Norse Sagas, the Myths that Keep on Giving

Two things – and likely the only two things – that Neil Gaiman and I have in common are we spend a good bit of time writing and we’ve recently penned works connected to the Norse sagas.

Those sagas are prose histories that record events among the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland around 1,000 A.D. They probably originated in oral storytelling, like Homer’s epics from a warmer climate, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Thought to be written in the 13th and 14th centuries, their authorship has been lost to time. The rich stories recounted in a spare prose style are considered a cornerstone of world literature. According to the website Icelandic Saga Database, they focus largely on family histories and recount the struggles and conflicts among the second and third generations of Norse settlers in medieval Iceland, at the time a remote, fragmented society with a rich legal tradition but no central government.

Neil Gaiman is one of the world’s more popular authors. (He has 2.5 million Twitter followers; may the Icelandic gods protect him if that number threatens Donald.) And Gaiman has just made those Norse sagas infinitely more popular by retelling 15 of them in his new book Norse Mythology. Not in any graduate seminar was Gaiman introduced to these Norse myths. No, his acquaintance began in the rarified pages of Marvel’s Mighty Thor comic books which he read as a child in England in the 1960s.

Onto the bones of those ancient stories Gaiman has added emotions, motivations and snappy dialogue. He delves into the exploits of the gods, dwarves and giants. We meet Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet short on wisdom; and Loki, the son of giants and trickster par excellence.

Gaiman also spruced up the role of the goddesses, who traditionally are treated poorly by the sexist gods. In Gaiman’s recasting they give as good as they get. (“What kind of a person do you think I am?” the goddess Freya asks, when she gets wind of a shady scheme to marry her off to an ogre.)

Gaiman is currently circling the country on a book reading tour, including an appearance in Seattle April 2. Don’t rush to get your tickets – they’re sold out. Last week at Town Hall (the one in New York, not Seattle) Gaiman read from his book and took questions. Asked why these particular myths and not, say, Greek ones, he explained that Greek myths are full of sex and peacocks. “There’s lots of sitting outside and falling in love with your own reflection. No one’s doing that in Norse mythology. You sit outside in the winter, you’re dead.” His 15 stories draw a narrative arc that begins with the world’s creation and culminates in “Ragnarok,” the world’s destruction by ice and fire. Darkness descends before a tentative hope arises with a new world built on the ruins of the old one.

Those who are familiar with Richard Wagner’s four-part music-drama The Ring of the Niebelung – and many in the Pacific Northwest are thanks to Seattle Opera’s world-renowned productions – will feel right at home with Gaiman’s tales. Odin is Wagner’s Wotan, Freya is Freia, Loki is Loge, and in the role of the strong but dim Thor, Wagner gives us Siegfried. Of the many sources Wagner drew on as he created the Ring, the Norse sagas were the most important.

Similar to how Wagner and Gaiman mined those ancient myths, over the last couple of years I have been plundering Wagner’s magnum opus to forge a new play, titled Das Ende, that includes Wagner as a main character and echoes parts of the Ring’s story. Das Ende is currently in rehearsal and opens March 23 in Seattle.

In next week’s blog I’ll explore a genealogy that begins with the Norse sagas and connects generations of storytellers, including in turn Wagner, J.R.R. Tolkein, Marvel’s Mighty Thor, George Lucas (that’s right, Darth Vader is a version of Wotan), and now Neil Gaiman and yours truly. Stay tuned to the Norse saga channel.

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