This is a triple review–a Mexican standoff, if you will–between Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and a Viking horde (backed up by nearly a dozen translators). I’ll give you one guess who wins.
In the first corner, we’ve got Hollywood heavyweight (he played Sherlock Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft, in recent films) Stephen Fry with Mythos, a modern retelling of Greek myth. In the second corner, we’ve got everyone’s sci-fi flavour of the decade, Neil Gaiman, with a modern retelling of Norse Mythology. And in the third corner (I’ve had a triangular ring specially built for this review), we’ve got 800-year-old Sagas of the Icelanders, translated into English by roughly a dozen modern scholars. Now that we’ve had our introductions, let’s get the action started and see who comes out on top!
Stephen Fry comes into the ring dancing like a butterfly and stinging like a bee–if the butterfly had a brain the size of a planet, that is, and the bee said “sorry” and made a slightly naughty joke every time it stung someone. Fry’s knowledge of Greek myth is, frankly, astounding and he fills Mythos with an enormous amount of detail. Some readers might find Fry’s delving into the minutae, such as the lineages of even minor figures, to be a step or two too far. I, however, found this aspect of the book quite interesting. Fry brings together huge numbers of titans, gods, demigods, nymphs, mortals and monsters and tells their stories with a clarity born of love. He loves these myths and he wants you to love them, too.
My problem with Mythos–and it is a big problem–lies in the lightly humourous, school-teacher tone adopted by Fry throughout. On QI (a BBC television programme for you non-Brits), that tone fit perfectly. In Mythos, however, it comes across as patronizing. Worse, it destroys most of the drama of the stories, reducing almost all of the characters to Punch and Judy caricatures. The gods and heroes are presented with little depth. They most often come across as one-dimensional, usually venal and self-serving, creatures with little of the complexity and pathos that is their due. Ancient Greece was, arguably, the birthplace of Western drama. You’d never know it from this book.
On to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Screw butterflies and bees, Gaiman has Thor on his side and he comes out swinging a magic, giant-killing hammer. Now that’s gotta pack a whollop, right? We’re set up for big characters and bigger stories right from the get-go and, in the hands of the man who wrote American Gods, what could possibly go wrong?
Almost everything, unfortunately. Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is like Fry’s Mythos on steroids, if steroids sucked every last scrap of drama from a story and turned characters into utterly forgettable cardboard cut-outs that went soggy when my dog peed on them. In Gaiman’s version, pretty much all of the Norse gods are bumbling, over-powered idiots who can’t think past what they want to eat, who they want to screw and who they get to kill (not have to kill–they enjoy killing too much to say that) in order to back to eating and screwing. If the book didn’t contain a couple of mild sex scenes, I would say it had been written as a collection of humourous children’s stories. Even then, I think most kids would tire of Thor and Odin, however fantastical their adventures might be.
And now, our final contender: The Sagas of the Icelanders, preface by Jane Smiley and translated from Icelandic by a cast of scholars. This tome (it is pretty hefty) has a few distinct disadvantages against Fry and Gaiman. First, it isn’t really mythology. It is, to some degree, a history of ordinary people living in Iceland from roughly the 9th through 11th centuries. There aren’t any gods battling giants here, nor are there any magic weapons. This is just average people living out their not-so-average lives. Second, the age of the sagas means they are written in a style very different from modern stories. This is most obvious in the lack of an internal voice for the characters, i.e. there is nothing that tells us how someone feels or what they are thinking. We are only told what characters do. As a result, characters in the sagas can seem distant or lacking in emotion, making it difficult for some readers to connect with the characters.
And yet, for me, the sagas pack far more punch than either of Fry’s or Gaiman’s attempted updates to mythology. The characters here are strong-willed, sometimes desparate, sometimes devious, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise, sometimes wanting nothing more than to live out their lives in peace, sometimes wanting more than their fair share and sometimes–scratch that–always bound by their fates. There are magical and fanciful tales here, for instance in the saga of Ref the Sly, but the best stories are epics–and they are epic!–about everyday folk. Gudrun Osvifsdottir is, if I may misuse a phrase, the mother of all matriarchs, a tragic heroine who is also the original mold for every scheming, soap-opera diva that has ever graced your television screen. Once Gudrun appeared on the page, Fry and Gaiman didn’t stand a chance. Pow! Splat! One-two-three-they’re out! Victory to the Vikings!
So, if you’re in the mood for something ancient, skip the modern “retellings” by Fry and Gaiman. Go for the real drama, go for the smell of salt in the air, the scent of burning in the wind, the sound of steel ringing on steel and the taste of blood on your lip. Ship with Erik the Red on his way to Vinland; watch Gudrun wreak bloody vengeance on her own husband; stand with Gisli Sursson as he meets his final fate. It will be a different read, but one well worth it.