Neil Gaiman Bloomsbury
Under the ash tree
The story of the universe is a simple one. It has a beginning and an end and the journey in between is a fascinating romp through with gods and demons and creatures of all kinds that fight, love, trick and plot against each other. Broadly, no matter what civilisation or culture you travel to, this is how mythologies hold forth.
The Norse world is a similar one. Life begins when the universe is born in the void between Niflheim (a place colder than the coldest winter) and Muspell (the edge of the eternal fire) and ends with Ragnarok, the final destiny of the gods. The journey in between is a labyrinthine trek through Thor and Odin’s world where pitched battles are fought between the gods, giants, dwarves and fantastic beasts.
Adventure, magic, treachery, love and murder – the myths have dollops of it all. Neil Gaiman’s book retells the stories with relish and a sense of awe, which helps readers (especially if this is the first encounter with trickster Loki, Sif with the golden hair or the wise Odin) absorb the power of these myths.
While the Norse myths bear a striking resemblance with myths from remote geographies, they are also different from them in many interesting ways. For instance, the fascination for the sun is something that the Norse people share with all cultures of that time. However given the extreme cold that they battled with where winter was not just a temporary blip in the weather charts, these myths regard the sun as a gentle, nourishing force. “Nothing there is that does not love the sun. It gives us warmth and life, melts the bitter snow and ice of winter,” goes a line. Myths from Egypt or the Indian subcontinent and even ancient Greece are as enamoured by the sun but they see it as a fierce and unruly force, apart from being a source of life.
Similarities among myths from distant corners of the world are like the breadcrumbs in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, letting us trace the dots to the original thought or philosophy that led to their creation. However the differences are important too, they bring out the local context that shaped these thoughts. Gaiman’s book lets us into a world that we no longer know and whose strangeness allows readers to speculate on what its fears and concerns may have been.
There is a lyrical beauty that courses through the Norse myths, a sense of abandon that Gaiman captures effectively. Without imposing a moral code or pinning them down into an inspirational framework, he lets the good, bad and the ugly all hang out together. His style simulates fireside chats, which helps first time readers break down the complexity and get around the peculiarities of the tales. Gaiman says he read the Norse myths when he was just seven. Fortunately for the reader, he remembers the impact the stories about demons, gods, dwarves and battles must have had on him at that age and he brings it into the book.
ANorse tale that many are familiar with, is Ragnarok. This is when the world will end, when gods will be sucked back into time and everything will crumble into nothingness, turning into ash and flood, going back into the same elements that it emerged from. But Ragnarok merely masks a new beginning, indicating that the Norse too dallied with the cyclical concept of time and life as did writers and philosophers in the East. Ragnarok became popular sometime in the early 2000s when it caught the fancy of gamers, becoming one of the first multi-player games to find fans in every part of the world. Soon Hollywood discovered the universal appeal of these myths and several movies and television shows followed.
It helps that Gaiman is familiar with all forms of media. As journalist, graphic novelist, short fiction writer and the writer of several episodes of the hugely popular Dr Who series on television, Gaiman has worked with the myth and fantasy genre for different audiences. He is thus able to create vivid and visual references for readers in the book, lighting up the way for those who may otherwise find the myths daunting.
For instance, he leaves an indelible visual imprint with the story of Yggdrasil, the ash tree. The tree of life is a common motif in many myths but the Nordic version is more elaborate and could even be among the earliest expositions of the idea. This is the tree, he writes, that ‘grows between the nine worlds and joins them’. It is so large that just its roots run through three worlds and are nourished by the water from three wells. A know-everything eagle sits on the highest branches with a hawk perched between its eyes. A squirrel, Ratatosk, lives in the branches and carries messages from the dragon of the underworld Nidhogg to the eagle and back again, lying to both and gleefully provoking them every chance it gets. The modern day reader of myths is somewhat like the eagle and the dragon – the squirrel of course lives within us all.