Many years go (the early noughties) and in a previous life, I was attending a conference on Children's Literature in south London. It was back in the day when, having finished that OU degree completed over six years and mostly at 2am whilst working full time and raising teenagers (I need a lie down just writing that...what on earth...) I had misguidedly plunged into a distance learning MA in Children's Literature with an actual college. It was a silly decision because in those days no one did distance learning better than the OU. The new course materials were sparse and scrappy, poorly photocopied, access to high-quality academic libraries nigh on impossible here in the south west and I struggled. I gave up before the end of the first year mainly because (and don't ask me why this hadn't occurred to me beforehand) all those beloved childhood reads were being dissected and the magic destroyed, but also because I came to terms with closure on any more academia...anything else I did or wrote would be for fun, cue dovegreyreader scribbles heading into its twelfth year next week.
Anyway, there I was sitting at the back waiting for the final session of this conference because I was going to have to dash for my train back to Devon, when this man came and sat next to me. Dark, slightly unruly hair, leather jacket etc. We passed the time of day and then someone announced the session...not the scheduled one but a Big Surprise Extra Special Bonus Event because author Neil Gaiman was 'in the room' and would be speaking. Cue gasps, much head-turning, spontaneous applause, un-contained excitement and the man sitting next to me rose and walked to the front. The sadness was that I had to leave for the station so I missed the talk, but thinking about it on the train home I decided it was best I hadn't known what Neil Gaiman looked like or I might have done that stupid, over-awed fan thing...or thrust the copy of Coraline (which I had just bought for Offspringette) into his hands for signing.
By way of explanation this about the book from the author's website...
"Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin's son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman's deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again."
In his introduction to the book Neil Gaiman suggests that his love of myth has evolved since boyhood thanks to the American comic book artists such as Jack Kirby. Maybe this is the 'blond, hammer-wielding Thor' of Neil Gaiman's childhood memory...
And alongside came the writing of Roger Lancelyn Green. It would seem that the stories embedded into a childhood imagination never die or lose their potency, cue my failure when it came to studying them in depth, but I realise now, with a bit of sadness I think, that I was too busy doing that girly reading of the 1950s to notice or be interested in myth.
Where was it I wonder?
How did I miss it?
While my brother was busy reading all this I suspect I was deep into Judy and Bunty.
It has all left me wondering how easy or difficult it might be to grasp the essence of myth as a grown-up, and without that solid foundation of childhood reading, but I am doing my best, accessing my inner child, and enjoying Norse Mythology very much.
Two thirds through reading and I am entranced and transported elsewhere. I feel as if I am in another time zone, far removed from the one I live in and have decided that going with the flow is the only way to make sense of all this. I did my usual thing of pencilling a bit of a genogram as I went along so that I stood a chance of following who was who. I do always like to know who is the mother of who, and the daughter of who, and the friend of who, but it all got so complicated I gave up...they didn't do this back in the day, they listened and concentrated and heard something else, a different tune from Odin, and Loki, Laufey, Thor, Mod, Magni and Jord.
Finally, finally, at last I know what the Valkyries actually are (they collect the souls of the noble dead...I don't do opera)
I know what Valhalla is, and Ragnorak (the end of everything) and the tree which joins the nine worlds, Yggdrasil...which until now (as Happy Camper A reminded me last week) had been the name of the boat that Tommy sailed in to meet Daphne du Maurier.
And then there's the cover of the book. If I have this right that is Mjollnir, the hammer forged by the dwarves Brokki and Eitri for Thor
Setting aside Game of Thrones et al, as I read, all those uncanny resonances with the latter-day leap out and hit me suggesting not only the timelessness but also the timeliness of Neil Gaiman's re-presentation of myth..
"We cannot always rely on Thor," said Odin. "We need
protection. Giants will come. Trolls will come.
"What do you propose?" asked Heimdall, the watch-
man of the gods.
"A wall," said Odin." High enough to keep out frost
giants. Thick enough that not even the strongest troll
could batter its way through...."
Building walls seems to be a recurring theme wherever I look at the moment.
There is treachery and betrayal, humiliation, cheating and trickery, murder, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit...all a bit like watching News at Ten on an average day. Plus ca change etc but perhaps it's oddly comforting to know that there might be nothing new under the sun, nothing that hasn't been thought of before. So in these days of turmoil that seem to be besieging us I can highly recommend a return to the world of myth and Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology. It is a keeper and book that I will read over and again....a book that in a strange way has the power to contain my twenty-first century anxieties and reassure, and that was not what I was expecting at all.
Though if I could just say, we really do need to keep that hammer Mjollnir, the lightning maker, out of the wrong hands. If the dastardly Thrym should get hold of it we are going to need our very own Loki and Thor to be on top form (and prepared to cross-dress) in order to get it back.
But I would love to know your thoughts on myth in general...
Where you introduced to it as a child, or perhaps by an enlightened teacher..
Did you read any Norse mythology as a child, and if so can you remember what...
And if not, have you gone there as an adult and how have you fared...
The interesting thing is that reading myth has led me to reading fantasy ...who'd have thought it alongside Anna Karenina. I am eternally grateful to Happy Camper A for the suggestion of Robin Hobb as an author who creates worlds to disappear into when February, for all it is the shortest month, seems to be the longest. I have almost finished Assassin's Apprentice, the first of the Farseer Trilogy and I am fatally (for the book budget) and utterly smitten.