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Once Upon a Time

How Myths Teach Us the Truth of Life

Published on:
April 11, 2017
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6 min.
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One of my great regrets in life is having not discovered Neil Gaiman sooner. I was first introduced to his writing two years ago when I picked up a copy of American Gods at a local bookstore.

Soon after, I began swooping up editions of his Sandman series, scaling London’s mystical underworld in Neverwhere, and fighting dark spirits with his magical tale The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Today, I am hopelessly compelled to read everything he writes—an obligation for which I have no complaints.

Gaiman has built a career as a master storyteller, accumulating a wide array of awards and leaving his fingerprints all over popular culture. To date, two of his books have been adapted into films (Stardust and Coraline), he has guest written for Doctor Who, and some have gone so far as to credit him as one of the pioneers of modern comics. 

Like his previous works, Gaiman delivers what are often horrifying tales in surprisingly innocent prose.

As a child, Gaiman recalls begging his parents to leave him at the local library while they went to work. It was there that he fell in love with authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, C. S. Lewis, Edgar Allen Poe, and G. K. Chesterton, among others.

Around the age of six, he discovered the Marvel comic books where he was first exposed to the Norse gods Odin, Thor, and Loki. This seemingly modest encounter sparked within him a flame that has yet to be extinguished for the Nordic pantheon.

That passion led him to write his latest book, Norse Mythology, a modern retelling of the Asgardian gods that debuted at number one on The New York Times bestseller list in its first week of publication.

The Tales of Nordic Time

Broken into a series of fifteen shorter tales, the book traces the Nordic myth cycle beginning with creation and drawing to a close with the events of Ragnarok, the Norse version of Armageddon.

While the dialogue is largely original and contemporary, Gaiman stays within the narrative bounds of the two primary sources of Norse mythology—Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, a thirteenth-century compilation of Nordic myths, and the Poetic Edda. In the book’s introduction, he explains that he attempts to “retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can.”

Along the way, Gaiman introduces readers to a host of familiar characters. We learn the origins of Thor’s hammer and Odin’s missing eye all the while enduring the devious wit of Loki.

He also weaves in a cast of understated figures and tales that have spent far less time in the spotlight. In one scene Thor is forced to dress in drag to retrieve his stolen hammer. We learn the source of the gods’ immortality, which comes by way of the goddess Idunn who distributes golden apples that turn back the effects of age. Poetry is created when two dwarves murder a god named Kvasir and drink his blood as mead. We meet Loki’s three children—Jorgmunder, the serpent; Fenrir, the wolf; and Hel, master of the realm of the dead—all of whom play gruesome roles in Ragnarok. Perhaps most disturbing of all is Naglfar, an immense ship built from the untrimmed fingernails and toenails of the dead.

Like his previous works, Gaiman delivers what are often horrifying tales in surprisingly innocent prose, which makes their impact all the more unsuspected. But beyond the enduring quality of the Norse myths, what led him to write the book is a belief that mythology has a lot to teach us about our humanity.

For all their might, they are careless and petty.

Uncovering the Depth of the Immortal

For him, Ragnarok is the ultimate lesson, one we are all heading toward. He writes that the Apocalypse “made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.” The approaching doom adds depth to the ancient tales, yet Ragnarok comes about by way of the flawed nature of the gods.

For all their might, they are careless and petty. After a night of heavy drinking, Loki shaves off the hair of Thor’s wife because it “was funny.” Thor resembles a dumb jock, more developed in muscle than mental acuity. He guzzles undue measures of ale and slaughters giants for sport making more than his fair share of enemies along the way. 

The same is true for the rest of the gods. In “The Master Builder,” Odin commissions a wall to be built around his city and sticks the giants with the tab (sound familiar?). Together, the gods betray Loki’s wolf son Fenrir to bind his mouth shut, a treachery that incites him to swallow the world whole at Ragnarok.

Far less transcendent than often portrayed in film, the gods are wise yet impulsive, noble but selfish, powerful and cruel. As such, they seem suspiciously human. They populate a realm where their actions purchase consequences, both good and ill, and the coming judgment adds a level of depth to the choices they make.

With every turn of the page, the world Gaiman brings forth yearns for a hope beyond the end. A rebirth, if you will.

Sometimes “deep” is still too shallow. 

Considering his body of work, it comes as no surprise that Gaiman chose to write Norse Mythology. Myth lies at the heart of nearly all his stories. Both Thor and Odin play significant roles in his award-winning novel American Gods, and mythology is woven extensively throughout his acclaimed Sandman series, but not merely because myths provide a framework conducive to best sellers, but because they give us new tools to face the challenges of life.

Stories whisk us away from our realities into foreign lands as if they are our own.

In the summer of 2015, Gaiman delivered a lectured called “How Stories Last” in which he explained that a story is at once both a lie and the truth. Stories whisk us away from our realities into foreign lands as if they are our own. They allow us to escape in ways that furnish us “with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” 

There is nothing trivial about the creation of stories when considering the formative effect they have on each of our lives. But the “escape” he describes is not only true because it strengthens us for the here and now. Its power lies in the fact that it counsels the longings of our hearts.

J. R. R. Tolkien echoes this sentiment in a letter written to his son in 1944. He wrote, “I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” 

We tell stories because it is in our nature as those made in the image of the great Storyteller. God, in seeking to draw his people to himself, has condescended by way of story, a redemptive narrative that spans the length of time, from creation through exile to the end and beyond. Our tales echo his narrative because they spring from the eternity placed in each of our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

We find hope beyond judgment.

I admire the prolific writing and thought of Gaiman, but I disagree that the Norse myths are instructive if they provide us with merely temporal hope. In Norse Mythology, Ragnarok sweeps through killing nearly every god and sparing only a handful of humans who are left to repopulate the earth. Certainly, it ends on a hopeful note, but one that still bears the sting of death and the constraint of mortality. In the end, it does little to cure the great enemy humanity has endured since the dawn of time.

Ragnarok is a helpful warning only if it is true. And hope in a future dependent upon humanity will quickly expire. Yet, Nordic mythology—like all forms of story—appears as a signpost along our collective journey, pointing us to the One in whom all stories find their source.

The threat of judgment adds depth to our lives because it is true. But hope endures because God has given us the greatest of all stories in the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ.

We are hardwired for the enjoyment of stories and the creative spaces they invite us into. As we step into other realities, we catch a glimpse of the future that awaits us with the Author of life.

Christ is humanity’s fulfillment of all that is true and beautiful, and the gospel is the true myth because it is one that actually occurred in history. It bears weight on our hearts in whatever creative expressions they take, especially when it comes to telling stories.

I cannot say with certainty whether Gaiman claims any particular religious affiliation, but I can wholeheartedly agree with him that stories are formative teachers. Norse Mythology is no exception. It preaches to our imaginations and surfaces the loves and hopes that lie beneath our exterior. But like all tales, it is deficient in itself.

Myth in any form plucks the strings of our deepest longings, confronting us with our brokenness and our desire for a pleasant ending. We long for it because we were created for it, that ending in which we live happily ever after with the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

Collin Huber
Collin Huber is a professional writer and content editor in Dallas, Texas. He earned his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and spent his undergraduate years studying Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He and his wife, Brittany, live in the Dallas area, and you can find him on Twitter @CollinHuber15.

Cover image by Mike Norton.

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