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Guide to the classics: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

Yggdrasil, the tree that supports the world in Norse myth, can be found in America in Neil Gaiman’s mash-up of world religion. Starz

Guide to the classics: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

Fans of Neil Gaiman are having a bountiful year. In February there was the release of his retelling of the Norse myths. In March, Dark Horse released the comic book adaptation of his influential 2001 novel American Gods. And this month, American Gods comes to the small screen, released through Starz.

If you like your literary gods multiple and varied, from cultures galore, in a controlled riot of power, fear, wit, and wisdom, then American Gods is for you.

Its premise is one of the book’s many appeals: the United States contains all sorts of ancient gods from abroad, surviving in the myths and stories and imaginations of the immigrants who brought them there. It’s a novel that investigates the American condition through its beliefs, and its contradictions, and offers the idea that gods walk among us (if we only know where to look for them).

‘All the tradition we can get’

In American Gods, a man named Shadow is released from prison when his wife dies in a car accident. As he travels home, he falls in with Mr Wednesday, a mysterious grifter, who offers him a job as a bodyguard. When he accepts the offer, they seal the deal by drinking mead, the honey-wine that is the drink of Norse gods and warriors. “We need all the tradition we can get,” says Wednesday, referring to the seriousness of their deal, but also to the key concept of the novel.

It emerges that Wednesday is really the Norse god, Odin, drawn to the US by Viking voyagers. “Tradition,” in the form of old gods like Odin, is under threat, he tells Shadow. People don’t believe in old gods any more; they’re too busy worshipping new gods, or concepts, like cities and towns, roads and rails, high finance, media, and digital technology. As an “old” god, Wednesday is preparing to do battle with the new ones. A god who is not believed in suffers a particularly final form of death.

With Shadow in tow, Wednesday traverses the US, calling the old gods to action, convincing them to gather and fight enemies like Mr Town and Media.

They call on Czernobog, the Bulgarian god of darkness, who lives in Chicago with the Zorya star sisters of Morning, Evening and Night. And Easter, the German goddess of fertility and rebirth, in whose footsteps flowers bloom, who is living in San Francisco. Mr Jacquel, the Egyptian god Anubis, runs a funeral parlour with his partner Ibis (the god Thoth), in Cairo, Illinois. Mr Nancy, Anansi the African spider-trickster god, and Mad Sweeney, an original Irish leprechaun, appear from time to time, as do many others.

Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in the 2017 adaption of American Gods. Starz

From Haitian Voodoo figures to Hungarian Kobbolds this America is inhabited by a panoply of old gods. It’s symbolic of the elaborate tapestry of heritage that makes up a nation that prides itself on its newness, but is uneasily aware of its traditions. As Shadow crosses America, he reflects on these ironies, as well as the local quirks he observes, slotting them into an increasing sense of the nation’s variety and commonalities.

Interspersed throughout American Gods are extracts from a history, ostensibly written by Mr Ibis (the Old Egyptian God, Thoth). These extracts tell how other gods and mythical beings make their way to the US, in the beliefs and stories of different culture. There’s Essie Tregowan, a Cornish con-artist who is transported to America, and who brings with her the piskies of her youth, or Salim, a taxi-driver from Oman who becomes a jinn. Postmodern novels often use approaches like this to broaden the range of reference; these inset stories provide a neat way of exploring different gods and myths as they connect to Gaiman’s America.

While American Gods is a serious reflection on the nature of American culture, its most appealing aspect is the concept that the gods live among Americans, hiding in plain sight.

This is the key to American Gods’ continued popularity, I think: it offers the fantasy, the hope, (or the fear) that our reality is merely one plane of existence, that just out of sight, or in plain sight if we choose to look, is something bigger, something mythical, something more powerful.

Shadow Moon crosses America, gathering its tapestry of heritage. Starz

And if you know how to find them, you have the opportunity to collect them, as Wednesday and Shadow do, to gather them together for a final battle, much as one might in an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons, or a supernatural round of Pokemon Go.

I do believe in fairies

Gaiman is not alone in exploring the power of belief and fantasy to keep the gods alive. It’s a theme that never quite goes away: witness JM Barrie’s comment in Peter and Wendy (1908):

Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.

In Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979), eroding belief in fiction is killing an imaginary kingdom called Fantasia, until an ideal child reader can bring it back to life. In contrast are Terry Pratchett’s piling of myth upon myth in the hugely popular Discworld series, or Rick Riordan’s recasting of the Perseus myth in the Percy Jackson series. All play in different ways with ideas about mythology, the role of belief, and the endurance of ancient ideas about power and creation.

In American Gods, Gaiman contrasts belief in the old gods with the flattening, meaningless forms of new media and digital technologies. But a lot has changed since June 2001 – not least the continuing evolution of the internet – which has turned into the ideal tool for reinvigorating and investigating them.

A new god, Technical Boy, played by Bruce Langley. Starz

From online gaming communities, to exhaustive wikis, to the project I’m currently involved in, Our Mythical Childhood, which gathers and analyses the retellings of classical myth and culture in children’s texts around the world, people interested in mythlore are finding ways to think about myth using technology.

We like observing the gods, exploring their powers, telling their stories in different ways, collecting them, arranging them, playing with them. We seem to like all the tradition we can get, even on the most cutting edge of technological advancement.

‘Right angles to reality’

American Gods is a response to the perceived flat soullessness of a tech-heavy, media-heavy, corporatised, citified, sophisticated world. Divorced from the old gods, which symbolise the meaningful association with life and the land, Wednesday wonders what hope is there for society.

And yet, it emerges that Mr Wednesday is as much of a soulless con-artist as any of the new gods he despises, manipulating the battle for his own power. It takes an act of real, primal sacrifice on Shadow’s part to let him to see through the con, and understand that, when it comes down to it, as a human, all you have is yourself:

You know, I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.

Though the advertisements for the upcoming television series exhort viewers to “Believe,” the response might well be: “Believe in what?”

In the novel, it is the land that eclipses gods and men, as Whiskey Jack, the Native American trickster spirit, tells Shadow after the battle is over:

Listen, gods die when they are forgotten. People too. But the land’s still here. The good places, and the bad. The land isn’t going anywhere.

Believe in the land, then. Gaiman’s novel finds its power in the land, in the people’s relation to the land, in the quirky, carnivalesque, homespun totems and places of power he nominates as places to overlay his web of mythicalism. This is the ultimate appeal of American Gods: the idea that all you have to do is find the places of power.

In this novel they are out-of-the-way carnivalesque sites carved into rock-faces, such as Tennessee’s Rock City and Illinois’ House on the Rock (both real-life American tourist attractions).

Gaiman turns the surreal – and highly popular – House on the Rock attraction into an all-American place of power. House on the Rock

To access the mythical plane, go to places like these, and turn at “right angles to reality” (easier said than done, but at least Gaiman gives us the clue). That’s the ultimate point of novels like this, which invest reality with mythology, magic or fantasy: the promise of finding out the true story lying beneath the surface, the secret to the universe.

This book, beyond collecting, analysing, and arranging American gods, is an examination of power – what is real power, and what is not. “Mythologies,” Gaiman said, round about the time he must have been mulling over American Gods, “have always fascinated me. Why we have them. Why we need them. Whether they need us.”

It will be interesting to see what the TV adaptation does with American Gods, whether it takes on this questioning. But the questioning may also have changed. The novel was published in June 2001, and the Western world turned sharply at right angles to itself not long after.

One new element of the adaptation, preview writers have noticed already, is the addition of Vulcan, the Roman God of metallurgy and weaponry. It’s a highly appropriate comment on an America now more than ever in the grip of gun-ownership, and intriguingly it adds a figure from the classical Roman pantheon, missing from the original. Adaptations always move the conversation on a little. Perhaps the gods, too, move with the times.