It’s quite a godly year for Neil Gaiman, bard of myth, nerd hearthrob and the lucky bastard who got to marry Amanda Palmer.
The appropriately outlandish TV version of Gaiman’s bestseller American Gods premieres on Starz at the end of next month — while his Norse Mythology has been in the top echelons of the New York Times bestseller list since it came out five weeks ago. Both star Odin the All-Father, played in the show by Ian McShane.
I’m not here to tell everyone they should buy a copy of Norse Mythology and read it cover to cover. It’s a simple and straightforward abridged modern retelling of myths first put down by a 13th century writer named Snorri Sturluson. Gaiman himself has called it a “covers album, trying to get them to sound contemporary using electric guitars.”
What I am here to tell you is that you should listen to the audiobook of Norse Mythology, read by Gaiman himself. And that you should specifically listen to it outside, in the cold, feeling the full blast of winter in your face.
You should specifically listen to it outside, in the cold, feeling the full blast of winter in your face
Gaiman’s storytelling and subject matter — the simple, accessible shenanigans of Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya and all the Asgard gang — pairs particularly well with walking long distances in winter weather. Much of it is set in this kind of landscape, and Odin in particular seems enamored of going off on quests over snowy mountains.
So if you’re a lover of audiobooks, and live where the white stuff is still falling, take advantage of the epic weather while it lasts. (Given global warming, who knows how long the snows will last before our own heated version of Ragnorok, the end of the world, arrives.)
You don’t have to snowshoe up a mountain by Lake Tahoe while listening to Norse Mythology as I did. But if you do, I guarantee you’ll have the easiest climb possible.
It’s no exaggeration to say Gaiman is the modern Charles Dickens when it comes to really performing his stories. Famously, the New York Public Library had him perform A Christmas Carol dressed as Dickens; it’s hard to imagine any other 21st century author stepping into the big guy’s shoes.
Over the years Gaiman has cultivated a deliberate, unhurried, almost hypnotic style of speech and an absolute commitment to the tale he’s spinning. He disappears within it, effortlessly becoming his conception of each character.
You may start your journey thinking of the Marvel Comics iterations of these characters, but you’ll end it with Gaiman’s versions unshakably lodged in your noggin. (The author first encountered them in their Marvel iterations too.)
Thor in these stories sounds less like a heroic Chris Hemsworth and more like a bluff old general; often obtuse, he considers his famous hammer the only solver of problems he needs, except for the times he requires Loki’s help.
Loki is no all-powerful Tom Hiddleston, but merely the smartest and most danger-prone of the gods: alternately shrewd, afraid and extremely condescending. You love him and hate him in equal measure, which is exactly the idea of the trickster god. And then there are the evil mountain giants, whom Gaiman invests with blood curdling roars.
This is the stuff only good storytelling could do. You’d be hard-pressed to make a movie of Norse Mythology — the giant grandmother with 96 heads would be enough of a CGI challenge by herself, let alone her kin and a multitude of shape-shifting gods. But it’s perfect for creating images in your own head with the help of a mellifluous voice.
This is the stuff only good storytelling could do
“As I retold these myths,” Gaiman writes in the introduction, “I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights, perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.”
The answer to the bad poetry question (spoiler alert!) is that Odin produced it in a “splatter wet fart” after stealing the magic mead that first made men poetically inclined. That should give you a sense of the earthiness and deadpan humor Gaiman has uncovered in these ancient tales.
It’s probably for the best that no one else was around to hear me cackle with laughter during my walk up the mountain — or that doing so did not induce an avalanche.
There is one thing that ancient myths and walking in nature have in common: they make you forget the ephemeral concerns of everyday life and connect you with the eternal. In the winter of 2017, we needed that like never before.
Left to its own devices, my brain tends to tangle itself up in present-day politics; indeed, it was on a previous snowshoeing-up-a-mountain adventure in January 2016 that I first experienced a serious bout of anxiety at the prospect of a President Trump.
But Norse Mythology is about as far away from our modern world as we can reasonably expect. Only one story betrayed any sort of connection to current political concerns: a mysterious, duplicitous stranger arrives at Asgard and offers to build a giant wall before the first day of summer arrives.
The gods plan to execute the stranger rather than reimbursing him if he’s a day late on the project, which I suppose is their version of making Mexico pay for it. But when the wall is on track to be constructed, there’s only one way out, and that’s for Loki to indulge in sex with a horse. (Seriously.) I’ll leave it to you to find a political analogy for that; my brain, mercifully, simply quit trying.
The way the world ends in Norse Mythology has a weird, dreamlike quality to it, with all of reality a slate wiped clean — as smooth and blank as the several feet of virgin snow I was tramping through.
But that’s the way it begins, too, and after five hours of listening I simply went right back to the start and settled in for another round of storytelling from the endless arctic summer night.