Neil Gaiman wanders into the Crosby Hotel’s colourful parlour in lower Manhattan looking like the Platonic ideal of himself. He’s all wild hair and gracious manners, dressed in a lived-in black wool coat. He loves this hotel, he says, not least because the concierge writes a comic about Houdini with the former concierge.
Gaiman started out in comics, reading them as a child and eventually writing them too, including his famous Sandman series. So does this happen to him often, his very presence tempting out undergrou nd comics enthusiasts all over the globe? “I wish I could say yes. It would be a much more interesting and sort of Pynchon-esque world. But no, it’s just here.”
Gaiman looks a little tired. He has just come from feeding breakfast to his toddler son. His creative life is a whirlwind of projects. The television version of his 2001 novel American Gods is to air in the United States in April. He has also been at work on an adaptation of his 1990 collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. Meanwhile, there is the matter of writing books, the latest of which is Gaiman’s retelling of Norse myths in the straightforwardly titled Norse Mythology.
It has clearly been a struggle to find the time. “I would look up every now and again and go, ‘OK, I have a week. Good, I will retell a story.’” These are drawn from the 13th century source texts for many Norse myths — the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda — which he first read in his 30s, after absorbing the superhero stories inspired by them in Marvel comics as a child growing up in West Sussex. With such a haphazard schedule, it has taken around eight years to write the book.
Gaiman’s love of Norse mythology surfaces frequently in his work. But in embarking on the retellings in Norse Mythology, Gaiman found himself faced with new limitations, as much information about the gods is missing. “On Greeks and Romans, for example, we have scads of stuff, but the Norse weren’t writing it down,” he explains. “They were telling the stories, so everything we have was written down after the event.” The holes and the contradictions that result from the oral tradition presented creative choices, but he felt an acute responsibility to be faithful to the traditional versions.
“Thor, bless his heart, has no narrative arc: he is the same person all the way through.” In contrast, “Almost every story where they’re in trouble, it’s because Loki got them into it. Also, an awful lot of the time, he’s the only one smart enough to get them out of it.”
“I have to play fair with the Norse scholars and I have to play fair with kids who pick up the book and read it and think they know the stories. And so I may add colour, I may add motivation, I’d put in my own dialogue. I may draw inferences,” he says. “All that stuff I’m allowed to do, but I feel like I’m not allowed to just go, ‘OK, there’s a patch of canvas missing here. I’m going to draw something in … ’”
Gaiman’s personal sensibility is apparent in the text. His affection for Loki, for instance, shines through: “Loki is very handsome. He is plausible, convincing, likable, and far and away the most wily, subtle and shrewd of all the inhabitants of Asgard. It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust.”
Gaiman attributes his love of Loki to his novelist’s eye. “You always end up fascinated by who changed, and how they change, because the engine of fiction is who are you at the beginning of the story and who are you at the end. Thor, bless his heart, has no narrative arc: he is the same person all the way through. He is not the brightest hammer in the room, but he’s good-hearted, and you know he will die at the end, but he dies the same person he’s been all the way through.” In contrast, “Almost every story where they’re in trouble, it’s because Loki got them into it. Also, an awful lot of the time, he’s the only one smart enough to get them out of it.”
Gaiman’s enthusiasm for myths also extends to the Egyptians and the Greeks. “The glory of some of these myths is that they feel right,” he explains, although he also concedes that every now and then “you’ll hit a myth and go, ‘No, I can’t really get behind that. Really, we get licked out of the ice by a cow? OK, if you say so.’” (He’s referring there to the myth of Audhumla.)
As Gaiman wrestled with these stories, he says he had no idea he was writing a topical book. But then, as political events unfolded in the second half of 2016, he could not help but draw parallels. “For me, it was Ragnarök,” he says, referring to the apocalyptic end of the gods.
Genuine worry furrows Gaiman’s brow, but he has plans to respond to current events. His following is huge, including 2.5 million people on Twitter and the millions who read his books and his blog and watch his television shows. He intends to use that platform to highlight the plight of refugees. He hopes, too, to double down on his long-standing activism to promote freedom of speech. “I wrote an essay on my blog in 2009 called ‘Why defend freedom of icky speech?’” he says, “Which just becomes more and more timely. I have a 14-month old son, and a four-month old grandson. I have no idea what kind of world they’re going to grow up in. I’m going to do my best with the time and the intellectual effort remaining to me to do whatever I can to give them a good world,” he says.
Ragnarök, as Gaiman writes in Norse Mythology, is of course “the end” of something. “But there is also what will come after the end,” he adds. In his version the sun comes out. Something glitters in the grass. The gods’ children find a set of golden chess pieces waiting for them. They arrange them on a board, and then one of them makes a move. “And,” Gaiman concludes, “the game begins anew.”
By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 12th, 2017