The word gospel occurs only once in Shakespeare—and that, as a participle, when Macbeth sneers at the hesitating murderers and asks, "Are you so gospel’d" that you would hesitate to strike down Banquo and his son?
The brilliant literary critic Paul Cantor suggests we pay careful attention whenever Shakespeare’s plays are located in borderlands: the Cyprus of Othello, set between Europe and Africa, for example, or the Elsinore of Hamlet, caught between the rough manners of rural Denmark and the Renaissance sophistication of the German universities. And so, Cantor points out, with Macbeth’s Scotland. To the northeast lie the Orkney Islands (and, beyond them, Scandinavia), where names like Thorfinn Raven-Feeder are found among praiseworthy rulers. And to the south lies England, where names like Edward the Confessor are given to reverent kings.
Or, to put the matter more exactly: The Norse gods of the Vikings press on one side of the play, while the Christian Trinity presses on the other. And the line between them doesn’t just run through the middle of Scotland. It runs through the middle of Macbeth himself, a half-gospel’d pagan, and his wife. The line between the blood-red dreamscape of the Norseman and the gospel runs through the play.
This is not the only way to interpret Macbeth, of course, but Cantor’s thesis proves fruitful. If nothing else, it reminds us that the 16th-century Shakespeare lived at a time when the eighth- to 10th-century sea-wolves, and the Christianizing of the Northern Europeans, were still living history. These days, we tend to forget what Shakespeare's audiences could remember—that, right or wrong as a matter of cosmic truth, Christianity was the historical solution to something brutal, violent, and murderous in the winter souls of the pagan invaders, from the Germanic tribes to the Rus. Christianity was the answer to the universal problem that in England manifested itself most clearly with the Norseman. The Church was both the theoretical and practical resolution to the challenge of the Vikings.
To his credit, Neil Gaiman refuses to ignore the blood dream in a book like his 2001 American Gods. In that novel, the fading pagan gods of various pantheons are drawn into battle by Mr. Wednesday, the book’s Odin figure, fighting against the jealous new gods of money, computerization, and the media. His 2008 children’s book, Odd and the Frost Giants, was appropriately gentler, but lurking beneath its story is a fairly clear-eyed knowledge that different gods mean human beings with different lives, different virtues, and different realities.
A television version of American Gods is scheduled to debut on April 30, and Gaiman, always a canny caretaker of his literary fame, has a book on the Scandinavian gods out just in time to pair with the movie’s publicity. Called Norse Mythology, the book draws mostly from the 13th-century Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic preservation of the dying myths in the Poetic Edda to tell again how the world was created from the bodies of slain giants. How Asgard was made, the fortress home of the gods. And how all of it, the Nine Worlds, will end with the death of the gods in the great last battle of Ragnarók. Along the way, Gaiman writes of the successes and failures, the wisdom and foolishness, of the gods as they build their realms and prepare for the final reckoning.
From the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths (1967) to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths (1993), children’s literature has not lacked stories of the old gods of the North, and Carolyne Larrington’s new The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes (2017) is only the most recent of the many good accounts for adult readers. It’s hard to know exactly where to place Gaiman’s Norse Mythology within that range, however. Though marketed for adults, the prose is so deliberately plain that a child would not have much difficulty reading it. At the same time, the characters in the stories speak like adults—and sometimes adults of our own era. If Gaiman’s goal was to force the gods back into our modern consciousness, he seems to have modernized the gods’ own consciousness along the way.
Again to his credit, Gaiman refuses to give the stories more unity, more cohesion, than they had in their source material. In the dreamlike state of the Norse berserker, the world was an incoherent set of immediacies. However rich in blood and magic, it was never brought under a single rational principle. The lives of the Norse were enchanted (in the sociological, Max Weber-ian sense of the word), and their experience was of one thing after another, each of them replete with portent and power.
And so, in Gaiman’s telling, Odin the Allfather watches through his one eye, stern and unknowable. Thor brings the thunder and acts without thinking, loyal but stupid. Loki is the Trickster, the quick-witted god of the perverse, the comic, and the rebellious—to the point that he will help bring about the end of the world in spite. Skadi is a huntress, alone and cold-hearted. Freyja rules both love and war. These are the gods of a people who could wait out the cold in their mead halls, brooding and boasting, and then with spring go a-viking, coursing the rough North Atlantic for gold and slaves and the fame of war. These are the gods of a people for whom red-handed and drenched in blood and feeder of ravens with battlefield corpses were epithets of glory.
The Norse always had a strong sense of justice: The old texts (from Beowulf to Snorri Sturluson’s second collection, the Icelandic Prose Edda) are filled with discussions of what the ancient law requires and what happens to those who break it. Mercy, however, proves a rarer commodity—and when malefactors are shown mercy, their forgiveness often turns out to be a mistake.
A literary genius who has devoted perhaps too much of his genius to showmanship and celebrity, Neil Gaiman is seeking in Norse Mythology a prose that can express all this with the simplicity of the people who first told the old stories to one another. "Odin gave the Gjallerhorn to Heimdall, watchman of the gods," he writes. "On the day the Gjallerhorn is blown, it will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep. Heimdall will blow the Gjallerhorn only once, at the end of all things, at Ragnarók."
To put the point another way, Gaiman is good enough to know that the old stories require an immediacy, even at their strangest. When Odin hangs on a tree and gives up an eye as the price of wisdom, the medieval recorders saw an analogue to Christ on the Cross—but they were wrong. Different gods produce different morals, and Gaiman knows it as he strips out the Christian interpolations that even someone as respectful as Snorri Sturluson could not help adding to the stories.
And so we find in Norse Mythology a return to simple, well-told accounts of the forging of Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir. We watch as he dresses as a woman to fool the giants, and as he himself is fooled in contests of eating and drinking. We see the enemies of the gods grow in power: the serpent of Midgard, and the great wolf Fenrir, and Hel, the vile queen of the dead. When the giants steal Idunn’s apples of immortality, all who dwell in Valhalla begin aging. Balder dies and might be resurrected. And waiting down the ages is the promised end of the world that all know is coming.
It’s a grim view of life and yet an enchanted one. A violent world and yet a beautiful one. A savage universe and yet a simple one. To read the stories again in their grand simplicity is both to be called by them and to remember why, as late as Shakespeare, we knew that the Bible was the alternative to the kind of red-handed people formed by belief in the old gods: the answer to the dream of blood.
Update: This piece has been updated to note that Starz's American Gods is a television show.