On Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman. What can I say about Neil? Well, a lot, so hold onto your butts because I’ll likely be zigzagging across topics as I talk about how Neil has influenced my life. First, let’s give a brief description of the man himself, or neilhimself as his Twitter handle is aptly named. Neil Gaiman was a largely successful writer by the time I discovered who he was. He began as a journalist. Then he worked in comics and then in fiction and then television and film and pretty much any creative field you could imagine that involves putting words on paper at any stage. This is a slight exaggeration of course and his career did not simply go in that order or that easily. To put it simply, Neil has never been limited by one genre, subject, or medium. His stories vary greatly from kids books to mythology to religious satire to nonfiction. He has been immensely successful and rightfully so. He can be considered a celebrity author. Someone whose name is larger than their works. Someone whose careers have exploded and grown to a size where a large portion of the human population would recognize them or at least one of their works.

I discovered Neil’s work long before I discovered who he was. I was a fan before I knew where to direct my appreciation. I honestly can’t remember when or where I first discovered who Neil was as a person, but I think the first work of his that I ever came across was the movie adaptation of his book Stardust. I did not see the movie in theaters. I think my family had rented it (which is somewhat an already dated subject since everything is streamed nowadays, but to my credit it was a dvd we rented and not a vhs at least). Anyway, I absolutely enjoyed the film for various reasons. It has a great cast, possibly my favorite role by Robert De Niro, and it is infinitely creative and quirky and just downright fun. I never knew the movie was based on a book.

The first book I read by Neil was, if I remember correctly, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It came in out in 2013 but I think I picked it up around 2015. I picked this book up because I was looking for a shorter book to read it seemed interesting. It was at this time that I first discovered Neil as the person behind the books, and also when I realized that he wrote Stardust. I enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane and was definitely ready to read more of Neil’s work but I did not dive in, as I have done with other authors I like. There was something different about this author. I strange draw that pulled me in but didn’t make me want to dive down the rabbit hole.

I once talked about Neil on this blog about two years ago when I was first getting started and trying to figure out exactly what this blog would become. I’m really happy with how it has turned out with the book recommendations and my own stories that I share and now this section where I discuss those who influence me. Even back then, after I had read his recently published Norse Mythology book, I couldn’t help but maintain that feeling of reserved admiration. I began becoming more interested in the man instead of his works. In my defense, if such a thing is needed, Neil is an extremely interesting person and an absolute joy to listen to. And this is where I veer off on a few tangential stories. Please indulge me.

The first is the most recent. I only just began my journey into audiobooks. I don’t know why I hesitated but I just enjoy having a physical book in my hands and reading the words. The first audiobook I ever tried, which convinced me I could enjoy this medium, was Neil’s The View from the Cheap Seats. Again, it greatly helped that it was read by Neil and he has a lovely British accent that you can just listen to all day. The View from the Cheap Seats is a collection of nonfiction that covers many different topics. Ironically enough, I had bought a physical copy of this book when it was first published in 2016. I remember the day specifically. Early in the week it was to be released, I had seen on Twitter that Neil posted a list of independent bookstores in America that would have signed copies of this book. I checked the list and found that only one store in my state would have such copies. To my very exciting surprise, that particular bookstore was just down the road from the university where I worked. So, when the day came for the book to go on sale, I took an early lunch and went down to hopefully pick up a copy. I remember finding out they were only to receive ten signed copies and I was lucky enough to get one. Ironically again, I did not read the book in its entirety until I listened to the audio version. Life can be funny sometimes.

I’ve heard the story of how Neil met Diana Wynne Jones a few times. I think once was in the audio book and another may have been in an interview I watched online. It was such a chance meeting and one that grew into a great friendship and I often imagine myself becoming friends with Neil, and other authors, in a similar way. He is at a hotel bar sitting alone probably working on something and I find the courage to introduce myself and tell him I enjoy his books and we become great writing friends. A fledgling writer can dream of such influential encounters. Though this may never happen (nothing is impossible), I did get a chance to go see him in person. I never got to speak to him directly or even get within 100 feet, but I was able to sit in the same room as the man and listen to him talk about a great many things and read a few things from his published works.

There is a story about this encounter too because it was not easy getting into that room to see him. The event was first publicly announced perhaps six months to a year before it was to happen. I discovered it on Twitter (a really handy platform). It was to take place at Kansas University. I kept checking every few months to see if tickets were available and wasn’t entirely sure it was going to take place because it wasn’t officially posted on the site. Eventually it was and they announced the event was going to be free. Even better, right? It was free and anyone could pick up free tickets, limit of two per person, if they picked them up from the Lied Center of Kansas. The problem was, though this was the closest he was to come to my home town, at least to my knowledge, it was still nearly 4 hours away. Tickets were to be released on a weekday. I thought of taking off work to drive up there and grabbing a few tickets then driving all the way back to make it to work for the next day. Eight hours of driving for a few tickets. I almost did it. But first I talked to every one of my friends who lived in Kansas City, which was about 45 minutes to an hour away from the center. None of them could get the tickets due to work obligations and that they couldn’t make it up there in time even after they got off work because the center would be closed or the tickets would be gone. I think the tickets did “sell out” that morning. Well, to my luck again, I also have family who live in that area and my aunt knew some people who lived near the center. Her friends were able to snag a few tickets for myself and even a few extra so I could bring some friends. So I had the tickets. But of course the event itself was an evening event. On a weekday.

An Evening with Neil Gaiman to call it exactly as it was publicized. I took a half day off work, hopped on the highway with my mom accompanying me and letting me get some sleep for the long day ahead, picked up my father-in-law halfway there, stopped at my aunts to pick up the tickets and drop my mom off to hang out with her brothers, then drove the rest of the way to the center where I would meet my other friends before going in (they ended up arriving a bit late but I got them their tickets and all was well). Anyway, the event starts at 7pm, or 7:30pm, I can’t remember exactly, and we sit and listen and have fun until around 9pm or 9:30pm. Again I can’t remember because it was some time ago. Afterwards, I had intended on hitting the road to get back home so I could work the next day. I found my friends after the event and we hung out and caught up since we hadn’t seen each other in awhile. While we chatted, the line to buy books dwindled and we hopped in line to make a few purchases. I hadn’t planned on buying anything since I had brought a large bag of his books I already owned in the small chance he would have done any signing. But there were pre-signed copies for sale. I really hoped to snag his new book Art Matters, illustrated by Chris Riddell, which was set to release the very next day. This was November 2018. A signed copy would have been great, but I had pre-ordered the book so I was already getting a copy. When we arrived at the register, only a few copies remained and I picked up signed copies of a few books I already owned. These were Norse Mythology (I did like the paperback version anyway, my first copy was hardback) and American Gods in paperback which I also had originally in hardback. This copy had the television cover on it though. My friends and I paid for our books and my ever patient father-in-law was hanging about having discussions with strangers and waiting on me. I said goodbye to my friends and set out on the ride home. First to pick up my mom, then to drop off my father-in-law, then finish the drive that ended with me getting into bed close to 4am and having to be at work the next day at 8am. Needless to say, I was very tired that next day, but it was worth the experience to see someone you admire.

I bought my father-in-law a copy of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I had not read the book yet at the time but knew the premise. He had bought me The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, which I had recently read and therefore thought he would enjoy Good Omens. I was right. I went on to read the book as well not long afterwards. The weekend the television adaptation of that book came out, he was in town visiting and we binge-watched all six episodes and loved it. I might even like the adaptation better than the original book, but they are each great and compliment each other in ways that make the experience of each version collectively greater.

When it was announced that Neil was doing a Masterclass, a program I had never heard of previously, I of course found out about it (probably from Twitter) and my amazing wife bought me an all-access pass for my birthday. I of course took his course first and liked it and I have started taking other writing courses on the platform and am learning great things and discovering other authors and areas to learn more. I’ve learned about and discovered many different authors and books from Neil. Many simply from him talking about them. Many books I have gone on to read while several remain in my to-read pile.

Neil Gaiman has been a large influence in my creative life. Especially for only being a part of it for a handful of years. I imagine he will remain an influence throughout my life. I have yet to get through his collective works. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. Regardless, I am extremely grateful to him. He is a phenomenally nice, genuine person. Though I have never known him personally (I still hold onto the hopes of meeting him one day), I know enough about him from stories by other people, and through interviews and his Masterclass and stories of his interactions with fans, to know that I would probably admire him even more for having met him. It is strange to be influenced more by the man than by his works, especially in this field and when not knowing him personally, but nonetheless this is the case with this particular author. I have deep respect for him and always wish him well. I hope you can discover him and come to enjoy him in your own way if you have not done so already.

The Once and Future King

Today I am recommending The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This book is actually a collection of four books. The first being The Sword in the Stone which was turned into and animated film by Walt Disney in 1963. This first book was originally published in 1938 (Beyond the first book, I’d say this novel is not particularly for kids as war and fighting and sex and death are, for the most part, shielded from the eyes of children). The collection of all four into The Once and Future King was published in 1958.

This recommendation does come with a few reservations. I enjoyed the lengthy novel (roughly 650 pages and nearing 300,000 words) which is centered around the Arthurian tales, but I’m afraid I may have come to it with a slight case of expectations. I know, I know, it is best to remove all expectations prior to experiencing a story so as to allow yourself to form your own opinion of it. I was planning on doing just that but seemed to have caught the little bug, which flew to me upon the words of Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman as well as others who provided blurbs or introductions to this book. People whose opinions hold weight with me.

I understand their love for the book. The wit-filled pages that recount Arthur’s education and inauguration as king to his formation of the round table and the era of chivalry and through the years beyond where if falls into ruin. The story is interesting and entertaining. Some areas drag while others are captivating. It stays true to what is known about the legends (which most of us know of but may have never really read about) and White often refers to Mallory or other sources of the Arthurian legend. I felt that White relied on the reader having previous knowledge of the legend during certain passages.

The more I think about the story the more I like it, but I was not enthralled while actively reading it. White was funny and whimsical while also covering the darker story-lines and allowing tragedy. There are no detailed descriptions of fights or battles or hardships. Many are written without providing action but do provide some detail about the aftermath. The result is no blood and gore (which is perfectly acceptable and not really essential to the story) but plenty of description about scenery and the lands of England. The story of Arthur and his knights has captivated the world for centuries. I believe his story and legend will survive for a long time and White’s telling of it will continue to entertain. After all, it is written for modern audiences and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The greatest thing about this book is its arching storyline of how England, through Arthur, was shifted from the “Might is Right” society to a more civilized land of laws. The tragedy of Arthur is in his good deeds. He transforms England into a peaceful land by channeling baser human instincts into a morally superior lifestyle. The new lifestyle is what ultimately causes the personal turmoil of the aged Arthur because he ties his own hands against saving the ones he loves.

If you are interested in, or already love, the Arthurian tales, then this book will likely be of great interest to you. If you know a little but would like to know more about these tales, then this book is a great place to start.

Happy Reading.

Phantom Queen

Three young women stood watching the sea. Footsteps too far to hear alerted them of a man approaching. Their wait was at an end. They all turned in unison and walked toward the small cottage they would call home for today. Two of the women turned toward the third and merged with her, disappearing like ghosts into the earth. The lone woman kept walking toward the cottage. Each step she took aged her until she was grey and slow. Hours passed before the young man came into view.

“Hello Madame,” he called as he approached, his leather armor defining his muscles more than hiding them. A long spear lay strapped across his back. The smile on his face dispelled any intimidation his figure would have normally held.

She stopped milking her cow and turned toward him in crafted surprise. This was the first time he had recognized her after many attempts to capture his attention. “Oh, hello young man. You must be weary to have come all this way. Please, have some bainne. There is too much for just me.”

He approached and graciously accepted the offer. He drank three full glasses of the fresh milk.

“Thank you for your kindness. This will help my strength in future battles.”

“You shall be the strongest warrior,” she said knowing the truth of her words.

“Alas, I cannot stay to enjoy a proper exchanging of words. Please accept my deepest apologies.” He bowed to her.

“No need for such formalities. Young men are naturally making use of their constant vigor, as they should before age strips it of them.”

The young warrior continued his path and the old woman watched him go until he was lost to the horizon. Then her body burst into a murder of crows scattering across the sky.

Every Season

The leaves and grass were a vibrant, fresh Spring green despite it being the day of Winter Solstice. Outside the grove, the fields were covered in snow and the trees already long retreated into hibernation. The air inside was warm also. Gaelin wore simple clothes as he had little else. No coin in his pocket or food in his stomach. The cold gently left him, but his feet remained numb as he forced his legs forward. Each step an uncertainty. He did not feel the grass against his bare feet.

Before him was the alter. He had wondered for weeks, unsure of what he sought, until he saw the grey stones and the large willow tree. There were rumors of this place. Folktales told in taverns and inns and even then mainly by master storytellers or drunks seeking attention. But sometimes, rarely, a story is told by a frightened child. These stories add to the tales and are also dismissed as such. Gaelin knew otherwise. Whenever such a story was told, there was often something new. He experienced such a rarity the day before he began his search. It was during the description of the creature when Gaelin noticed the truth hidden in the large, fearful eyes of the child. The young boy had seen something inexplicable, and no one paid it any mind.

Gaelin had taken the child aside and calmed him. The child welcomed his interest and comfort despite the fact he was a stranger. More than anything, he was glad to be taken seriously instead of laughed at as the rest of the town had. The child gave him a detailed description. Legs like that of a horse, bare torso of a man, face also of a man except for wolf’s teeth and antlers like a stag. And the eyes. It had the eyes of a demon. They changed constantly from blue to green to yellow then red. Pulsing, flickering like fire. The creature spoke in a language the child hadn’t understood. Gaelin comforted the child with hot cider and left him by the hearth. That was the last time he remembered being warm.

The numbness was fading gradually. Some feeling returned to his calves as he climbed the stone stair toward the willow tree. If it had been Spring, the grove would have been lost within the forest. Against the dead of Winter, it was a beacon at the end of a maze. He ascended onto the large stone before the willow. The air was charged but nothing stirred. No animal, no noise, nothing but his own quiet breath until he muttered, “God of the green, Lord of the forest, I offer you my sacrifice, and I ask you for your blessing.”

Silence. He breathed quietly and waited. The air began to move and a breeze softly brushed against him. The willow leaves like vines reached out and curled around his limbs and torso. They were warm also. He was lifted from the stone and pulled in slowly. He fought a fear that threatened to overwhelm him. Then he was lost in the darkness of the tree. He could hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing. The grove was silent and still once again.

Three days passed without a sound until the willow opened its veil. Its vines floated down to the grey stone and retreated just as slowly. Gaelin stood. A loud clack echoed through the winter air. He opened his eyes and saw the grove in every season. His eyes flickering from red to blue to green then yellow. His smile revealed wolf’s teeth.

How Odin lost his eye

Mythology has always fascinated me. The Norse pantheon especially so. One thing that draws my interest is that the gods are immortal but know that they will eventually die during Ragnarok (a contradiction I know). These mortal immortals behave much like humans and are not immune to emotions, but they of course perform impossible feats and live in a world that contains what we would call magic. The story I am sharing with you this week (it’s Flash Friday) is the story of Odin and how he loses his eye, and what he gains in return.

If you have not yet dipped your toes in the waters of mythology and enjoy this snapshot of a story, I recommend you check it out. Of course the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda are great sources for Norse mythology, but if you don’t like poetry or a translated book originally written around the year 1200, I recommend you try Myths of the Norsemen by H. A. Guerber or Neil Gaiman’s recently released Norse Mythology. Neil’s version is of course modern (but stays true to the myth) and is suitable for all ages. Guerber’s was written in the early 1900’s and is very informative (he did his homework).

This is a retelling of Odin’s short exchange at Mimisbrunnr.


The Price of Wisdom

Many months had passed since Odin left Asgard. He had shed all ornament before his departure. Instead of his spear, he carried a walking staff. Instead of his armor, he wore simple clothes wrapped in a dark blue cloak. And instead of riding Sleipner, his eight-legged horse, he simply walked. He appeared as nothing but an old wanderer to any who would see him. He appeared as a man to men and a giant to giants. Nothing about his appearance would reveal his name. He had traveled across the vast land of Jotunheim, the land of giants, before he found the end of his journey; a well. Beside it stood its warden.

“Greetings, Odin, Borr’s son.”

Odin grinned, “Well met, Mimir, guardian of wisdom. I have come to drink from your well.”

“Many have desired such as you, but none has so desired it that they would offer what is asked of them. You know your price.”

“I will not shy away from it.” Odin walked to the well. It was brimming with water so thin and clear it could have been air. He felt his thirst for it. He raised a hand to his right eye. With his thumb and two forefingers he spread his eyelids wide, dug deep into his skull, and pulled his eye from its resting place. Through all the pain he did not make sound. Blood dripped like tears from the empty socket. Odin held the eye before him and looked upon it one last time, then he dropped it into the well where it sank deep into its clear water. “The price is paid. I will have what is mine.”

Mimir nodded and produced a large drinking horn. He filled it with the well’s water and handed it to Odin, the first and last to pay the price. Odin took the horn with both his hands and drank deeply. Behind the taste of sunlight, the future became clear. He saw all that would happen in the nine worlds. All the troubles and triumphs of men and gods, and beyond that he learned why the sorrows and trials must be made. Noble acts amidst the troubles and sorrows would create a force that one day, a day long in the future, would grapple and destroy the evil that brought terror and torment into the world. Odin new what he must do to prepare for the end of days, and he took solace in the thought of a world reborn.

Odin drained the horn in one drink and handed it back to Mimir. He thanked the wise giant, then turned and left. His right eye would remain suspended in the well of wisdom, looking up through the water, as a sign to all who would wander there that the Allfather had paid for his wisdom.