiman's hand as a master storyteller is especially visible in structuring convoluted tales such as The Mead Of Poetry, in which a god made from the spit of other gods is murdered by dwarves, who brew from his blood a kind of mead which turns those who drink it into poets.

Far too many people are murdered as the mead changes hands, but Gaiman manages to distil it into sense.

It is an experiment only a writer of his cult status could pull off, but the visceral delight derived from his re-telling cannot be denied.

If you liked this, read: American Gods by the same author (William Morrow, 2017, $16.81, Books Kinokuniya), in which newly widowed ex-convict Shadow is hired as a bodyguard by the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who plans to wage a war between the old gods and the new for the soul of America itself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Violently absurd'. Print Edition | Subscribe