24 May 2014

The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M. Harris

In this book Joanne Harris (with added M) retells various Norse myths from the viewpoint of the much-maligned trickster Loki. It goes from the creation of existence (which Loki did not personally witness), to Loki leaving chaos, coming to Asgard and his various tricks and adventures there, through to ragnarok. Loki narrates the whole thing in first person with his own acerbic, personal take on things in a modern voice. This isn't a comprehensive retelling of Norse myths, but it sets up the world of Norse myths and deals with the bulk of those stories that involve Loki

I was expecting something a bit more revisionist than what I got. At the start of the book the suggestion is that we've all heard is the official version, whereas Loki is going to tell us the truth, or at least his version. The book is a retelling of Norse myths, with the spaces in between vaguely filled in with the prose equivalent of pages flipping off a calendar to mark the passage of time. Loki skips over the boring periods of his time in Asgard, which is fair enough. Even interesting bits (like him giving birth to an 8-legged horse) are skipped over. It felt as though if it wasn't in Norse myth, then Harris isn't interested in talking about it.* There's no suggestion of Loki doing things differently to what the myths say he does, or of the stories being purposefully manipulated by Odin. The real change is the tone, going from the usual serious, epic legends, to some guy talking conversationally about his life. I kept expecting a twist or trick, which didn't come.

I found it amusing that although the entire book takes place within the context of Norse legend, there's a modern feel to the sense of humour and the way Loki narrates. For example his wife is described as wearing aprons and making a lot of sponge cake. There's no sense that the narrative voice feels it's necessary to keep to period appropriate language or imagery, meaning that the legends feel removed from time and space, which I assume is purposeful. However this approach made me think that the story was going to extend into modern times, with updated/modern-dress versions of Norse myths going on in the present day. Or perhaps a here's-what-happened-next type of story. So I was a little  disappointed to find that all trips to Midgard, even in the late stages of the book, seemed to be early-medieval Scandinavia. Again I think I had different expectations of what the book would be.

The voice of Loki was entertaining, there are a lot of cynical and amusing asides that are highlighted in each chapter heading. However Loki was not written to be likeable. In fact once I stopped reading I realised that far from setting out his own point of view and explaining why his motivations might be different or alien to the usual narrative, he was mostly whining. The fact that the story doesn't deviate from the myths that have been handed down to us** means that Loki does a lot of bad stuff. His main motivation for any/all of it seems to be that no one liked him, that he's chaos and so it's in his nature, everyone refused to acknowledge how great he was because he was different, so it's not his fault. If you think these sound like the excuses of a child, or very self-involved adult, you'd be right. There are times when Loki clearly realises, as he's telling his story, that he did stuff that was foolish or rash or plain wrong, but he always finds a reason why we shouldn't blame him. I am entirely convinced that this was intentional on Harris's part, and she trod the line well, making Loki unlikeable but still interesting and amusing.

I do not know Norse myths as well as I know Greek ones, but I've read various bits and pieces in the past. I think there was a roughly 60/40 split between stories I already knew and ones I'd not heard before. I'd never had much direct information about Ragnarok before, I knew it was all about prophecies, and there are references to it in various other things I've read, but this is the first time I've seen it described. I thought it was meant to be the end of the world, but I'm not sure it's that clear cut and I was interested to hear about it.

If you are expecting anything like Marvel's The Mighty Thor, don't. Marvel have always taken huge liberties with the source material. If you are expecting something like what you read in a children's collection of Norse myths, that's pretty much correct. Joanne M Harris has made it all sound a lot less educational and a lot more entertaining and fun.

For a fantastical and modern(ish) version of Norse myth try Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones. It's children's book first published in 1975, but it really works.

* I could be wrong here, as I said I'm not familiar with all of Norse myth, but it didn't feel like there was much that stepped outside of the collected myths I'm aware of. My husband knows more about Norse myths, and he thought roughly the same thing, though he didn't read the entire books.

** The Norse myths that we have are largely from post-Christian sources, meaning that the earlier pagan beliefs may well have been altered by time or design - but that's a different topic and not addressed in this book other than occasional lines that equate Loki with Lucifer.

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