Neil Gaiman’s Mythmaking Makes No Sense

I would like to examine a section in Gaiman’s “Reflections on Myth” published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and republished in in his collected nonfiction The View from the Cheap Seats, which I have recently started to read. This is the chunk:

“Too often, myths are uninspected. We bring them out without looking at what they represent, nor what they mean. Urban Legends and the Weekly World News present us with myths in the simplest sense: a world in which events occur according to story logic — not as they do happen, but as they should happen.


But retelling myths is important. The act of inspecting them is important. It is not a matter of holding a myth up as a dead thing, desiccated and empty (“Now class, what have we learned from the Death of Baldur?”), nor is it a matter of creating New Age self help tomes (“The Gods Inside You! Releasing Your Inner Myth.”) Instead we have to understand that even lost and forgotten myths are compost, in which stories grow.


What is important is to tell the stories anew, and to retell the old stories. They are our stories, and they should be told.”


These sentences don’t present much to argue with on the surface. But through Gaiman’s actions/creations, we can see he undermines what he “preaches.” Gaiman goes beyond retelling myths, such as what he did with Norse Mythology, where he updated myths for the modern reader and arguably stayed close to source material (though I, like Ursula K. Le Guin, didn’t like how he went about it). I am speaking of American Gods and Sandman more specifically, where he assimilates myth into his own brand—taking it from a communal (read: cultural) form and turning it into a fandom-religion where he is the priest. My thesis, which I am still ironing out in this brainstorming exercise, is that he does not participate in mythology. He does not contribute to it or polish it as others, like Jo Walton in her Thessaly series, do, but breaks it apart and then takes the pieces he likes and melts them into something else entirely. He destroys the original, cultural beauty and theology of myth, as if there are no merits in seeing these stories as they are in their original time periods, contexts, and evolutions. He makes them anything but compost. He renders gods infertile. Allow me to explain.

In Sandman, Gaiman plucks the gods from the myths and sticks them in the comic universe just like he plucked Marvel characters and stuck them in the year 1602. Gaiman is quoted in the Afterword’s script letter to Andy of Marvel 1602 as saying he didn’t want to “mirror the Marvel Universe here: we’re doing something that’s more fun than that—we’re trying to create it. We get to make up our own.” He just wants the characters, never mind the original contexts that made these characters what they are in our consciousness. He steals their history, making the familiar unfamiliar without having to work for it. It’s the equivalent of going to a film simply because your favorite actor is in it and associating all the characters they played previously with the new film’s character, except Gaiman doesn’t even create a new character for the actor. He merely changes the setting and tells the viewer “this character is Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, the Mad Hatter all at once now tell me how clever I am for merely hiring Johnny Depp.”

And this is exactly what he does with myth. He ignores the very roots of mythology while reaping all the benefits of seeming the well-versed mythologist. Never mind the fact he refused to read Joseph Campbell, saying: “I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true—I don’t want to know…I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.” Gaiman actively avoids the mythology itself when he ignores the pattern. Mythology is the pattern.

In that same interview, Gaiman is quoted as saying, “But I tend to be more interested in the actual myth.” I am not so sure he understand what myth is to actually be “interested” in it. Gaiman, repeatedly, tends to ignore the “actual myth” and instead use the idea of myth to shove his story along. This is seen in the way he treats the creation of myth/gods/life:

In American Gods, gods do not create the universe (leading to what I call a “scientific explanation” of things that I will expound later), but humans create the gods out of their belief. The very families of gods don’t make sense anymore (if gods are born from human belief, how are their divine children born? How is Zeus born from Rhea? Thor from Odin? They must not be, if they are actually formed from the collective consciousness of people). Again, he renders gods infertile. This undermines what the said gods and believers even think about their hierarchies. Did Athena come from Zeus’s head or not? Is Zeus himself mistaken in believing he has any real children? Why would Odin call Thor his son in American Gods? 

And let’s not get into how Shadow is Odin’s son (i.e. is he divine or not? Is he a demigod or not? What is the “creation” hierarchy there?). Instead, let’s look at how Gaiman doesn’t even allow the gods he deems worthy of his story to evolve with the times. He calls them “Old” as if the gods are not timeless (the very concept of a god). Gaiman creates “New Gods” that encompass our new collective consciousness—what we pay attention to in this modern age. Never mind that, historically, “Old” gods always evolve to incorporate new forms of worship and interests: Kronos shifts from child-eater to castrated Father Time figure, Greek gods are merged with Latin gods and Egyptian gods, the Hebrew monotheistic god turns into the Polytheistic Trinity—there are many ways the old gods remain relevant, yet they do not die from non-belief. Humans do not have that power. A sacrifice to the gods does not give them physical strength. It only gives them proof of one more bent ear for their own agenda.

In American Gods, the New Gods seem to squeeze out the possibility of the Old Gods evolving easily. Instead, they are the ones who offer the Old Gods chances to “rebrand.” This is what fundamentally doesn’t make sense about Gaiman’s theology and ontology. If the Old gods could always just rebrand, how could New Gods ever get the chance to exist in the first place? Why weren’t the Old Gods snatching domains up right and left, as if the Old Gods didn’t know what was coming if they didn’t choose to rebrand? It seems more like they’d be chomping at the bit to associate themselves with anything and everything. After all, if they aren’t diversified enough they will die. Seems like that’d be priority number one. Heck, they might even think about overlapping and merging together to increase chances of survival! Talk about a omnipotent. 

We know that in American Gods the goddess Easter is feeding off the Christian holiday, so she, clearly,  was quick to rebrand and share. So was Vulcan, the new character created for the show, who is now the god of guns (which seems more like territory Ares would want, but I’ll let someone else rant…). These “Old” Gods seem to encompass a lot of modern ideas already—almost like they created  new things to attach themselves to, hmm?

It presents an uncomfortable paradox if The Creators are also created by their creations. After all, it’s the gods who taught us how to do things in the original myths—like Prometheus giving us fire, they bring modernity to mortals, right? Right. Side note: Another issue I have with the AG TV show is that 1) Vulcan would be a better personification of technology (BECAUSE: FEMALE ROBOT HELPERS) than Technical Boy, 2) arguably, Yggdrasil is the Internet itself and not Technical Boy and 3) don’t you dare tell me that Dionysus wouldn’t be the god of films and TV instead of Media (he loved theater). It seems more reasonable to believe the Old gods would never have a chance to die out, to me. If we believe in them, then we should also believe they evolve like they do IN THEIR ACTUAL MYTHS.

In myth, gods had sex with each other and made babies. Sometimes, accidentally. That’s normally how you would get “New Gods.” Yet, American Gods needed to create conflict and thus created the “New God” strawman so Gaiman could stitch together the short stories about individual gods he actually wanted to write. Though, if we were to give Gaiman some credit, we could argue his “New Gods” were to show that there is a “scientific” explanation for gods: if Gods are created from human consciousness (i.e. we create our own monsters, they are a shared delusion, reality isn’t real) then yeah, sure, they make a little more sense. And, I’m willing to acknowledge that’s possibly how some things are created—in a Jungian, archetypal sense. Sometimes humans do help create myth—the shape and scope of it. Humans propagate ideas and movements and icons. For example: Lady Liberty—Libertas—is the personification of freedom. She was, at one point, erected for a political agenda (multiple versions for multiple agendas, really). Sure, it’s obvious humans “created” her, but if we need a creation narrative about how Lady Liberty exists I want more than what American Gods offers: maybe humans just gave a previously unnamed goddess/personification already in existence a name; or, gave a goddess a second name and association. Is the Lady Liberty of the U.S. the same as Libertas? I wonder if Gaiman would label Lady Liberty as “Old” or “New” under his form of ontology? At what point is a New God just a old name translated into a different language? They seem the same being to me but with so many “versions” of gods it’s hard to know if new versions of Old Gods would be New Gods. The dichotomy breaks down and becomes ridiculous.

It is also my “belief” that sometimes a god might lie and say they are another god if it makes you believe them—or if the name expresses part of themselves they want you to see and understand. If we were “trapped” one day and a random goddess heard our prayers, why wouldn’t she call herself “Libertas” so we wouldn’t be afraid and thus know her purpose? Names give understanding. I, for one, have had many nicknames over the years, yet there is only one of me.

Sure, we help shape gods as much as they shape us. But saying that we created them does not make sense to me—not even “scientifically” (as American Gods, as argued, tries to do). It is much more believable, to me, to take a Perelandraian view of mythology in fiction. Where the gods are gods of space and time. Where the gods are found in science itself. Where they caused the big bang and populate other worlds like a colonial race of aliens. Whatever. Words may create worlds, but belief does not make gods. Even if I suspend disbelief for a fiction, this belief cannot logically create gods I accept. At most, I feel like humans have the power to summon with words—summon beings like demons—a demon who was already in existence. A demon who can tell me whatever name he’d like. But we cannot create. Maybe we can shape and influence, yes, but we do not command reality like Gaiman suggests we do—and command may be the wrong word here. We have power, but no control over it in his story.

But enough of me entertaining constructivist excuses that I’m not sure I’m executing correctly.

In episode 7 of American Gods, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeny,” it is implied that one person alone brings Mad Sweeny the leprechaun to America. If one single person can cause the existence of an imaginary being, then why aren’t more children’s night terrors running about (a happening I would say occurs more than their belief/understanding in God). There are too many holes to poke into Gaiman’s method of believing. Sure, there are plenty of holes you could poke in current theologies and beliefs (thus, atheism) but shouldn’t we—if we are to suspend disbelief anyways—account for what we believe gods are originally? If, for instance, we are to believe that leprechauns or X god exists in the U.S. because one person believed in them, yet that person didn’t know to believe in them unless she was told about them in the first place this becomes the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Which is not what myth typically is. Mythology is typically an answer to the “chicken or the egg” dilemma, not the dilemma itself. Gaiman shouldn’t use mythology to answer his Big Questions if he makes his own answer irrelevant.

I am starting to disagree that myths are “compost” as Gaiman states, for this overlooks myths as living, breathing plants woven into current narratives and practice. Gaiman does not weave into what already exists—American Gods is not another branch on the tree. Allow me to be dramatic: it is a stolen piece of nature. And when you chop off plant parts, yes, sometimes the seeds and stems can take new root. You can graft something new. But the old trunk you stole from is still sitting there. Or the plucked fruit shrivels up. Or, you get a bad seed.

Parts of American Gods can’t grow or take root. Instead of nurturing the plant-that-is-world-myth that is already firmly planted, Gaiman whacks away at it. Yet again, he renders the gods infertile. He does the very “desiccating” he claims to avoid. He wants to “create it” as if it is not already in existence and as if myth is not a communal, cultural act. As if picking flowers here and there to make his own floral bouquet (that will eventually wilt) will somehow give him a clearer understanding of what he has destroyed. And perhaps it does give a clearer view. It got me talking about mythology, for sure. But it is so much more satisfying when the author works within the constraints of what is already established—grows from the same tree rather than try to be an entirely new plant all together. Myths/stories are not compost. We are the compost. We are what they grow from. We are what the stories live in and sprout from.

Mythology is not like the fairy tale. Fairy tales are retold in countless renditions. They are the story archetypes whose characters (more so, story structure) can be pasted into other contexts. Mythical characters/stories cannot have this done to them so well because mythology is the context. The characters are myth/religion/reality itself—representations of forces of nature and culture. If you take such characters, you automatically change nature and culture (rather, you try and fail to, because let’s be honest, your story is weaker than the richness of our reality). It doesn’t translate.

Arguably, this myths-as-compost has been done long before Gaiman (read: Thor and Wonder Woman and countless other comic book characters), but never has mythology been so controlled by one man. Arguably, comics before him were still a communal art form. Now Gaiman slaps his name on them and creates his monomyth according to his own selection. In his Columbia essay he states American Gods “will be, for me, a way of trying to pin down myths—the modem myths and the old myths, together—on the huge and puzzling canvas that is the North American continent. …I have lived here for six years, and I still do not understand it: a strange collection of home-grown myths and beliefs, the ways that America explains itself to itself.” And this is part of the problem too—his trying to pin down the myths like dead insects to be studied. America, especially Native America, needs no outsider to explain their myths to them. America, yes, needs to look inward sometimes. But perhaps let us have a say in our own cultural mythmaking? But that would go, perhaps, against the Gaiman brand: neo-colonialism.

Thank you for letting me put these messy chunks of thought out there. They might be worth chipping away at later. Polishing.

This post was updated on 5/10/18 and 3/3/2019 and 6/4/19.

2 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman’s Mythmaking Makes No Sense

  1. Wow. Just. Wow. This is excellent analysis. You have hit on *exactly* why Neil Gaiman’s style kind of really bugs me.

    I’m writing a saga that draws directly from the Eddas and broader Germanic saga-literature (I call the thing a saga for a reason, and I often even give it a capital-s), while re-interpreting the cosmology to match up with the world of quantum physics and gravity. And I’m doing it not as if these are old “campfire tales” but as fragments of actual history – the gods are people from other dimensions, who happen to look like the Norse gods of the Eddas to my perspective characters for specifically colonial reasons. We’re all caught up in *their* drama, and their fate.

    Like Gaiman, I want people to re-tell the old stories. But I want them treated with the respect they deserve. These are fragments of our common heritage, a reflection of those ideas and qualities our ancestors felt it so necessary to pass on that they wove them into their sacred knowledge. The kind of re-telling these myths deserve is one that uses them to illuminate the deeper truths of humanity, and open new paths to solving global problems.

    I’ll have to submit the first book in the saga for you to review. I’m billing it as Tolkien goes cyberpunk – I know, another Tolkien wannabe here, but I have the research background and lifetime autistic special interest in Middle Earth to understand the true purpose of his Legendarium and carry his work forward, I’d wager.

    In an event, a long-winded comment on a post from two years ago, but I believe this ought to remain evergreen! Colonialism in western literature is a plague, a partner to the virus of imperialism and the narrative of white supremacy it sustains.

    • Your book sounds very interesting and like a more considerate version Marvel’s Thor–truer to the source material. I think I would like it and look forward to getting to your submission (I’m a little behind these days). I know in my guidelines I say that I’m currently burnt out on Epic Fantasy, but I am a fan of LOTR and especially science fiction. I appreciate the read and the comment!

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