Norse Myths and American Gods: ‘Reading Neil Gaiman’

Processed with VSCO with l4 preset“All fiction has to be as honest as you can make it. This I believe….You have to make it as honest as you can, because that’s what people respond to. As far as I’m concerned any success I’ve achieved as a writer of fiction I’ve achieved because I’m an honest writer of fiction. Because my people are real people because you care about them. ” – Neil Gaiman

Sometimes I wonder if my obsession with fiction and fantasy epics is unhealthy. I crave to wander those strange, created, made-up worlds and to escape into them.  To become immersed in their mechanics, magics and mythologies almost as if I’m running away from my own world. But then I read someone like Neil Gaiman and I realize that I’m not escaping; I’m merely observing my own life from a different perspective.  The characters that writers like Gaiman, Tolkien and Rothfuss create are mirrors of what we can and should see within ourselves.  From the turmoil and conflict within to the resolutions, courage and strength shown; there is always something to learn from reading stories like Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) or The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss). Characters like Samwise Gamgee, Kvothe Kingkiller and Kaladin Stormblessed have inspired me to live my own life to the fullest and have taught me things I never would have learned otherwise.  This may not be true for everybody but it’s in reading fantasy that I can find a way summon the strength within myself.  And that’s all a credit to the writer.  A good writer is almost like a motivational speaker in that through a couple thousand words and some good characterization, they can elicit a response from you that is positive and uplifting.

Neil Gaiman is a writer that I have the utmost respect for.  He’s got his hands in so many different styles of writing that it’s astonishing the amount of work he’s managed to put out in his career so far.  From comics to television shows, films to novels; the man does it all.  My journey to discovering Neil Gaiman came about in October of 2017 in the city of Portland, Oregon.  I was walking around the labyrinth that is Powell City of Books when a cover caught my eye.  It depicted two men; one of them in an all white suit looking like a modern day wizard, the other in blue jeans and a shirt. A thunderstorm raged in the background with lightning striking the ground and a bare tree sat in the foreground between the two men. It was a Powell “staff pick” with an index card full of glowing endorsements that I just couldn’t ignore.  I committed an atrocious sin for a reader and I judged the book by it’s cover and bought it sight unseen.  Little did I know the impact that book would have on me.  At the time of purchase, I was cruising the coast in my little white Toyota Tacoma, camping and couch surfing anywhere I was allowed.  Much like the characters of Shadow and Wednesday, my life consisted of living on the road and visiting the many sites to see along the way.  Shadow’s journey from bit player to something greater was inspiring to me.  When I left on that camping trip, I was low on confidence and felt rudderless with my life’s direction.  Like Shadow, I took a leap into the blind, expanse of the open road and did my best not to fall off of it.  It was necessary.  In that moment, there was nothing like reading American Gods for the first time and from then on….I was hooked.  My journey had truly begun.

When I finally returned home, I began to see Neil Gaiman’s name everywhere. I saw his name on fantasy blogs, in comic books and in television shows. I quickly realized that the world of fantasy writing that I was so eager to be apart of was led by writers like Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. Writers older than myself but not so old that they seemed ancient.  Writers that were forging new worlds for people like me who craved to see those places, live those ideals and understand those characters. Their world building was deep, full of meaning and steeped in it’s own individual mythologies based on what they had read and absorbed previously.  Writers like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien formed their basis for what fantasy writing should look like and in turn, they flipped it on its head and created their own versions. It’s in this way that I think Gaiman is in a class of his own.  The second book I discovered by him was called “Norse Mythology.”  Reading a book of this nature was certainly different in that it was more textual than fantastic.  Gaiman worked off characters and stories that were already established in our minds.  I didn’t know much about Norse Mythology when I started but I did know names like Thor, Odin and Loki and I had some idea about who they were.

It was in reading Gaiman’s version of those myths that I began to fully realize his ability to weave real legends into his own fantasy world building. “American Gods” contains many elements of Norse Mythology and Gaiman finds clever ways to weave them into the fabric and heart of his story.  At face value, “AG” is about old gods and their slow extinction through the constant turning of time.  It’s about human beings leaving those ideas, symbols and characters we’ve known and worshiped for thousands sometimes millions of years in order to move forward and adopt new gods with new mythologies.  If you look deeper within the novel though, the story illuminates a part of human nature that’s incredibly intriguing. Gaiman tries to show us through Shadow’s story that nothing ever ends.  He strives to show that time keeps going and that the wheel keeps turning (shoutout to Robert Jordan) no matter what we try and leave behind.  We don’t sacrifice blood to the pagan gods of old anymore but we do sacrifice our time and energy to our “new gods” of television and the internet everyday.  In nordic mythology, Ragnarok signals the end of the gods as we know them.  Thor, Odin and even Loki all perish. But in their place, new gods arise to fill the void.  Just like in Gaiman’s novel, time is a circle and the pattern is constantly repeating and starting over.  Sometimes this can happen violently and other times, it’s a gradual shift that we don’t even notice.  It’s Gaiman’s ability to tap into this knowledge that sets his writing and “American Gods” in particular apart from other more traditional fantasy stories.

On a more personal note, Gaiman and his style of writing is someone I look up to and admire.  He wrote “AG” while traveling the country.  He visited those roadside attractions, drank at those dive bars and sat in those waiting rooms that we see in the story.  That’s part of what makes “AG” so good.  Gaiman’s settings are places we walk through everyday and sometimes we don’t even notice them.  There’s truth and honesty in his writing even though we’re aware it’s fictional.  At one point, Shadow and Wednesday visit San Francisco and you can almost smell and feel the city around you as you read that section.  No other writer can envelope you in a story so fully.  And despite the everyday nature of the places you visit in the story, he manages to make it fantastic.  That infusion of myth into real life is a powerful tool and one that Gaiman uses to perfection.

Reading “Norse Mythology” and “American Gods” broadened my horizon on how books can be written and received.  Sometimes, you just gotta write about what you love and the passion will seep out on it’s own.  I’m not sure why I felt the need to lobby so hard for others to read these books.  All I know is the way “American Gods” made me feel and the way “Norse Mythology” made me think, changed the way I look at fantasy writing and mythology forever. The honesty that Gaiman talks about in the quote to start this essay nails that point home.  We care about these stories because we care about the people.  We care about the people, because we see our own image staring back at us, urging us to be better. Shadow says it best: “People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.” 

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