The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman

The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman. Anthony S. Burdge, Jessica Burke, and Kristine Larsen, eds. 290 pp. $15. Crawfordsville, FL: Kitsune, 2012. $15.00 ISBN-13: 978-1482326802.

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Reviewed by Nicholas Birns

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 165–69.]

This book, the first collection of essays on the contemporary British writer Neil Gaiman’s multifarious body of work—comics, adult novels, children’s novels short stories—is an edited volume composed mainly of contributions from independent scholars, graduate students, and junior academics—in other words by people writing from multiple contexts and vantage-points. It is edited by three scholars well known for their work on Tolkien as well as their previous co-editing of The Mythological Foundations of Doctor Who.

Neil Gaiman now has enough of an oeuvre and sufficient recognition to gather a body of scholarship around him—as recently evidenced by the undergraduate senior project of my Lang College student, Jessica Bailey—and this collection comes just at the right time, when his work is known and appreciated but needs a thoughtful mediation to academia and the more general public. This book certainly provides that—every essay is well written, informative, and sheds new light on both Gaiman’s work and his sources.

The word ‘sources’ is perhaps particularly operative here, Gaiman’s highly intertextual approach means one can hardly read even a short story of his without thinking of what Leslie Drury terms its “allusions and re-envisioning of familiar myths” (109). Gaiman’s tremendous learning in multiple traditions, his ability to convey them sympathetically, and the lack of pretension with which he carries these off indicate that this writer’s greatest feats of creation are also ones of continuation. There is almost a medieval sense of the combination of imitatio and inventio here.

In his piece on Gaiman, Tolkien, and Beowulf, the always superb Jason Fisher gives a thorough overview of Tolkien’s’ debt to Beowulf (and Beowulf’s debt to Tolkien for daring to read the Old English poem as literature), and their myriad interlacings, to which I would add Tolkien shares the Beowulf-poet’s ability to combine economy and eloquence. In analyzing Gaiman’s Beowulf movie adaptation, Fisher defends the right of Gaiman and his collaborator Roger Avary (famous for having worked with Quentin Tarantino) to innovate upon the original by having Grendel be Hrothgar’s son and the dragon be Beowulf’s son. Fisher argues that these shockers are responses to gaps in the narrative, which Gaiman and Avary, albeit “clearly interpolating” (31) are legitimately trying to fill. Much like Tolkien defending the poem’s greater interests in monsters and the fear they represent, rather than the diplomatic relations of Geats, Swedes, and Danes which nineteenth-century scholars wished the poem was about, Gaiman’s adaptation enriches the text, speaking to central themes of embodiment, change and terror. But one could argue that Gaiman and Avary re-domesticates the plot, bringing the monsters within a Freudian family romance, eliminating what Tolkien prized about them—their uncanny otherness. If Freud could also be called, like Tolkien, a twentieth-century mythographer, he believed far less in the autonomy of the subcreated world. Perhaps this is another way of just saying Tolkien is the greater artist than Gaiman, which surely is no disrespect to the latter. But it cannot be denied that Gaiman’s fascination with Beowulf, also seen in his 2006 short story “The Monarch of the Glen,” is a significantly inventive one.

Fisher’s essay is one of two in the book of particular salience to Mythlore readers, the other being Chelsey Kendig‘s piece on Gaiman’s 2004 short story “The Problem of Susan.” This story addresses the unpleasant fate of Susan Pevensie in The Last Battle, the final book of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. By having Susan live in a trivial world of nylons and invitations (really not preoccupations that different from those of a Jane Austen heroine) while her siblings go to a sublime Narnia-in-the-sky, Lewis, in the view of both Gaiman and Kendig, exhibits a fear of female sexuality and adult women in general. There is also, argues Kendig, a sense of disproportion. Yes, it was totally sensible in light of Lewis’s moral and Christian vision to have the three faithful children go to Aslan’s transcendent abode. But what about the grim fact that Susan, left on earth, had to identify her siblings’ dead bodies at the age of eighteen, a trauma from which the road back to emotional stability would certainly be hard for her? Gaiman’s story ironically pictures the aged Susan as a famous professor of children’s literature, trapped in the aftermath of a tale her creator has spun.

The Problem of Susan” is a stylish performance, in which the aged Susan is somewhat reminiscent of Briony Tallis in Ian McEwen’s Atonement, except one feels here that Susan is the victim. As Kendig shows, though, Gaiman is not just out to demonize Lewis, a precursor whom he respects and by whom he is fascinated. It is somewhat like William Empson’s critique of Milton’s God for sadistically torturing his son on the Cross. One can respect both Milton and Empson, Lewis and Gaiman, while understanding that theological tenets are often difficulty to express in narrative in ways that will be convincing on both conceptual and human levels. Kendig sensitively explores how Gaiman both rejects Lewis yet also pays homage to him. She also makes the point that the greater liberalism of Gaiman’s generation with respect to moral issues in literature partially stems from the fact that, as members of the post-World War II Baby Boom, they had it easier socio-economically than Lewis’s generation did. On the other hand, this shows that it is to the Baby Boom generation’s credit to have had a larger, more sympathetic moral imagination.

Camillo Formigatti’s essay is trenchant in pointing out the fatuity of trying to define what“mythological dimensions” means (which this collection does not do other than impressionistically) and also pointing out how un-mythical, as it were, Gaiman’s treatment of myth tends to be. With respect to the gods, “we feel that they are not too different from us.” Humanizing the gods and yet keeping a small sense of difference—perhaps no more, as Formigatti suggests, than the sense we are stuck inside ourselves; the gods are just playing a role. Formigatti is not reverential about myth, and provides a needed counterpoint to the generally affirmative tone bout myth upheld by the rest of the collection.

Anthony Burdge’s witty and skillful juxtaposition of the late Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books and Gaiman’s oeuvre shows the two British writers shared not only a sense of irreverence but an inquisitive, cosmic curiosity. In the 1980s, I one day joked that there one might day be a book in the Twayne series of monographs on single authors on Douglas Adams. The Twayne series has lost its distinctness by going online, and yet Burdge’s deftly written essay shows that Adams can at once be the object of serious scholarship yet still retain his whimsy. Burdge shows that humor can be an important tool to genuinely explore the world. Although Gaiman is not as in-your-face a humorist as Adams was, both use humor more centrally than Tolkien and Lewis, even though the latter were of course not without humor. Along with the ease with which he appropriates old stories, the coexistence of humor and cognitive ambition is one of the most saliently postmodern aspects of Gaiman’s work.

Kristine Larsen, well known for her eloquent and wide-ranging astronomical explications of Tolkien’s work, undertakes a very broad survey of light in Gaiman’s oeuvre, shedding, as it were light on both its physical and psychological aspects. Larsen also insightfully compares Gaiman to Tolkien, as creators of secondary worlds, which may well be where the two writers dovetail the most. Larsen skillfully employs the imagery of light to show how fantasy can give as much insight into reality, manifest as much sheer cognition, as can any other mode of representation, possibly more.

Jessica Burke’s treatment of the witch explores the fear and vulnerability the patriarchies representation of the witch expresses. Witches are at once demonizations of women and expressions of a sense that men may need female protectors, who, from Neolithic days, were the ultimate sustainers of their tribe. Christianity’s pathologization of the witch was often an expression of anxieties about the actual incompleteness of what appeared to be a seamless Christian surface. Burke interestingly pinpoints the schism with the Orthodox Church in 1054 as an event which gave rise to a “prosecutorial” (145) atmosphere in medieval Western Europe. Burke, who has a vast knowledge of folklore, diligently analyzes Gaiman’s depiction of the Shahinai (banshees) in “Keepsakes and Treasures,” in this respect, but her work will be relevant to any scholar interested in the figure of the witch and the expression of gender motifs in myth and legend. Burke positively portrays Gaiman’s treatment of women and gender issues, not perhaps feminist in an ideological way, but one in such a way as to show how the witch is a stereotype and yet an “image close to women” (167). The book as a whole is dedicated to the late Alexei Kondratiev, the brilliant scholar of myth and the Celtic world, and one feels Kondratiev would have particularly relished Burke’s contribution.

Tony Keen, on the Triple Goddess (shades of Robert Graves!) and Samuel Brooker on the double/doppelgänger show the importance of number on both myth and Gaiman’s work. Number patterning in the latter is a way it resembles myth in formal as well as narrative terms, and has a mythic shape as well as portraying mythical characters. Melody Green, Colin Harvey, and Tanya Carinae Pell Jones all explore more extended concepts of form, showing how Gaiman is at once parodic and bardic, and features various slippages and contact zones, which Greene faithfully analyzes in light of Bakhtinian dialogism.

Harley Sims contributes a particularly interesting essay on Gaiman’s pan-pantheism, the way gods of different traditions coexist in American Gods. The combination of belief in another world with radical inclusiveness is very postmodern, but also deeply in the grain of Gaiman’s own perception of the world. This is the essay in the book most potentially hopeful to an undergraduate researching Gaiman’s work. Also useful here is Lynn Gelfand’s deft survey of how various bodies of myth and legend crop up in Gaiman’s fiction.

Neil Gaiman has shown one can be brilliant but also pliable, original but also ‘plastic’ in the sense of able to be stretched to fit established forms. We see this adaptability in Gaiman’s work on Babylon 5—where he is the one credited writer other than series creator Joe Straczynski—and on Doctor Who as well as in the graphic novel Marvel 1602, discussed by Harvey. Here, Gaiman redeploys stalwarts of the Marvel Universe such as Doctor Strange and Nick Fury in Elizabethan England. Marvel 1602 exhibits both Gaiman’s unbridled creativity and his deep respect for existing traditions, even pop-culture ones. This reinforces the belief of this outstanding collection: that entertainments become stories, stories become myths, and myths become meaningful. As Matthew Hills’s piece shows, Gaiman is in a way writing highly literate fan-fiction, feeling an intuitive yearning to further the stories that have fired his imagination.

Inevitably, as in any edited collection, there are some omissions. A study of Gaiman’s interest in non-European mythologies such as Hindu for African would have been a good addition, as would discrete treatments of Coraline and The Sandman comics. Also nice would have been an essay on Gaiman and America—where he now lives—and the representation of a distinct sort of ‘American exceptionalism’ in American Gods. But these are paths that will be someday explored and which will find this book vital in establishing them. Gaiman fans will derive from The Mythological Dimensions of Neil Gaiman a deeper immersion in their author’s imaginative sources and meanings. Just as importantly, academics that do not know Gaiman will gain a sense of the pertinence of his inventive and stylish explorations.


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