Certain characters in history and mythology gain a bad reputation over time, fairly or unfairly. Some are cast as meddlers, trouble-makers, and villains. Loki, the Norse trickster god is one such figure. Like many so called “villains,” he is the hero of his own story.
At the very least, he’s the protagonist in Joanne Harris’s enchanting mythpunk novel, The Gospel of Loki. Through a first-person narrative, Loki tries to convince us that, even if he isn’t the hero, he shouldn’t be considered the villain history and mythology have cast him. At best, Loki is a misunderstood being and one who is thrust into a situation that provided little chance for him to be anything other than a heel. At worse, he is the Father of Lies.
Harris captures the essence of what we as the reader would hope the trickster god would sound like. He is charming and forthcoming (to an extent), and honest in the fact that he admits he is telling this story from his point-of-view as the Humble Narrator. While he seems as if he is coming across honest and genuine, there’s also a sense that Loki isn’t telling the full story.
The story begins when Loki’s wildfire essence is extracted from Chaos by Odin, who bonds Loki as a brother. When Odin brings Loki back to Asgard, the distrust Odin’s people have for Loki is immediate, and most strongly exhibited by Heimdall, the watcher who sees all who not only distrusts Loki, but shows a great hate for the trickster. It wouldn’t be a tale of Loki if it didn’t feature, at least in part, the thunder god Thor, whom our Humble Narrator scornfully sees only as mostly brawn and no brain. There’s also Balder (the most favored), Frigga (Odin’s wife), bother and sister Frey and Freyja (brother the reaper, sister the goddess of desire), Tyr (the one-handed god of War), Balder’s blind brother Hoder, and Loki’s wife Sigyn among many others. Loki’s humorous scorn of these characters is one of the charming aspects of the book. Balder is irritatingly perfect, Heimdall is full of himself, and Sigyn is a fop and “possibly the most annoying woman in the whole of the Nine Worlds,” at least according to our Humble Narrator. I rather suspect Loki would consider anybody who filled the role of his wife to be the most annoying woman in the world.
Odin keeps the head of a dead enemy at his side as an oracle, and several animalistic figures from Norse myth also factor into the story. Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn—who act as his eyes, ears and voice out in the world—make appearances, as do Loki’s offspring from an extra-marital tryst: Fenris the wolf, daughter Hel who comes to rule the land of the dead, and the great serpent Jörmungandr. The distrust and growing hatred between Loki and Odin’s “family” leads, of course, to the prophesized Ragnarok. Jörmungandr is thrown to the sea and Fenris is chained.
One thing Harris’s novel brings to light from the classical Norse myths, and an element that has taken a back seat (especially with the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic universe, which features Loki and the Norse pantheon) is that Loki is not the only being whose morality is grey and who is not fully honest. Though not as much of a trickster as Loki, Odin is certainly not completely forthcoming; he hides the truth even if he doesn’t lie. Much of Loki’s story comes across as a long-con to extract revenge upon the Asgardians for disliking him, demeaning him, treating him like a cur, and blaming him for all the bad things which happen over the course of the story. While he may be responsible for some of the things, they blame him with no evidence, just because he is not one of them.
While it may seem that Loki and Odin are running things—Loki telling us his story and Odin playing the gods as chess pieces, as the story evolves, such may not be the case. Events leading to Ragnarok may have been set in motion before we met our Humble Narrator. If anything can be said to characterize the Gods and their enemies it is jealousy and spite. These two interconnected emotions drive the gods to Ragnarok.
The Gospel of Loki is a charming novel, told with snark, wit and familiarity. Harris’s voice of Loki is an addictive thing, a pleasure to consume. While some may be most familiar with the Norse gods from the Marvel films, Harris draws the characters magnificently from their original inspirations and makes them her own.
One way I’ve been thinking of this book, both as I was reading it and upon reflection is that it is the best Neil Gaiman novel written by another person. As a fan of Gaiman’s brand of mythic storytelling, this comes as a very high compliment.
I don’t think I’m revealing any spoilers by saying that Ragnarok occurs on the novel; it is a known and inevitable thing in Norse myth. However, Loki somehow survived; after all he lived to relay his Gospel to us. But just how did he survive and might he still be known as Loki? Perhaps that is a tale for another day. The Gospel of Loki is excellent and enchanting as a standalone story, but Harris’s voice of Loki is so damned enjoyable that a return to either the character or style of this novel from Harris would be most welcome.
The Gospel of Loki is available now from Gollancz.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. Some have called him a trickster of a character, but he doesn’t know any thunder gods. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff and writes “The Completist” column for SF Signal. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, beer, and hockey you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.