Norse Mythology. By Neil Gaiman. Norton; 293 pages; $25.95. Bloomsbury; £20.

The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes By Carolyne Larrington. Thames and Hudson; 208 pages; $24.95 and £12.95.

IN 1876 William Morris published his epic poem about Sigurd the Volsung, and Richard Wagner put on his first “Ring” cycle at Bayreuth. Norse mythology has long been a staple of Western culture. “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” drew heavily on Norse literature. Marvel introduced Thor and Loki to American comic-book readers in the middle of the 20th century. “Game of Thrones”, a television phenomenon, owes a debt of gratitude to Norse culture, as do any number of computer games. Though each approaches the myths in a different way, one thing they have in common is length: Morris’s poem is more than 10,000 lines long, the “Ring” cycle runs for some 15 hours and the original manuscript for “The Lord of the Rings” covered more than 9,000 pages.

Two new books on Norse mythology are mercifully short, however, running to just over 500 pages between them. But what they lack in length they make up for in ambition.

Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology” seems the more modest: it is a simple retelling of the backbone of myths from the creation of gods and men to Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods, when “brothers will fight brothers, fathers will kill sons” and the sun will vanish from the sky. But it is a bold undertaking. Mr Gaiman, a prolific and prize-winning fantasy writer, has plundered these same stories and characters many times before, notably in “American Gods”. The TV series will start later this year. Expectations are high.

For readers new to the myths or to Mr Gaiman, “Norse Mythology” is an excellent introduction to the stories that wield such great cultural influence. It is impossible not to see echoes of these ancient tales in works over the centuries. For example, when Loki loses a wager in which he had bet his head, he wriggles out by arguing that the victors can have his head but they have no claim on his neck. Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” no doubt read up on Norse mythology before turning to law.

Yet readers expecting Mr Gaiman’s typical style—gentle, rhythmic prose intricately plotted and stuffed full of allusions—will come away disappointed. His retelling is almost tentative, restricting itself to the core of the corpus. Giants, elves, dwarves and humans appear only as guest characters in the gods’ stories. Nor does he try to embroider the well-worn plots or give the stories a context for modern times. If Thor visits a giant and demands a feast, he does so without explanation. The fact that this reflects the gods’ high self-esteem, their power and the brutal, feudal nature of the societies from which these myths spring is left unsaid.

Readers would benefit from reading Mr Gaiman’s book alongside “The Norse Myths” by Carolyne Larrington, an Oxford professor. She covers many of the same stories, and several more besides, in her guide to a broad swathe of the universe. Roaming far beyond Asgard, the realm of the gods, Ms Larrington tours Yggdrasil, the colossal ash tree that makes up the Norse cosmos, to introduce the giants, mortals and heroes and their own stories. Richly illustrated with photos of archaeological findings, the book makes the Norse gods and heroes solid, a pantheon actively worshipped by humans, rather than simply stories told at bedtime. She also points out how Christian influences crept into the myths as northern Europe turned away from its pagan past.

Her book, like Mr Gaiman’s, ends with Ragnarok. The gods of Asgard go to battle against the giants. Most perish. The world is consumed by fire and drowned in the seas. Ms Larrington shows how ambivalent Odin is about this end: the god who gave one eye for wisdom, who hung for nine days and nine nights from the ash tree without food or water to gain knowledge of the runes, constantly seeks fresh proof of the world’s impending demise, hoping that someone may dispute it.

But no matter how much Odin, the wisest and mightiest of the gods, would like to write a different ending, time runs from creation to destruction, and then the cycle starts again. In most versions the new world that emerges is a fresh chance for gods and men alike. Ms Larrington is not entirely convinced: “There’s no compelling reason to think that the new world will not go the same way as the old, that evil and corruption will not manifest themselves once again.” The Norse myths are engaging, entertaining and educational, but they are not uplifting.