Neil Gaiman on Norse Mythology and why he's willing to become dated
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Mythology is at the heart of Neil Gaiman’s work.
Readers will encounter it everywhere from his popular children’s books and best-selling short story collections, to his highly acclaimed novels and the Sandman comics. He’s even expounded on it in his nonfiction, penning an essay on the topic. And soon, American Gods, possibly Gaiman’s most famous blend of myth and imagination, will make its way to the small screen in Starz’ American Gods adaptation.
It’s only fitting that Gaiman would write Norse Mythology, a retelling of classic Norse myths featuring mythical figures like Thor, Odin, and Loki—the latter of whom have shown up repeatedly in his other works.
With Gaiman once again returning to the world of Norse mythology, EW caught up with the author to discuss his latest work, why he’s comfortable with becoming outdated, and the importance of making art.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why put a fresh spin on these myths?
NEIL GAIMAN: Mythologies tell us about being human. They are glorious, they are timeless. They need to be retold. It’s like I’m a musician looking at fantastic old folk songs and doing a covers album, trying to get them to sound contemporary using electric guitars. I’m saying, “Here are the stories. I have polished them, and I am now handing them to the world.”
How did you decide which ones to include?
Initially, when I started off it was going, “This one is fun. That one has to be in there. You can’t leave that one out.” As it carried on, it started to form a shape and a pattern. I knew it was going to begin with creation and end in Ragnarok [a series of events culminating in a big battle and the death of many Norse gods]. And I knew we were going to be walking a path and it slowly became more and more apparent, as I could see the bigger pieces on the path, what the smaller pieces on the path had to be. But a lot of it was just going back and looking at the work of Snorri Sturluson who wrote the Prose Edda [a 13th century collection of Old Norse literature] about 1,000 years ago. The Prose Edda and the poems in the Poetic Edda [a collection of old Norse poems] were where I went. They were my inspiration. They were my reference. They were my touchstones when I was building this.
Why did you give the tales—especially the dialogue—a current-day spin?
I wanted the dialogue to feel contemporary. One of the things that makes stories feel dated very quickly is going, “But they wouldn’t talk like that.” So I thought, “let’s make them talk as if they exist right now.” If in 80 years some kid picks up Norse Mythology and goes, “We really need a contemporary version of this because I tried reading the Gaiman and it’s so weird and old-fashioned,” that would be fine by me. When you’re retelling stories, you’re retelling them for your people.
What’s the value of retelling myths like these?
There are things that mythology tells us about being human. Last night I did this event at the Town Hall and I read this story called “The Master Builder” aloud and when I got to the bit when people realized it was about building a wall around Asgard and making the Giants pay for it, it the entire audience just sort of fell apart and I had to stop for a minute while they laughed and figured it out. And Ragnarok, the end times, which we’re heading towards, feel incredibly relevant. I was fascinated when one of the questions from the audience yesterday was, “Have we hit peak Ragnarok yet?” And I had to say, “No I do not believe that we’re at peak Ragnarok If anything, we’re just at the beginning.”
You build up to the Ragnarok, but you also show us what happens immediately after. Was that why you wanted to end on a new beginning?
I love the fact that all of the darkness of Ragnarok is the thing that gives all the other stories meaning and depth. But then it ends with hope. The world is ended and most of the gods are dead and yet, there are still a couple of people and they’re going to repopulate the world. The old sun may be dead, but there’s a new sun in the sky and now it’s all beginning over again, and that is a wonderful, wonderful, thing.
One of the throughlines in all the stories is that we see Odin and Loki come back again and again. Was that part of what you were considering when giving these stories that shape?
In a lot of ways, if you read Snorri, that’s kind of the shape you wind up with. The importance and the stress, and the sequencing of the stories is often mine. Like the story, “The Treasures of the Gods,” for me, had to be right at the beginning because that’s where Thor gets his hammer, and he’s got the hammer for pretty much the rest of it. So I thought, “I’ll put that story there. That’s where it belongs.” One of the primary and most interesting things about fiction is who changes, which characters are not the same at the end as they were at the beginning. And of all of them, I think Loki tends to live in the hearts of an author very quickly, because you go, “You actually have a strange kind of cycle. You go from being a slightly comical trickster figure, cleverer than the gods, but still one of them, and that’s where you begin. And then you become, very quickly, something else. And you have a darker side, and it’s that darker side that is so fascinating.”
You’ve featured Odin and Loki in your own books. So when you were writing this one, did you feel like you already knew them?
I love both of them. And writing this book I discovered that I loved Thor too. It’s been interesting because the characters have been weaving their way through my fiction now for 30 years. One thing I love about Norse mythology is that for anybody that’s read American Gods or Sandman and wants to know more about these characters, this is a great place to find out more. You can actually learn, “This is the stuff that Neil made up. Here is the real stuff.”
Did you learn anything new about all these characters that you hadn’t considered before?
I learned so much. You’re no longer thinking of them in big broad general terms. The stories are no longer things you just kind of know. Now, you are down there in the minutiae of what happened. You’re reading your Snorri, you’re reading the Prose Edda, you’re reading the Poetic Edda, you’re going, “Oh, we actually have two completely different versions of the story of Thor’s visit to Hymir the Giant. Which bits of this do I use? I actually like this bit better over here, but I like this bit over here.” You get down and dirty.
Secrets that remain unrevealed. One of my favorite moments in the entirety of Norse myths is after Balder has been killed and he’s laying there on his funeral pyre and they’re just about to set him alight and Odin leans down and whispers something in his ear, the ear of the corpse. And we’re told nobody knows what he whispered. That for me is the peculiar magic of the Norse myths, the fact that we don’t know and cannot know what was whispered. Somebody in my signing line last night asked, “What do you think about that?” I said, “I think it’s a wonderful thing.” They said, “Why didn’t you make something up?” And I thought there’s nothing that I could make up that would be as good as the fact that we don’t know what was whispered.
You also acknowledge in the book that there are gaps in what we know about Norse mythology.
The gaps that we have primarily are gaps in women’s stories. They are stories of the goddess of love, the goddess of vows. There’s one goddess who was the doctor of the gods. How cool is that? We don’t have any stories about her. We know nothing. And how I dealt with it was trying to give women agency in the stories that I did tell, so they weren’t passive.
Your famous “Make Good Art” speech, which you gave at the University of the Arts in 2012, seems very relevant in this political climate.
One of the things most heartening for me is that every time there is a calamitous event, my Twitter feed floods with people mentioning me and saying, “What Neil said at times like this is ‘Make good art.’ ” It’s easy to think art can be a distraction. I don’t think it is. It’s a lifeline. We have to keep dialogue and empathy. I like the fact that people are picking up my work and finding relevance in it and using it to get through the day.
Norse Mythology is currently available for purchase in bookstores.