Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, a review

Let’s get this out of the way; if you’re a writer, I think you should read Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. If you’re a reader, I think you should read this.

The stories from Norse Mythology are a pervasive influence in our modern world; from the naming of the English days of the week to our movie screens, the fingerprints of Thor, Loki, Odin and the rest are all around us. But how much do you really know about them? Where they came from? What they did? If you’re like me, you have the vaguest of notions about giants and hammers and mythical cities, but not much more.

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In his book, Neil Gaiman blends historical sources of prose and poetry to create a set of fables which paint a vivid picture of the lands of the Norse Gods. From the creation of the world, through many adventures to the end of the Gods, it’s all covered here. Engaging, interesting, funny and eminently readable, I found that not only could I not put the book down, but I didn’t really want to.

Having seen all the Marvel films to date, I found that understanding the stories which influenced them added a new layer to movies which I already enjoy. I could see where ideas were taken wholesale, where others had been blended and what was both new and original. Though I would warn you that Thor and the rest were not always so good and kind as they appear in the movies… you have been warned!

Whilst you will certainly recognise the characters and some of the locations from the comic books and movies, these are much more raw and unfiltered versions of the characters we now see on screen. Violent, selfish, jealous and vicious, these Gods are loaded with human faults which was both a surprise and refreshing to me.

The book features fifteen short stories which flow into a satisfying single narrative. Even though they are self-contained, there is an overall connection between each one so this does feel more like a single story with chapters than a collection of separate events.

So, why would I recommend that all writers should read this? First, because Neil Gaiman has a genuine warmth and affection for the tales he’s recounting here and that shows through in each story, it’s a reminder to write what you love. The book is also a reminder of something which, I think, we writers have forgotten in the modern era of sales figures and eBooks; the roots of what we do.

Every single page is a fantastical tale of adventure, characters and far off places. But more than that, each tale has a life, energy and joy to its telling. They exist not just to entertain, but to inspire wonder and to amaze. The writing is elegant, simple but quickly takes you off to this fantasy world of the Gods of legend.

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In fact, it did such a good job that I felt that the book would benefit from a change of venue for the second reading. I think starting it again in a great hall, deep in some pine forest, snow on the ground as I sit by a log fire with my belly full of mead and a great feat would really add something. If I get to try it, I’ll let you know.

As I reader I was entertained, amused and educated by this book. I now have a deeper understanding of the tales which still creep into our modern world around the edges in words and ideas.

As a writer I was reminded what we’re for and how it should be done. If, in years to come, I can write with the grace and beauty of Neil Gaiman whilst weaving tales and images half as good as those in this book, I might just be happy.

Whilst I work towards that day, I might just read this book again, though. For, whilst it hasn’t changed my life, it has reminded me of what matters most to me as a writer and a reader.

If you’re looking to pick this up, you can grab the hardback now or the updated paperback is out in the first week of March, 2018!

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts, let me know in the comments.

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The One Where I Write About Friends

Early in January this year (that’s 2018 for those of you from the future), the good people at Netflix added the American sitcom Friends their streaming service. This momentous event lead to much celebration and happiness from those of a “certain age”.

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Stretching from 1994 until 2004, Friends stretched to ten seasons with 236 episodes in total. If you were in your teens or 20’s during its run, Friends will feature on your radar to some degree. Whether it was a staple of your weekly viewing, the bulk of your VHS collection or a confusing enigma you didn’t gel with, it’s likely there somewhere.

For me, it was okay. I watched some of it the first time around. In truth, I probably caught more on reruns in the years following the end of the series. A weekly commitment to a show was just not something I could do, unless there were spaceships. If there were spaceships, then I was likely disappointed that it was only once per week.

Anyway, I digress.

So, Friends returns to screens across the country and, you know what? It’s not aged well. Where once there was good, wholesome humor, now it’s a little… dodgy. The three things I’ve seen most commented on are, in no particular order, jokes regarding “gay” Chandler, “fat” Monica and Ross’s wife leaving him for a woman. When first aired, these jokes were reliable comedy gold, but to today sensibilities they fall flat.

Oh and Joey? Bit creepy now my man, just saying…

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In the intervening years, we’ve moved on from the point where it’s okay to laugh at someone being gay or overweight. I think we’ve even moved to the point where losing a partner in a relationship would suck, irrespective of the gender of the person with whom they cheated. Well, some of us have.

Over the years society has progressed with acceptance and understanding of these groups at an all-time high. Though this doesn’t mean that jokes can’t be made about these topics, it does mean that “cheap” jokes are off the menu. Saying that you think someone is gay is no longer the insult which it was widely-perceived to be in my youth.

With Friends widely relying on humor which was widely accepted at the time, hence its popularity, this shift in culture has left Friends behind.

But, does that mean that our work has an expiry date? As a writer, will there be a point where the words which I have written seem quaint, naive or offensive to some future perspective? If I try to write with a deeper meaning, will I, at some point, cease to have relevance? And does this even matter?

Since the noise around the return of Friends, I have been giving this some thought.

For me, the answers come down to a simple statement.

Write and damn the consequences

We can only guess how society and culture will develop in the coming years. It would be insanity to try and write for the ages to come. As writers, we write what we know. So, unless you have a functional crystal ball, write for the world around you.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid the difficult topics. Writers, like all artists, are here to hold a mirror up to the world we live in. Yes, we’re here to entertain and amuse, but if you’ve got something to say, say it.

Gender, race and social politics will change, of that you can be sure. For some of us, that means the world will move on and leave our work behind. But what will it be left as? A reminder. A snapshot of that time and place and how the world was.

In many ways, in the decades to come, Friends will do a similar job to Jane Austin, Shakespeare and Homer. It will give those who didn’t live in an insight into that world. No, not complete. Not wholly accurate. But an insight none-the-less.

 

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And what of Friends? Should we not show it now or strap warnings to the front of each episode? Maybe miss some out if they’re too close to the bone?

No, I don’t think so.

Friends is a glimpse into a ten-year period when life was different. It’s often smart, frequently funny and heartwarming. At its core it’s also incredibly human, if sugary sweet. So, let the show be a reminder that, even though the jokes aren’t funny to us now, they were then and that’s okay. It just shows how far we’ve come in such a short time and how much better off we all are for it.

What are your memories of Friends? Were you a fan or did you miss it first time around? Any plan to revisit the land of Central Perk any time soon?