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From Neil Gaiman, tales of Thor and Odin for modern ears

March 17, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Famed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman read and absorbed the stories of the Norse gods when he was young. In a new book, "Norse Mythology," he retells them for a new generation. Gaiman sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss the importance of keeping the stories -- and the gods in them -- alive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a new work from acclaimed author Neil Gaiman explores deities, dwarves and giants.

Jeff is back with this otherworldly addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: The mighty Thor, god of thunder, as portrayed by Jack Kirby in his 1960s comic book series, one-eyed Odin, highest and oldest of the Gods from Roger Lancelyn Green’s “Myths of the Norsemen.”

NEIL GAIMAN, Author, “Norse Mythology”: I would have been 6 years old when I first encountered the — just the idea of these Norse gods.

I remember looking at them and going, this is amazing.

JEFFREY BROWN: These stories of the Norse gods were read and absorbed by the young Neil Gaiman.

Now 56, Gaiman has sold more than 15 million books, as one of today’s leading writers of fantasy and science fiction, the clash of the very human and the otherworldly.

The British-born Gaiman first gained fame for his comic book series “The Sandman.” He would go on to write much more in many genres, including novels such as “Neverwhere,” “American Gods,” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”

And he’s now done his own retelling of the old tales, titled “Norse Mythology.”

We spoke recently at Scandinavia House in New York.

NEIL GAIMAN: I had encountered the stories of the Greeks, even of the Egyptians. And you look at the supreme gods, the top gods. You look at Zeus, you look at Ra, and they are powerful and all-wise and to be aspired to.

And yet here is Odin. And if he turns up at your house, he will probably turn up in disguise and, you know, leave with half your cutlery, and possibly having seduced your daughter.


NEIL GAIMAN: These are unreliable people.

When I started writing these stories — and I started working on this book about four years ago — from my perspective, it was the joy of just going, this is part of the heritage of the human race. Let me give it to a new generation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me what you’re doing. You’re not — you’re rewriting the myths?

NEIL GAIMAN: I suppose I think about them as if I’m taking old folk songs and then perhaps orchestrating them, arranging them for modern ears.

I’m going back to the Icelandic versions of these stories that remain to us written in a post-Christian world, picking the versions of the stories that I like, not changing things, not creating, in the sense of retelling, retelling as if you were telling a joke that you love, but telling it for modern ears.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you had some fun with this?

NEIL GAIMAN: I had a lot of fun with it.


NEIL GAIMAN: But what I didn’t do was invent stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write about these gods as though they are still with us to some degree. And, of course, in your writing, that’s a motif.


JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel that, that the gods are with us in …

NEIL GAIMAN: I feel like the gods are ours. And we are allowed — we created them. Human beings get to create gods, and human beings get to tell stories with gods.

We carry our cultures around with us. We carry our background around with us. We carry our histories and our families’ histories and our ancestors histories around with us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gaiman himself has long been a kind of cult hero to his fans, who follow him and his work in progress on his blog and on Twitter.

He’s reached broader audiences with adaptations, a film version of his novel “Coraline,” an upcoming television series based on “American Gods,” and much more to come.

NEIL GAIMAN: For me, it’s all part of the giant, same thing, which is storytelling.

What fascinates me, what drives me is the urge to tell stories. What then drives you is going, where is this story best told? How can you tell this story as one thing? How can — sometimes, how can you move this story from one medium into another?

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote about when you achieve some success, the fear that you will be uncovered as a kind, what your wife called the fraud police, right? And you refer to it as the impostor syndrome, where this is all too good to be true.

NEIL GAIMAN: Absolutely, fearing that it will be taken away from you at any moment when people notice that you are simply making it up.

And I guess it’s worse for a writer because you are simply making it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, you really are.

NEIL GAIMAN: You know, you look around, and you go, well, doctors, they have at least learned things. And, you know, architects must know how to architect.

But I’m just a guy who makes stuff up, and people happen to like it. And, maybe tomorrow, they won’t like it. Maybe there will be that knock on the door, and there will be that guy in a suit with a clipboard saying, right, we’re onto you. You have to go and get a real job now.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, look out. The “Norse Mythology” ends with Ragnarok, the apocalyptic end of the world.

NEIL GAIMAN: One of the things that I love about Ragnarok is, yes, it’s the end of all times, it’s terrible, all the people are killed. Everything is destroyed.

And yet, even as Ragnarok finishes, you’re told, but there are two human beings whose names are Life and Life’s Yearning who are still hiding successfully, and they will repopulate the world. And, yes, the sun is destroyed, but a new sun will come up fresher and brighter than the old one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until then, from New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.