Sometimes I get to things late.
One Christmas I found myself sitting in a room with some of my slightly younger relations, each of them was staring at a screen instead of taking part in the parlour games. I don’t know what was on the screens, Candycrush? Minecraft? I’m not a big games player! All I wanted was an entertaining book to read, but I hadn’t brought one with me (how stupid) and there was nothing on the shelves which particularly called to me that afternoon. I had a screen too though, and so I thought I’d go to Amazon and download a book using the Kindle app on my phone (I don’t really like reading on my phone, but needs must).
I found ‘Good Omens’ for some kind of bargain price, and so I downloaded that. I knew we had an actual paper version on our bookshelves but it does look in a fairly parlous state (tatty, much-loved) and I wasn’t in the same room as that bookcase. That bookcase is filled, pretty much, with everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote. My husband has read all of them, and I have read a fair number. I knew Terry Pratchett had written this book with a writer called Neil Gaiman, who’s writing had somehow passed me by – in fact the first book I actually read by him was ‘Fortunately the Milk’ which we bought for our son.
I read Good Omens pretty quickly. It was brilliant. Clever, funny, a little bit disturbing. I could tell it wasn’t entirely Terry Pratchett, that it was slightly different to the books I’d read by him – but even so you can’t really see the joins. I thought “I must read more stuff by this Neil Gaiman bloke”. Of course this writer is so well known I felt like those people must feel who’ve never heard of some reasonably famous band you like, and you can’t stop yourself giving them advice to about which album to buy. I had some advice, and went for something which felt a bit familiar – that was American Gods.
I knew the Norse myths pretty well, we learned them in school – does that still happen? Maybe it happened because I went to school in the North, the Danelaw as it was. We learned about the Vikings, we went to the Coppergate dig at York when it was still an actual huge hole in the ground, so I have always been hugely interested in the Vikings and their world. I knew about the Viking settlement of America (the archaeology degree has been So Useful) and really it does make complete sense, doesn’t it, that the people took their gods with them to Vinland.
I was a bit prepared for the amazing book that is American Gods, but not really. It’s one of the most enthralling books I’ve ever read (I read the 12,000 words longer 10th Anniversary edition, if that’s useful to know) but this is not a book review and it’s been a year or so now since I read it, so sometimes it seems a bit like a strange dream I may have had.
Gaiman’s stories do that, they stay in your head and float about for ages. Read ‘Neverwhere’ and then try being in London without looking for ways to get to London Below if you don’t believe me – I am pretty convinced I’ll bump into Door one day and get to the Floating Market. But there are things I remember clearly; the klunker, the House on the Rock, Mr Wednesday – a role I cast Ian McShane in (in my head) even back then (spooky), and of course Shadow going through Odin’s sacrifice. Although the characters in this book were gods, they were also people with all the human traits and foibles. There aren’t just Norse gods of course, there are many others – Anansi (Mr Nancy), and Kali (Mama-ji) along with the new gods; Media, Technical Boy and Mr World (though also, he’s someone else).
I went off to find more books by this writer, and there are a lot…
As already mentioned I read Neverwhere, and two of the short story collections; Trigger Warning and Smoke and Mirrors. One of them holds a tale called Click Clack the Rattlebag which still causes me some unease but I can’t help going back to. I bought Odd and the Frost Giants for our son, who is a keen reader (I know who he gets that from) who I felt shouldn’t miss out on this stuff – and I like a Norse myth, you see. As Neil Gaiman is so prolific I have some catching up to do, but with my Norse-ish leanings I skipped straight to the new one.
Norse Mythology is Gaiman’s re-telling of the old Norse myths. I pre-ordered a signed copy. I went to the event at the Royal Festival Hall (at which I got one of the last seats – the gods were smiling on me). It was a great night, Gaiman’s reading of Thor going off to marry a giant was brilliant – there’s nothing like being read a story by a person who’s really good at reading out loud. Then we had a very long and interesting Q&A, the trailer for American Gods, and the trailer (not yet ready for broadcast, and only cleared for us to view a few hours earlier) for ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’.
This retelling of the Norse myths is great. It’s very Neil Gaiman of course, he has such a strong voice, and I love the way he tells these tales. I can’t help but compare this with A.S. Byatt’s re-telling in Ragnarok (2011) which I reread on the train on the way to London. Both of these are personal takes on the myths. A.S. Byatt’s are framed around the story of a ‘thin girl’ evacuated to the countryside during World War II and finding a book of the myths. Gaiman’s seem to echo the current world situation (albeit unintentionally, as I recall he said at the Festival Hall event). Not only have both authors retold these myths, they’ve each done it in the framework of a time which feels a bit Ragnarok-like; World War Two, and now. Though, as Neil pointed out to us at the end of his talk, there is hope at the end of these myths.
I just hope we don’t get to Ragnarok before I’ve read all the Neil Gaiman books I want to read, it would be a shame for a world which holds such storytellers as this to come to an end.