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17 November 2012

W is for Mr. Wednesday

I'm reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Again. I'm remembering the last time I read it, when I wasn't so much of a 'practicing' pagan, and I was too distracted by life to really pay attention to what was actually being said in any book I read. I read this book as an adventure story - which it is, at least superficially - but I missed out on the most interesting bits.

That is to say, I didn't give the nuances of the story a lot of thought.

Why, for example, is Mr. Wednesday - Odin - portrayed as he is? And... just how  is he portrayed?

Before I started re-reading this book, I read 'somewhere on the internet' - I should have marked it, but I didn't, and I can't remember where except that it was in a comment on some webpage about the book - that some person had read the book and thought Odin was portrayed very negatively, and therefor incorrectly. That sat wrong with me, though I wasn't sure why. I just hadn't been left with that feeling of negative portrayal, the first time.

Re-reading the book, this time with a greater awareness of the characters' stories (and identities), I grew to like the Mr. Wednesday who was portrayed, though I feel like Odin is somewhat less  of a con artist than he's made out to be.

I suppose if I had read the book (the first time) when I was a child - and more of an idealist - that I might have seen Mr. Wednesday as quite the villain indeed. Back then, I might have thought that anyone who even attempted a con, was a villain. But the first time I read the book was during my deployment to Iraq (with the Army). I was spending my days interviewing suspected terrorists, hoping to glean a bit of information that might save somebody's life. A little con-artistry for the sake of survival was nothing, on my scale of good-versus-evil.

Then again... my own beliefs of what deities are, in general, would negate the entire plot of the book. I believe the forces which we call gods would not cease to exist if we stop believing in them. They're still there, personalities and all (though "personalities" is a poor term for it), because they were always there. In naming them, we only recognize what is already true. At the same time, I don't think they're particularly concerned (to put it lightly) with taking human physical forms, subject to the same laws as human bodies, which was a central idea to Gaiman's plot. So, the Odin I'm getting to know would have no need of the trickery which occurs in American Gods.

But...  I have to wonder, how would  Odin act, if the situation in the book were true - if he were actually threatened with being extinguished by the disbelief of humans? And if he could actually be killed by a gunshot or starvation? I can't say I'd entirely negate the idea behind the characterization of Odin as a trickster in league with Loki. It doesn't really seem that far fetched. He is  ruthless, afterall. And if anybody could pull off the plot of the book, it's Odin and Loki.

Regardless, I'm not convinced that we should hold our differences against the author. He tells us very early on in the book that Mr. Wednesday is not exactly the Odin we know from lore:

    "Mead," said Wednesday. "Honey wine. The drink of heroes. The drink of the gods."
    Shadow took another tentative sip. Yes, he could taste the honey, he decided. That was one of the tastes. "Tastes kinda like pickle juice," he said. "Sweet pickle-juice wine."
    "Tastes like a drunken diabetic's piss," agreed Wednesday. "I hate the stuff."

This is a fictional Odin, a character based on Odin but with some artistic license applied.

We do get a glimpse of the "real" Icelandic version of Odin, the one who came before the American version in Gaiman's story. In his very brief scene, I got a sense of the Odin I'm coming to know; he was the wise god who had sacrificed himself for knowledge, an All-Father. The contrast made me realize the urgency of the American Mr. Wednesday.

The edition of American Gods  I have, has a section in the back which includes an interview with Neil Gaiman. In it, he is asked how his writing has changed since he moved to the U.S. from England (where he grew up). This statement begins his response:

"I wrote about America a lot in Sandman  [a previous publication of his, which I highly recommend], but it was a slightly delirious America - one built up from movies and TV and other books. When I came out here I found it very different from the country I'd encountered in fiction, and I wanted to write about that. American Gods  was, in many ways, my attempt to make sense of the country I was living in."

Ah, and there we see why Mr. Wednesday - Odin - is portrayed as he is.

If we were to take the gods of the old countries, and put them in situations where they could truly die of disbelief or any human ailment, and then set them in modern America, changing their natures to fit an American morality... what would  they do? Honestly, I think Gaiman may have it right.

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