Standing on the Shoulders of Jötunn | Mythology Mondays

NORSE MYTHOLOGY is Neil Gaiman’s most recent work, a somewhat modernized narrative retelling of many Norse myths; from the world’s birth to its destruction in an apocalyptic event called Ragnarok.

In my opinion, there’s no one better to take up the task of piecing together what Icelandic legends we still have. Gaiman’s mastery of mythology in both his SANDMAN series, and AMERICAN GODS prove that he has a knack for exploring mythological tales and characters in a modern setting, showing us how such characters and ideas can navigate our world.

He’s delved and been inspired by almost every mythology in some manner that I can think off of the top of my head. Working with some of the big boys from Greek and Roman mythology to Judeo-Christian figures with good'ole Jesus himself making a cameo in AMERICAN GODS.

Norse mythology however, is a meatier creature. As much a love story as it can be a philosophical tragedy, a road trip tale or a buddy-cop comedy. Gaiman’s dabbled a bit with this mythos before, walking in the shoes of some of these characters, but he has never really taken on the task on actually re-writing their stories, stories which, unlike the Mediterranean legends (like THE ILIAD or THE ODYSSEY) rarely show up in a school curriculum, and even barely really exist in their entirety (think the EPIC OF GILGAMESH, but colder).

Most of the specific information that scholars possess about Old Norse pagan mythology derives from a relatively small number of written works. So really, Gaiman’s not working with a whole story here, he’s just stitching together the tales that remain, fragmentarily and across multiple sources. The two probably most ‘helpful’ sources for this task are the PROSE EDDA and the POETIC EDDA. One being, you guessed it prose and the other obviously poetic. Both of these works come from Iceland, and given that the people who believed in the tales of Norse Mythology A) didn’t write much and B) had a lot of their writing and culture absolutely eradicated by Christianity (under the guise of cleansing pagan heresy), there isn’t exactly a lot of these works remaining, at least not in their entirety.

The POETIC EDDA, a collection of heroic and mythological poems, is a work complied from various sources, crafted by unknown writers in a time scholars probably estimate being around the 13th century.

The second source, the PROSE EDDA has a little more backstory. Well, I mean, it has a suspected author at least. The PROSE EDDA is considered to be written by the Icelandic politician *Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) and was created a little while after the POETIC EDDA was completed. Which I think is something that should stand out in regards to what we're talking about here. As it means that like Gaiman's NORSE MYTHOLOGY, the PROSE EDDA is an adaptation of existing Norse mythos.

Sturluson lived an adventurous life as a political leader, gaining great wealth and influence.  His PROSE EDDA works as a guide to the conventions of traditional Icelandic poetic composition and is written for the benefit of aspiring poets (storytellers). Of its four parts (Háttatal and the EDDA's prologue being the other two parts), the two most useful sources of mythological information and narratives are Skaldskaparmal (the language of poetry) and Gylfaginning (the tricking of Gylfi).

In Gylfaginning a fictional king, Gylfi, goes in disguise to Asgard, the city of the Gods, to find out about the Gods and learn all of their wisdom. Odin, All-Father and wisest of the Gods, comes to King Gylfi in three guises and tells the history of the Nordic Gods, the creation and inevitable destruction of the Nordic world.

Dissimilarly, Skaldskaparmal is is mostly a dialogue between Ægir, a god associated with the sea, and Bragi, a skaldic (poet) god, in which both stories of Norse mythology and discourse on the nature of poetry are intertwined.

*Sturluson clearly draws heavily from the POETIC EDDA for the majority of the stories he records in his PROSE EDDA. Relaying through prose, the origins of the universe according to Norse mythology and the figures residing within Yggdrasill or the World Tree universe.

Most of these stories (and most of Norse mythology in general) tells the tales of war between the Æsir (the Gods) and the Jötunn (the Giants).

As they are (beautifully fragmented) the tales of Norse Mythology stand on their own. I’ve read some of both the POETIC and PROSE EDDA, and as interesting as they are, they stand incomplete, full of references to other events, descriptions of places, people and things filled with holes. Like current meme culture, both EDDA’s were written by and for an audience who already knew the stories like nursery rhymes, not people completely new to them.

What Gaiman is actually doing with NORSE MYTHOLOGY is what Sturluson did centuries earlier, make these stories more assessable to a wider audience. Fill in some gaps, tie them together all while adding his own talent and flare to the mix.

Gaiman’s interpretation of Norse mythology in, uh, NORSE MYTHOLOGY, gives us 21st century readers a starting point to enter into this rich universe and to "make what use of it we [you] can" (Faulkes, 1988).

It's an interpretation that I can’t wait to dig into.


* It's assumed that Sturluson is the author of the Prose Edda from information in the Codex Upsaliensis, an early 14th-century manuscript which contained the Edda. However, it and other manuscripts and sources are not entirely clear on whether Sturluson authored the entirely of the Edda himself, a portion ( the Háttatal) or was merely just the compliler of the work. 

Sturluson. 1988. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. (trans.) Anthony Faulkes.