The last root of the world-tree goes to a spring in the home of the gods, to Asgard, where the Aesir make their home. Each day the gods hold their council here, and it is here they will gather in the last days of the world, before they set out for the final battle of Ragnarok.
I loved reading this book. It took me almost a week to finish it, because it begged to be read out loud. At least that was my response. Gaiman’s well-drawn stories of the Norse pantheon are made to be recited around a campfire, in a long house, or a cozy modern living room.
Two caveats: I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman, so I can’t compare this to anything he is known for. And secondly, I have only an elementary knowledge of the tales of the Norse Gods, Ragnarok and the Norse mythological end times. As Gaiman states in the introduction, he has had a life-long interest in the Norse Gods, but this is a retelling. I don’t know how ‘purists’ have reacted to this book. But I just know his prose is vivid, deep, poetic, humorous and that I was sometimes brought to tears by it.
Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya
All the traditional stories are here, how Thor gets his hammer, Balder’s beauty, how humans were created from the spit of the Aesir and Vanir, Loki’s shenanigans and his final betrayal of the Gods, Freya’s constant misuse as a bargaining chip between the Gods and their enemies and the creation story of the Gods and the land, and the ash tree Yggdrasil that connects the worlds.
The various sections tell the stories of the conflicts between the Gods and the giants, ogres and dwarfs. At the heart of almost every dispute is Loki, who by his selfishness or disregard puts the Gods in peril. And while he begrudgingly resolves the issue someone often dies, has a body part cut off or puts Freya in the awful position of marrying someone, well, awful, so Thor can take back his hammer.
‘Freya’s Unusual Wedding’
Freya’s hands were squeezed into tight fists. The necklace of the Brisings tumbled from her neck to the floor. She did not appear to notice. She was staring at Thor and Loki as if they were the lowest, most unpleasant vermin she had ever seen.
“What kind of person do you think I am? Do you think I’m that foolish? That disposable? That I’m someone who would actually marry an ogre just to get you out of trouble? If you two think that I am going to the land of the giants, that I’ll put on a bridal crown and veil and submit to the touch and the …lust of that ogre…that I’d marry him…Get out. What kind of a woman do you think I am?
But. My hammer,” said Thor.
“Shut up, Thor,” said Loki.
“She’s very beautiful when she’s angry,” said Thor. “You can see why that ogre wants to marry her.”
“Shut up, Thor,” said Loki again.
The Gods as presented here are a sometimes bumbling, bargaining, conniving lot, full of the bravado you’d expect mythical defenders of their people to be. Though they outwit their enemies with fraternity-like pranks, mistaken identity and witty word games, in the end they step up to take the mantles of their destiny and defend their world to the end. And while there are definitely scenes of violence and questionable ethics, there are universal morals here that would benefit adults and older children alike.
Ragnarok, The Last Battle
The final section is the death-battle Ragnarok, the end of the Gods. It is vivid and personal as each God is paired with his evil counterpart as they fight and die together; Tyr and the “nightmare dog” Garm, Odin and Fenrir the Wolf, Thor and the Serpent and so on.
The end times begin with a winter that never ends, not broken by spring, summer or autumn.
This will be the age of cruel winds, the age of people who become as wolves, who prey upon each other, who are not better than wild beasts. Twilight will come to the world, and the places where the humans live will fall into ruins, flaming briefly, then crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation….the sun in the sky will vanish, as if eaten by a wolf, and the moon will be taken from us, too, and no one will be able to see the stars any longer. Darkness will fill the air, like ashes, like mist.
There will be earthquakes and flooding as the seas rise and surge onto the land. There will be no more life in the oceans…The rotted corpses of fish and of whales, of seals and sea monsters, will wash in the waves. At this time Loki will rise from beneath the earth and lead his legions of Hel, who died shameful deaths, who will return to the earth to fight once more…determined to destroy anything that still loves and lives above the earth.
The modern parallel is striking as it must be with every age, period, epoch that shares in a similarity of end times, of doom, of uncertainty, which is why these old stories never really get old and why telling them out loud, reciting them or acting them out connects us with each other as well as with the past.
Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Full plot summary
Challenges: Library Love, What’s in a Name