Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology, released today, is a retelling of the original Norse myth cycles being a fusion of The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda. If anyone thought that it would be dry read, or that Gaiman’s easy style would be constrained by such an academic treatment, never fear. I doubt that there exists a more accessible translation, and certainly not a more entertaining one. Gaiman has us, at turns, laughing, becoming outraged, or sympathising with these Norse gods, all of whom carry deeply human flaws and foibles.

The book is published by W. W. Norton & Company, and it is worth drawing the comparison that they also have published Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which is a spiritual brother to this work both in its technical ability to stay true to the source material, but also to feel current and updated. A few years ago I took a course in Old Norse Language and Literature, as a part of which we were all required to translate some of the original Norse tales and I can almost guarantee that anyone looking at the original and Gaiman’s translation will be very impressed with how near the source Gaiman has kept his own text. The licenses he has taken are few and sensible. The framing device of Gylfi has been despatched with, which is an entertaining angle on the tales, but one that ultimately holds them down and is largely unnecessary. The intermittent poetry has been folded into the narrative, but still exists in a few recognisably alliterative sentences. And the dialogue has been updated, so that the idioms and flow feel as natural to us now as it would have felt to the original listeners.

If there is a flaw in Norse Mythology it is that it feels brief and incomplete — the book can be read in a couple evenings. However, this certainly does not stem from Gaiman but from the fact that the written record of Norse mythology is incomplete. And this has to do with the peculiarities of why people started recording them in the first place, and how we in the West moved from an aural culture to a written culture.

The cover page from an early edition with scenes from the tales. Odin is top centre, with his ravens flanking him. Thor’s hammer is to his lower left, and Valhalla is bottom row, middle. (Click to enlarge.)

At this moment, the case could be made that unless something has been written down and uploaded, it cannot even be said to have truly happened. But in a pre-literate society, this was never the case. Instead of creating archives of knowledge, be it fact, fiction, history, or what-have-you, the ancients had a more elegant solution to not forgetting something–they simply remembered it. To continue to look at Old Norse writings, the great majority of them, what are called the Sagas, deal with genealogy,  land ownership, travelogueing, legal battles, and blood feuds. (You will also get the odd supernatural occurrence, but only when it impinges on one of the categories above.)

It may seem unbelievable that such received knowledge would be considered in any way reliable, but first consider the hegemonic state that these stories or histories would have been held–at any time any one of a number of people could be called upon to give a breakdown of Egils Saga, for instance, and among the listeners to that tale there would be very often one other present who could vouch for the validity of the recitation and add clarification or correction.

There is an incident in one of my favourite Sagas called Vatnsdæla Saga in which a man and his mother are suspected of making human sacrifices in their house by their neighbours. They send a serving boy down to their house to knock on the door with the added instruction to start reciting a well-known poem as soon as he has knocked and then to remember how far he got through that poem by the time that the door has been answered. All of this is only to illustrate that these people could remember by rote than they could count.

A detail from the Franks Casket. Weyland is on the far left, working at his forge.

And herein lies the problem that we are now faced with: the paradoxical situation that somewhere along the way we forgot a lot of stories that were considered far too popular to ever record… and so they didn’t. And it would now be the case that we wouldn’t even know that they were missing if we didn’t have the odd indication and reference to them. One of these is a direct reference to the tale of Weyland Smith, made by Alfred the Great. In the king’s own (possibly commissioned, but possibly not) translation of The Consolations of Philosophy by Latin philosopher Boethius, Alfred mentions Weyland in place of the Roman Fabricius, as someone who everyone knew. However, no English written treatment exists of the full history of Weyland–he is only mentioned twice in passing in the Old English corpus. Beowulf itself is an oddity in that it is an Old English epic poem that has nothing to do with England at all–neither its characters or setting is English. It is, in fact, now widely accepted as a kind of continuation of the adventures of the characters in yet another Old Norse history, Hrólfs Saga KrakaThese two remnants of ancient literature hint at what would at one time have been a whole catalogue of adventures. It would be as if only two out of sequence Star Wars movies now remained from the extant eight, or we had Iron Man 3 and Avengers, but nothing else and could only imagine the context for those.

The first page of Beowulf, contained in the “Cotton MS Vitellius”. The edges have were singed in 1731 when a fire in the building it was stored damaged it and many other priceless works of British literature.

The written records of what now exists from Scando-European culture, in which we also classify English, was created by Christian monks–some of whom we even know the names of. This was simply because these were the only people who could write. Contrary to what might be assumed, the monks and priests that brought us out of the Dark Ages were very comfortable with their pagan roots. Beowulf, for all that some people insist at being altered or Christianised, only shows three instances of direct Biblical reference or allusion in over 3,000 lines of text, which not even the most obtuse commentator could call heavy-handed. The clergy of the time has evidenced more hesitancy at translating their own Bible than in recording their pre-Christian heritage. In Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis he expresses concern at giving a popular version of the earliest Judeo-Christian stories because he isn’t sure if people hear it read it out of context that they will understand that they aren’t to live in the old law as they are to live in the New Law. Their aim was to preserve knowledge, but not to alter it, whether they agreed with it or no.

So what were the recorded stories recorded for? In England they were almost exclusively given as gifts given by the monks to their patrons–essentially novelties. And the inherent novelty value of recording a story that everyone knows is very small, but a rare or exceptional story of a famous character, or a poem that not everyone has heard of is considerably higher. (Only in the instance of the Icelandic Sagas do we have the situation where a group of monks, spearheaded by the wonderful Snorri Sturlusson, deliberately set out to record EVERYTHING so that nothing was forgotten, and that is why Iceland is unique in the world as being a nation without a prehistoric period.)

And to bring it back to Gaiman and Norse Mythology–this is what we now have: a collection of the odd exceptional tales. We have the time that Thor wasn’t Thor — when he lost his hammer and had to dress up like a woman. We have the various times that the trickster Loki was tricked. We also have the start of the universe and the end of the universe, because these are novelties as well. There’s the time when the god of beauty and light is killed, and also the story of where poetry comes from. And in having these tales, we may very well have the best of what used to exist, but here’s the thing… we’ll never know.