Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” – a personal response

I recently read British horror-fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s epic (600+ pages) novel, American Gods. A thoroughly good read. Gaiman knows how to tell a story all right. This was my third Gaiman novel,  and I read it immediately after finishing the first two (Coraline and Marvel 1602: 10th Anniversary Edition).

This one was a little violent for my taste. It has been made into a TV series (which I haven’t seen except for the trailers on YouTube), with (predictably) all the latest technology used to portray blood, gore, violence and horror, in close-up and slow motion. (Is this really the best human beings can do with all their intelligence and creativity, come up with more ways to horrify, with  in-yer-face violence? Personally, I have a vivid imagination, and I really don’t need to have cinematic, full-colour renditions of what is described on the page. And even some of the written descriptions were too much for my squeamish stomach, like the embalming scenes, and I closed my eyes and flipped ahead. But that’s just me, and judging by the sales numbers, many disagree.)

Here’s the trailer for the dramatization.

The basic story is about a war between the old gods and the new in America, the new gods being Media, hi-tech, TV, video games, etc, and the old gods being ones from the various “old countries” – they came over with the immigrants, you see – mainly Norse gods like Odin, Loki, etc. Gaiman has obviously had fun with renaming these gods so that their identities are not immediately obvious: Odin, for instance, introduces himself, when asked his name, by asking, “What day is it today?” “Wednesday.” “Well, then, you can call me Wednesday,” which is of course Woden’s (Odin’s) day.

Short version:

The story was well paced and kept me reading to the end; the dialogue was good and sometimes very good and funny; there was one small scene of mercy that seemed to me to totally un-pagan and much more Christian. Details below. The story also reminded me of earlier writers who became infatuated with Norse myths, such as CS Lewis.

Long version:

The Norse and Germanic gods predominate, but there are others, like Mr. Nancy or Anansi, an African god, and figures from the Egyptian pantheon. Although the Hindu pantheon is probably the most numerous, only one of them (Kali – the goddess of destruction, naturally) makes her appearance in this book.

Gaiman has a talent for dialogue, and some of the highlights of the book for me were the snappy dialogues which really brought characters to life. Particularly memorable were “Sam” Black Crow, a young lady of Native American extraction, and Hinzelmann whose kindness and generosity comes as a welcome respite after the fear and suspicion and violence which precedes.

One of the premises of the book is that gods exist because people believe in them, and that they die off when people stop believing in them. If you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods: A Novel of Discworld, you might notice a similarity here.

There was one incident that bothered me. Early on in the story, the main character Shadow meets Czernobog and makes an impulsive bet with him: if Shadow wins the game of chess they are playing, Czernobog must agree to join Odin’s team in the war, but if he loses, Czernobog gets to kill Shadow with his ox-felling hammer. Well, Shadow loses, but Czernobog agrees to fight anyway. At the end of the story, Shadow returns to Czernobog to keep his side of the bargain.

Spoiler alert! Avert your eyes if you haven’t read the story yet!

When Shadow shows up, Czernobog refuses to kill him, instead muttering something about gratitude. Now, what bothered me is that this act is not one of gratitude but of mercy, and mercy is one virtue that is absolutely not shown by anyone in the entire 600+ pages, except in this single instance. It is completely out of character not only for Czernobog but for all the gods and many of the humans in “American Gods.” It gets worse. Mercy is a Christian virtue. It is one of the many virtues that Christ brought and demonstrated and taught, superseding the Old Testament justice. So, not only is this act of Czernobog’s uncharacteristic of the gods, but it makes the reader think of the religion that supplanted and replaced them, with mercy and forgiveness and “turn-the-other-cheek” meekness instead of justice, vengeance and an endless cycle of violence.

This should usher in a whole new age, where all the gods either crawl away to die quietly in the wildnerness, or turn over a completely new leaf and become baptized or something. Yet Gaiman made nothing of it. Czernobog puts his hammer away, Shadow gets up off his knees and … everything goes back to normal! Stone the (Sam black) crows! You could have knocked me down with feather mallet! I mean, really, wt…?

Almost immediately upon finishing this, I had to read another Gaiman story: I chose The Ocean at the End of the Lane“. Brilliant.

Gaiman obviously knows his Norse mythology. In fact, he’s written his own version of many of the myths – Norse Mythology which I’ve ordered but haven’t yet read. It seems Gaiman went through (or is still going through) his “northern” phase, just as the writer whom he credits with inspiring him to write, C.S. Lewis, did. Lewis, like many of his generation, became infatuated not just with Norse myths, but with a fuzzy sensation or concept he called “northern”, and which was inspired by reading a few lines of translated poetry. He wrote about this “coup de foudre” in the autobiography of his early years, Surprised by Joy:

 I had become fond of Longfellow’s “Saga of King Olaf”: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its
story and vigorous rhythms. But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice
from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and
found the unrhymed translation of “Tegner’s Drapa”, and read:

I heard a voice that cried
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead,

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky; I
desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold,
spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then…found myself at the very same moment already falling
out of that desire and wishing I were back in it. (From a review.)

I had a similar sensation on reading The Lord of the Rings.

He continued:

At the time, Asgard and the Valkyries seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else in my experience—than the Matron Miss C., or the dancing mistress, or my chances of a scholarship. More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity. This may have been—in part, no doubt was—penal blindness; yet that might not be the whole story. If the Northernness seemed then a bigger thing than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not. It was not itself a new religion, for it contained no trace of belief and imposed no duties. Yet unless I am greatly mistaken there was in it something very like adoration, some kind of quite disinterested self-abandonment to an object which securely claimed this by simply being the object it was. We are taught in the Prayer Book to “give thanks to God for His great glory,” as if we owed Him more thanks for being what He necessarily is than for any particular benefit He confers upon us; and so indeed we do and to know God is to know this. But I had been far from any such experience; I came far nearer to feeling this about the Norse gods whom I disbelieved in than I had ever done about the true God while I believed. Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.

I suspect Gaiman had a similar experience in his formative years.

As I was writing the above, before checking my facts, I was under the impression that Lewis had been inspired by anthropologist Frazer’s (in)famous book The Golden Bough, but that’s another, different line of thought and influence. That leads down another road, towards Robert Graves and another highly influential book, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Another book I haven’t read yet. It’s on my list. It’s even on my Kindle (the freebie version off Gutenberg, of course), but I’m still fresh from reading Goodbye to All That, which I may write about later.

Anyhoo, to wrap this up and tie Lewis to Gaiman where I started, you see, Balder is Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods.

And finally finally, it seems I was wrong to say that mercy (or forgiveness) is a Christian, post-pagan thing. There’s an interesting discussion about this on the American Gods wiki:

Baldr is not god of love nor peace nor forgiveness and neither of justice. You guys should study before confusing one god with a plethora of other gods. Not to mention forgiveness is a Christian thing. There is no Pagan god whatsoever that embodies that concept, let alone specifically a Norse god.   by NikTheStreak )

Actually the concept of forgiveness does existed [sic] in paganism because Christianity take most of their works from paganism. In Roman mythology, there is Clementia the goddess of forgiveness who is the Roman counterpart of Eleos, the personification of pity, mercy, clemency, and compassion. Christianity doesn’t created [sic] forgiveness because humans already know how to forgive before Jesus Christ come to existed [sic].  by Hotboy666

More discussion here.


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