Neil Gaiman’s new rendering of the Norse Myths came out last week. I looked forward to it and dreaded it. I love his writing, and I love Norse myths, but I was worried his new book would be so awesome it would blow any need for me to write out of the water. I am writing a Norse myth, you see. Why on earth should I do that when Neil Gaiman is already doing that?
Whew. He just translated them. He revisioned a few scenes, and I was especially grateful for the ones where the Edda are sparse. For instance, we know that Odin trades his eye for wisdom, that he hangs on the World Tree–a sacrifice of himself to himself–in order to learn the runes, that he visits Mimir’s severed head in the well where Odin preserves it, where it continues to give him counsel. But these are mentioned in passing in the Edda as things you should already know; they are not narrated.
So as I said, I was especially interested in and moved by Gaiman’s telling of the scenes that must have taken place but were never spelled out. Now these events have a shape, and it’s a faithful, respectful, even loving rendering. Mostly he is retelling, sometimes modernizing, definitely providing some connective tissue and providing an order that makes sense, but he’s not changing the narratives in any dramatic way. It is a text I could use in a lower division myth class. I like to assign direct translations of the primary texts for upper division English majors, so we can talk about manuscript transmission and scribal culture, which Gaiman doesn’t address, and his rendering muddies a bit, but I could use it for non-majors. Thanks, NG.
So that’s what he did do. What he did not do is recreate. He didn’t add content, update, fictionalize, develop shadowy characters, or change plot lines. Whew. So I can.
I am writing a book based on one of the stories Gaiman collects, but I am writing a new story. A character he expresses interest in as well as dismay at not having more information about, I am using for my villain. A character for whom he constructs a viable exit (having surely noticed she simply disappeared from the myths without a trace or a regret), I have made my hero. I am transforming the story of Thor’s visit to Jotunheim in to a hero quest for a girl, not Thor. And I do so now knowing more people will know the base story than would have before someone like Neil Gaiman threw his professional weight and his geek-cred behind it.
Meanwhile, I have work to do. I have a new plot from old roots, a new character from old stock, and a world that may well take less “building” now. My job is to fill gaps and expand ideas, to translate a story, not just a text. When Thor and Loki visit Jotunheim, Thor acquires two children on the way, as compensation for breaking the thigh bone of his goat. In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, the boy continues on the journey, but the girl is never mentioned again. I’m writing her story. It’s exciting and terrifying, and I’m loving every minute.