Got American Gods questions? You came to the right place. This in-depth look at Neil Gaiman’s award-winning fantasy novel will answer all of your questions and then some. Much has been written about Gaiman’s book, but a lot of people still want American Gods explained. At its core, American Gods is a study on what it means to be American, but that’s just one of the many facets of this densely layered narrative. While the novel was published in 2001, a number of American Gods mysteries still persist, with fans theorizing over characters and events within the epic.
If you were one of the readers who raced through all 465 pages of the book and still found yourself asking, “So wait, exactly what happens in Neil Gaiman's American Gods?” prepare to have your burning questions answered.
In his novella The Monarch of the Glen, Neil Gaiman reveals Shadow’s real name: Baldur Moon. In one of Shadow’s dreams, the ancient Norse gods appear to him and cry, “Hail sun-bringer! Hail Baldur!” In Norse mythology, Baldr was one of Odin’s sons. In fact, he was his most favored son, known as the god of justice and reconciliation, among other things.
Shadow’s sense of justice is a huge part of his character. This trait can be seen when he honors his deal with Czernobog, or when he returns the money to the waitress in San Francisco. Baldr is also the god of reconciliation. We can see how forgiving Shadow is during his interactions with Laura. Despite the fact that Laura cheated on him while he was in prison and was partially responsible for Shadow getting incarcerated, Shadow is always kind to her. He experiences a few flashes of anger, but he is remarkably understanding and even sympathetic towards her. An almost godly level of patience, one might say.
The final connection between Shadow and Baldr is the stick of mistletoe Loki (masquerading as Mr. World) threatens to stab Shadow with. In Norse mythology, Loki tricks the god Höd into stabbing Baldr with mistletoe, the only thing that can kill Baldr. It’s pretty safe to say that Shadow is Baldr reborn, but there are a number of fringe theories out there about Shadow’s true identity.
While it’s almost entirely certain that Shadow is meant to be Baldr, there are still a lot fans who believe Shadow is one of Odin’s other sons, Thor. Like Thor, Shadow cuts a huge, striking figure. Perhaps more significantly, he’s always dreaming of an impending storm. Thor, of course, is the god of sky and thunder – his powers are closely linked with the weather. In the novel, Shadow is almost always aware of the weather, regularly describing the oncoming storm.
The storm is meant to foreshadow the fight between the gods and the beginning of Ragnarök, but Shadow’s hyperawareness of the storm could indicate that he has some kind of connection to the weather and maybe even some power over it. Remember, he might have made it snow once. Even his name, “Shadow,” can be interpreted as a reference to the weather. As a god who could conjure tumultuous storms, he has the power to cast a shadow over the Earth.
There’s one scene in particular that illustrates a striking link between Shadow and thunder. While he’s hanging from the World Tree,
“...lightning flickered and forked across the sky, and the thunder subsided into an omnipresent rumbling, with occasional bangs and roars like distant bombs exploding in the night... A strange joy rose within Shadow then, and he started laughing as the rain washed his naked skin and the lightning flashed and thunder rumbled so loudly that he could barely hear himself laugh. He exulted. He was alive. He had never felt like this. Ever.”
It seems like Shadow’s death at the World Tree awakened something within him, and he experiences overwhelming euphoria as the storm rages on around him. Perhaps, without knowing it, he’s the one who conjured the thunder and lightning, and maybe he was unknowingly influencing the weather around him throughout the entire novel.
That said, in mythology Thor is often depicted as being slow-witted, where Shadow is portrayed as rather intelligent and perceptive. While it’s a fun theory to entertain, it’s more likely that Shadow is meant to be Baldr, as Gaiman named him in The Monarch of the Glen.
The identity of the god Shadow can never remember is something fans of the novel have been theorizing about for years. There are a ton of theories circulating the Internet, and the Forgotten God has parallels to beings from a number of pantheons, including the Greek, Indian, and Irish. Some theories don’t link him to a specific pantheon at all, and argue that he’s the god of luck, change, or anonymity.
One intriguing theory posits that the Forgotten God is truly a forgotten god – one that no one in America remembers anymore. That’s why Shadow and other people can’t remember him. He used to be a god, probably one of wealth, but since no one believes in him anymore, no one remembers his name. They vaguely recall meeting him, but his identity eludes them no matter how many times they’re re-introduced. His character is meant to show us the fate that awaits the other ancient gods if they continue to be overshadowed by the new.
Laura’s death initially appears to be a deeply unfortunate accident, but a conversation later in the novel indicates that her death might have been orchestrated by Wednesday and Loki as part of their con. During a confrontation at the battle, Wednesday and Loki rather nonchalantly imply that they were responsible for Laura’s death:
“Wednesday's ghost-voice echoed. ‘I needed you, my boy. Yes. My own boy. I knew that you had been conceived, but your mother left the country. It took us so long to find you. And when we did find you, you were in prison. We needed to find out what made you tick. What buttons we could press to make you move. Who you were.’ Loki looked, momentarily, pleased with himself. ‘And you had a wife to go back home to. It was unfortunate, but not insurmountable.’
'She was no good for you,' whispered Loki. 'You were better off without her.'
'If it could have been any other way,' said Wednesday, and this time Shadow knew what he meant."
Wednesday needed Shadow for his plan, but with Laura still in the picture, Shadow would have never agreed to work for Wednesday. He had a wife and a job waiting for him, after all. Once those two things were gone, especially Laura, Shadow had nothing, so he joined up with Wednesday. So yeah, Odin's probably not winning any Father of the Year awards.