I just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s wonderful American Gods novella, The Monarch of the Glen. It picks up smoothly where the novel left off, with Shadow now traversing the wilds of Scotland, having understandably left America following his death, resurrection, and a bloody cataclysmic war between the gods.
I loved this little story, because though short, it felt mythic and grand in scope; it achieves this effect because Gaiman steeps his work in history, in fable and legend. It should go without saying that it is beautiful, too. Normally, considering its length, I would not feel the need to comment on it, but on updating Goodreads, I saw a few reviews that seemed to miss the mark entirely, so here I am.
A lot of people don’t seem to understand Shadow; that’s okay, Shadow barely understands Shadow. Everything he does is in pursuit of the knowledge required to start filling the gaps in himself, the empty space that follows the question ‘who am I?’ And it is this central question which the novella begins to answer. For those who didn’t gather as much, however, let’s go over some of it. He lacks agency, you say. He is empty. Yes, he is, and that’s the point. He is the net in which the forgotten fable, the invisible local legend snags and is briefly caught, briefly known again. He is the mirror held up to the landscape, dredging up its secret stories.
Shadow has no real interest in this world, and is therefore the perfect medium through which to interact with it. To absorb it. Such interactions take their toll, of course. As with every fairy tale, there is a price, and it is this question – how much? – which this story sets out to explore. You need only read the very first line to know. The best short stories set up a question in the first line; granted, it is seldom this literal.
“If you ask me,” said the little man to Shadow, “you’re something of a monster. Am I right?”
The little man, a man all of grey, is Dr. Glasker, and he hires Shadow to act as security for a party occurring in the coming weekend. Something about it all doesn’t seem right, but Shadow finds himself accepting. Partly because he’s adrift, and partly because the world nudges him to do so, as it always does in these situations. There is a scale that needs balancing in the universe, a question of gods, and Shadow is the feather providing the measure.
Before the party swings round, Shadow walks the countryside, and meets the people he needs to meet, whether he knows it or not, and in no time at all, it feels almost as if we’ve always been in Scotland, and as if we’ll never leave. Gaiman’s skill is not in making his stories beautiful – anyone can do that – it is in granting them a sense of permanence by drenching the fantastic in the dust of ordinary details, in the ambiguity of memory. Sure, he’ll tell you about the time he met a woman who wasn’t quite a woman (or was she?), a creature of the fey, but he’ll be sure to mention too, the quality of the cup of coffee he had that morning.
“Dr. Glasker kept saying you were a monster,” she said. “Is it true?”“I don’t think so,” said Shadow.“Pity,” she said. “You know where you are with monsters, don’t you?”
He never lets you forget the purpose of it all, though. Later, once Shadow’s discovered the truth behind his trip, behind this job, he stands face to face with this question.
“It’s patterns,” he said. “If they think you’re a hero, they’re wrong. After you die, you don’t get to be Beowulf or Perseus or Rama anymore. Whole different set of rules. Chess, not checkers. Go, not chess. You understand?”“Not even a little,” said Shadow, frustrated.
Shadow – and by extension, the reader – comes away from that encounter with an answer, or at least the outline of one. Why do I say that? Because much as it stands on its own, in as much as anything can when it takes place in a continuing world, this story is also a stepping stone. The full weight and meaning of the answer will be given the time and space it most assuredly needs in the next novel, the true sequel to American Gods. And it can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned.
I didn’t realise just how much I’d missed that voice, that character and world, until I was immersed in it once again. Gaiman’s writing has that sing-song quality I just can’t get enough of, and it is that element he’s mastered which sets him apart from other fantasists, from other writers. As a poet, it is the quality I prize above all else, the tide which guides my course: rhythm. His writing moves, and you with it. Naturally, there’s a whole lot more I could’ve said about this piece and far more directly too, but as with the poems I recommend, I try to leave enough out that it isn’t spoiled for you.
Now as with those, so too with this: go forth and read!