When Shadow Returns:

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

For a while, I thought I had a horrible feeling why Shadow left America.

If you don’t want any spoilers for either the book or the upcoming television series, please read no further. If not, I’d like to start this off by saying that I didn’t think I was going to write anything more about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. From 2008 to 2012, I wrote a lot of my Master’s Thesis on the world-building in American Gods and read whatever I could on the book. I’ll also admit that I may have raged a bit when the Tenth Anniversary Edition of the novel came out in 2011: with something like 12,000 extra words of content, including an extra standalone chapter of Shadow meeting Jesus while hanging from the Virginian version of Yggdrasil the Nordic World-Tree.

It frustrated me, in a lot of ways, because among many other additions, the Tenth Anniversary text revealed more clues about Shadow’s origins and ethnicity that were much harder to find in the original version of the novel. At this point, I’d moved out of my Grad apartment at York University and into that of my girlfriend at the time, and finally past the procrastination enough to tackle my self-doubt – my fear of the future – and get well into the meat of writing the damned thing.

Like a lot of fans of Neil Gaiman’s work, American Gods figures a lot into my life: my own story and, for me now, it’s hard to look back on it and talk about my observations as they apply to this present-time, and not think about the rest of it. It was 2001, like most people, when I discovered American Gods and actually Neil Gaiman for the first time: being introduced to him through his prose instead of his more popular comics works at the time. I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into, but I’m glad that I did. I read it during the beginning of summertime right out of OAC, Grade 13 in Canada at the time, while transitioning out of high school and into Undergrad at University. I read it on my first bus ride to York, to register for my courses and what I thought was going to be the beginning of my future adult life at nineteen years old.

We all get our formative experiences somewhere. But I think, more to the point, what’s notable for me are two things about this time. First, it was really at York University – outside of my relationship at the time – that I was introduced to a greater deal of ethnic and religious diversity outside of Thornhill and new ideas about the world that took a while to set in. But, second, it wasn’t long after reading American Gods that 9/11 happened in the United States. I never really linked any of this together, especially at the time, but I suppose in retrospect this was the period where I became a little more politically aware, though not by much, and I got to experience a major shift in the spirit of the times: to the point where, like many others, I wondered what would have happened to America if 9/11 had never occurred. Would this have had any effect on the spirit of America? Hell if I know.

And what do I know? I’m a Canadian. Yes, I am North American and the zeitgeist in the United States affects Canada in its own way. To be honest, I always wondered – if we follow Neil Gaiman’s conceit about different lands and peoples having their own versions of gods that are brought over like ideas comingling with one another – if there are actually “Canadian Gods” in our secret, mythological places in plain sight, our Neverwheres, or do we and the States have to share the same versions of Odin, Loki, the Internet, and others as all North America? I can go into generalizations about countries and cultures, about how Canada is supposed to be a “multicultural mosaic” these days, and the United States’ original plan was to take other cultures and ethnicities and become a “melting pot” become a “new culture”: American.

Neil Gaiman attempts to illustrate, through American Gods, that America is much more than a nation started through a War of Independence and defined by a Civil War afterwards. He shows the reader that America is actually a place where transient people, where immigrations explore, settle, die, or sometimes even leave. It’s a place where different ideologies, philosophies, cultures, and identities come to find something akin to peace or begin a new life. At the same time, America is a land founded by Black slavery, indentured servitude from its days as Britain’s thirteen colonies, colonization of indigenous or First Nations peoples, and prison systems. If Americans as a people can be said to have one soul, it most likely – at least when you look at American Gods – is made up of ideals, prejudices, fear, innovation, wonder, rebellion, and a major need to be free. But if you look at the land of America itself, if you consider that the land through years of psycho-geographical mapping, also has something akin to a soul it is much harder to pin down or classify.

In fact, magic – with regards to a place that cultivates belief to feed burgeoning and established gods, monsters, and embodied ideological concepts – doesn’t seem to work “properly” in Neil Gaiman’s interpretation of America. This was one aspect I looked at in my Master’s Thesis, this idea of a “negative sacredness” that diluted or outright destroyed the feeding of magic and belief to the beings made up of that same stuff. Hell, at the supposed centre of America is a place called Humansville, Missouri where magic seems not to function whatsoever: a neutral space of parley where at least on one occasion America’s old and new gods met.

There are at least four different types of, for lack of a better word, gods in Neil Gaiman’s America. The first are descended from the concepts brought over from the rest of the world, gradations and incarnations of the most popular and well-known deities of mythology such as, again, Odin, Anansi, Kali, along with Arabian ifrit, Bilquis and others that need belief fed to them in specific ways or rituals by human followers: whether they know they are followers or not. They are all much less powerful versions of their Old World selves and have to adapt to the American landscape, while at the same time they have their influences in certain areas of the nation.

The second type of American god are the so-called “New Gods”: the incarnations of the Government Men in Black, computers, guns, media, and other forms of innovation, bureaucracy, and profit. Unlike the first group, the “Old Gods,” the New Gods have the longevity of mayflies due to the fact that they are based on much more rapidly replaced concepts and models and while they also feed off of belief, or fear, or usage, they diminish and become forgotten far more quickly.

Then you have the third kind: the indigenous spirits, creatures, or gods. They are basically those beings created from and by, and live alongside the First Nations in America. Unlike the other two groups of deities, they do not seem to need belief to survive and simply go about their business while sometimes guiding their human, or mortal, friends and family. They have, I would imagine depending on the region, different beliefs on how the land feeds into their power. While the other two kinds of deities understand that there are key leylines or places of power and significance to build temples or other structures to gain their power, these beings – tricksters and heroes – tend to lean towards the idea that the entire land is holy and a temple onto itself.

Finally, there are the ancient beings. These are generally either forgotten deities and concepts that still manage to occupy a deeper mythological place, perhaps deeper “behind the scenes” than even the other gods can travel into that speak in dreams and visions. Often, they are prehistoric entities or gods whose followers are dead or no longer believe in them. However, for beings that supposedly no longer exist, they can be surprisingly vocal. Some of the American Egyptian deities like Ibis and Jacquel are still material but border this state, while Bast is practically right in it as a humanoid but physical as a cat. It’s also possible that these ancient beings are utterly independent of land – American or otherwise – and can manifest anywhere in a sensitive being’s subconsciousness.

These are arbitrary distinctions of course, like lines on a map over centuries, but you get the idea. Then there is America itself to consider: as intermediary between the powers of the Earth and the beliefs of mortals. As I mentioned, there are certain leylines in America that possess more power than others based on events and significance ascribed them such as Lookout Mountain in Rock City and even the House on the Rock. Temples as foci of belief are different in America in that they function as “tourist traps,” small Americana stores, and amusement parks. Kitsch, a “low-brow form of art” or “a middle-class” form of it is a major part of the ornamentation and mentality behind these American versions of Old World places of worship: presumably outside of places such as churches, synagogues, mosques and Far Eastern based temples. Kitsch itself is something ironic, or an arrangement of objects or a pattern that attracts the mortal eye and captivation in some way. The fact that Neil Gaiman takes this aesthetic of over-exaggeration and sentimentality and identifies it as a uniquely American art is interesting and perhaps we can explore it a bit more later.

But now I need to rein this back in and talk about the protagonist of American Gods: Shadow Balder Moon. Despite his origins, or because of them, Shadow is unique. It is easy to say that Shadow is the Balder of America: the American equivalent to the deity of mercy, or justice. Certainly, he is the son of Mr. Wednesday, the American equivalent to Odin and created to fulfil his own schemes. But there is, as I said, a lot more to him than this. He is also the son of a Black human mother involved in the American Foreign Service. In addition, Whiskey Jack – a First Nation trickster deity – calls him “cousin” even as the ancient, forgotten deities such as the Buffalo Man continue to communicate with him through his dreams and lead him towards interesting places. I have theorized that, because of his different ancestors, possibly Hispanic and First Nations in addition to his Black ethnicity and the Nordic one through Wednesday, Shadow has access to different heritages or connections with magic. We will get back to this possible observation soon as well.

Shadow also doesn’t seem to have many divine abilities – perhaps with the exception of reanimating his dead wife Laura with a gold coin taken from the character of Mad Sweeney – until he hangs from the World Tree like his father did – or the being his father was inspired by – in the Nordic lands. It is the American version of a legendary Irish king, or leprechaun, Mad Sweeney who teaches him how to create something from nothing, through magic, which is the golden coin he leaves with Laura at her funeral and Wednesday that shows him how to cross “backstage” or “behind the scenes” into America’s astral or umbral side. But it’s not until his almost shamanic encounter with death and resurrection that he can utilize these powers without anyone else’s help.

It’s interesting to think about Shadow in that he seems to be something new. He is a combination of Balder, a Balder that actually succeeded in coming back from the dead without Loki tricking the world into keeping him in Hel: perhaps much to the detriment of his father’s plans. At the same time, while Shadow was conceived in America, he was actually born in Norway on one of his mother’s diplomatic duties. It is Shadow that actually prevents Mr. Wednesday and Low-Key’s two-man con plan to manipulate the Old and New Gods into destroying each other in a war of Ragnarokian proportions: engineered to duty in Wednesday’s name and feed Low-Key’s hunger for chaos. He tells them that America is a bad place for gods, such as they conceive themselves as such, and that it’s easier to live as human beings and that they should stop fighting and just live their lives. Another interesting aspect about Shadow is that after these conflicts are over and he leaves America, he can still use his powers and doesn’t seem to need belief or worship to use them.

One theory that I’ve always had, based on something Shadow’s vision of the talking fire tells him about the “star people” meeting the “earth people” after the latter have fallen is that Shadow is one of the first of the new gods: not “the New Gods” of material things, but a being formed by the American belief of the “melting pot” while, at the same time, representing a plurality of different beliefs…. or perhaps the freedom to believe. It is possible that Shadow is literally the shadow of what America could ultimately become…. or could have been: a power that explores, innovates, embraces its diversity, its newest, and the fact that its ruralism, its land, and its internationalist tendency towards the world and connection is its power as opposed to any sense of nationalism that may form.

Somewhere at the beginning of the story, Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow that America is a country that is anxious about its own identity: that it doesn’t know itself. If Shadow is a new deity of America, a being that is not a god, but operates on a sense of independence but also a need to find his place in the rest of the world and determine who he is after a lifetime of never knowing his father, of being imprisoned in America’s penal system on behalf of covering up for Laura’s part in a crime, of dealing with his wife’s death, engineered betrayal and the cost of her reanimated redemption, figuring out what he is after his death, and dealing with his father’s betrayal – the love of war and unquestioning patriotic duty represented by both Wednesday and Low-Key in America – it makes sense that he would need to leave in order to figure himself out. The storm that was coming due to the battle that Wednesday and Low-Key engineered is negated by Shadow, but his encounter with the American small-town Mayberry-like dream of Lakeside kept alive by the sacrificial nightmare of its kobold guardian may have also done enough to drive him away and make him re-evaluate matters.

According to Neil Gaiman, in an interview with i09 on June 24, 2011, American Gods was supposed to take place in 2000. This would be one year before 9/11. Obviously, there is no way Neil Gaiman could have known what would happen to the World Trade Towers and America in the resulting years. Nevertheless, Shadow left America not even a year before these events occurred in a strange form of literary synchronicity and somehow, at least for me, there is some resonance in that. He has not been idle either: attempting to find closure in Iceland with an incarnation of Odin closer to the original, rescuing a monster and realizing he is neither a monster himself, nor a hero, nor even a human being in Scotland in Monarch of the Glen in about 2002, and facing down The Black Dog in the United Kingdom in 2003. And, according to Neil Gaiman again, the direct sequel to American Gods will take place in 2004 or 2005: even though as of the i09 interview he planned to set it in 2011.

In that same interview, Neil Gaiman also admits that time works differently for gods, or at least for writers. It is hard to say. In his Q & A with Clem Bastow at the Wheeler Centre on December 16, 2011 he explains that in January of 2012 he was planning to begin work on the sequel to American Gods. In his rereading of American Gods to create the Tenth Anniversary Edition, he saw enough elements within it, along with possibly his own notes to create a sequel. More specifically, he wants to write the story to articulate what he thinks. What is also interesting is that during the latter interview, he was talking about asking himself he could do “Neverwhere II.” More recently on February 12th, according to Sarah Lyall’s New York Times article Neil Gaiman on his ‘Norse Mythology’ in Which Odin Wants a Wall, Neil Gaiman states that his current novel in progress is actually a sequel to Neverwhere: which focuses on the “plight of refugees,” unlike the dilemma of the homelessness, mental illness and being “dispossessed” in the previous novel. According to him, it seems to be inspired by his anger towards “London post-Brexit.”

But what about the sequel to American Gods?

These two factors are not, to my mind, unrelated. Aside from the fact that it is more than possible for a writer to be working on at least two novels at different stages of development, we have to consider everything that has happened since 2001 when American Gods came out all the way until now. And by everything I mean current political events in the West as of this particular writing. Neil Gaiman read “The Master Builder” chapter of his writing of Norse Mythology aloud to an audience given what has been happening in the United States since 2016 and onward. There is also the eerie synchronicity, again, of the fact that it is Odin that suggests the construction of a wall to keep “aliens” or outsiders out of Asgard: especially when you think about who the late and somewhat unlamented Mr. Wednesday used to be. I am not saying that Mr. Wednesday has been resurrected beyond Shadow’s dreams, but what he represents on the American collective unconsciousness hasn’t seemed to have died with him.

Then there is another tidbit. If you go back to the i09 interview, Neil Gaiman seems to want to focus more on “the New Gods” in his sequel and expresses particular surprise and interest in the increasing and acceleration of online social media such as Twitter: the latter of which formed long after the publication of American Gods along with platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. While he mentions that they are, in a lot of ways, even more transient than his original “New Gods” – especially with the example of MySpace – social media seems to be a more mutated hydra form of poor Media Lucy and you can’t ignore the fact that these platforms have altered daily life: especially the realm of politics and, now in particular, North American politics. It isn’t just the airing of dirty laundry, or more personal information online or even far more cyber-socializing as it is who might be able to view or demand this information: this flimsy veil between the public and the private, what is true and what is not-true, and…. what can be said freely, and what might be used against you later.

It took Neil Gaiman a while to research, compile, and write American Gods. He admits in his i09 interview that he would have most likely written the sequel sooner had it not been for 9/11. He even states “there was definitely that feeling of, “I need to see what happens here. I need to see how this affects the country.” And I don’t ever want to write a book just for the purpose of writing a book. I like writing a book when I have something to say or something that I want to figure out for myself. Now feels like the right kind of time.”

Of course, a lot more has happened to the Western world, happened to America, since 9/11: though much of the turmoil has been caused by that event. In a time of resurgent overt racism, Islamophobia, and discrimination perhaps it might be a good time for a story about the return of a powerful, calm, and merciful Black man as representative of America’s soul. Certainly, Starz’s television adaptation of American Gods couldn’t have come at a better time and might deal with some the issues that have come up, and will continue to crop up these next couple of years. It is interesting to note that, according an interview in The Cutting Room of Fangoria Magazine on July 20, 2015, Neil Gaiman mentioned that he told Bryan Fuller, the developer and writer of the show, certain details about the sequel “on what to do and what not to do,” so perhaps it’s possible that the sequel will affect the show as well. Certainly, the inclusion of a completely original character, the American god Vulcan, seems to preclude the fact that more surprises, perhaps from another story, might be awaiting us fans.

The entire reason I bring any of this up is that I wonder if Neil Gaiman might include more in his American Gods sequel than aspects of 9/11. Remember how I mentioned Shadow’s ethnicity and kitsch? Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that, what I would find really intriguing to explore, is American plurality and kitsch. Kitsch is a German-derived term and, perhaps, what we are seeing now from late 2016 to 2017 is the spirit of kitsch taken to its crass and vulgar extreme: a form of veneration, or lip service to “the common people’s values” that has degenerated in a hollow aesthetic, an insular quest for something to fill the deep wound of psychic terror in the American consciousness. When you take that aspect, which supposedly has a uniquely American aspect – this love of kitsch – and combine it with a rhetoric of bluntness masked gaudily as honesty and consider how a wall in one place can become even larger in the psycho-geographic world of “backstage,” it does set an interesting scene.

However, we also have plurality. But Shadow isn’t the only being of colour who represents this aspect. If you recall, there is one Samantha “Sam” Blackcrow. When we last left her, when Shadow left her life, she was an LGBTQ+ college girl with white and Cherokee ethnicity. She speculated a lot on history and mythology. More importantly, however, is that she believes in multiple truths and living them while also living her life. There is also a hint that she herself might be more than human, or have mythological ties not unlike those of Shadow.

My point is, during the years Shadow has been gone, what has Sam been up to? How has she continued to grow up in America? How has she changed while America has changed? Imagining Sam Blackcrow hitchhiking to some Occupy events and demonstrations while tweeting against trolls and maintaining online friendships is not much of a stretch, as I am fairly sure she would not be one to tolerate the presence of walls. There’s a thought.

And as for Shadow, I don’t know. The fact is, while Neil Gaiman might not write the sequel to American Gods with the 2016 elections explicitly, he may use a more immediate post-9/11 background to touch on these themes or do it with other characters we don’t even know about yet. It is entirely possible. Certainly, the fact that he is creating the sequel to Neverwhere with Brexit in mind, makes me seriously hope that he will talk about his spiritual America with a similar mentality. Just how have the gods changed during this time that Shadow was away? How has backstage changed? Has America actually changed during this time, or will things just reinforce Shadow’s view of his country: seeing it far more clearly?

I am thinking about kitsch and plurality again. Is plurality the Gate of Horn, and kitsch the Gate of Ivory? And which one are we looking through right now? It is these thoughts that lead me right back to my original thought at the beginning of this article. I thought I had a horrible feeling as to why Shadow left America. But now, looking at everything, I’m beginning to see why he will be coming back.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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