I don’t wish to brag, but really, folks, the day that I don’t have a plan is the day Hel freezes over.
There are a lot of stories about the Norse god Loki, his jokes, his mean-spirited pranks, his betrayals followed by begging for mercy and then secretly plotting revenge. But they’ve all been a little one-sided since we don’t get to see the stories from his point of view.
Fans of the Marvel movies take note, the trickster in Joanne M. Harris’s The Gospel of Loki is not the adopted Odinson and tortured soul as played by Tom Hiddleston. This is the Loki from the original Norse mythology: red-haired, wild-eyed, self-serving agent of Chaos, father of Fenris and mother (you heard me) of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Loki gives us a first-person account here of all the best known Norse myths, telling what really happened and how he’s honestly not entirely to blame for how it all went down. For the most part. Really.
I love reading different versions of myths, almost as much as I love a good retold fairytale. When I was growing up I’d read mythology collections until the pages fell out, books like Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology (with it’s addendum on the mythology of the Norsemen) and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (the D’aulaires also released a book on Norse myths, which I stumbled on for the first time a few years ago) and…that book about the adventures of Ulysses that I read in third grade. (You know, that book. Whatsitsname. Help me out here, that was one of my favorite books…) There’s something incredibly appealing about reading a story I’m already familiar with, but with a different tone, or a different viewpoint, or some extra bit of information I hadn’t ever considered before. And that’s what this book boils down to: a retelling of Norse mythology, but from a slightly different angle.
All of your favorites are here: Frey’s courtship of Gerda, Thor versus Skrymir, the kidnapping of Idun and her golden apples, plus most of the other stories that featured Loki in some form. And we’re not talking about a line-by-line retelling, since Joanne Harris had fun with inserting her own variations on the stories and the characters. Fenris and Hel are both sullen teenagers, very much into the goth look and being sulky. Brother and sister Thialfi and Roskva come along with Thor and Loki to Utgar willingly; they’re huge fans. Loki’s wife Sigyn is cloyingly sweet, with a preference for chintz, roses, and being kind to all animals (you can imagine how well that goes over with her unwillingly-married husband). By contrast, the witch Angrboda is an alluring temptress, although their relationship goes on the rocks after she gives birth to the Midgard Serpent since, irony alert, Loki hates snakes.
Seeing the Norse myths from Loki’s point of view was also the author’s chance to look into the Trickster’s motivations and try to figure out why he does some of the things he does. Why did he first steal Sif’s hair, and then Freya’s necklace? Wouldn’t Loki have had something to say about his son Fenris being chained up forever. Why did he feel so compelled to play nasty tricks on his friends, and what on Earth was he thinking when he arranged for Balder’s death and then bragged about it to every other god in Asgard?
And, most of the time, Loki’s reasons are fairly simple: It’s my nature. It seemed like a good idea. I was extremely drunk. I was angry, and they’d been asking for it from the start.
Harris walks a fine line between a sympathetic and an unsympathetic character with Loki, because it’s hard to figure out who’s entirely at fault. If even a little of Loki’s story is true, Odin himself manipulated Loki into joining the other gods, promising brotherhood and protection that he didn’t always deliver. As for the other gods, they didn’t like Loki from the start. They always had to be convinced to not beat the tar out of him, they never quite welcomed him (well, occasionally the ladies did, but only for some private fun, and only temporarily), and let’s face it, the original myths mention things that would be hard to forgive. The smithy Brokk sewing Loki’s lips shut, for instance. The other gods helped to hold Loki down while that was going on. And laughed while it was happening. Nobody would be okay with that, and it’s easy to sympathize with Loki wanting to see them all suffer.
And yet…Loki acts on impulse all the time, and it’s usually the impulse to humiliate someone, have fun at someone else’s expense, or save his own skin no matter who he has to betray. He constantly falls back on the worst kind of frat-boy excuse: just having a little fun. And he very often blames others, prophecy, or his own nature for what he does (the phrase “So shoot me” is used nine times throughout the course of the book). Yes, he’s hurt that no one trusts him, and at the same time he’s the first one to admit that he’s inherently not to be trusted.
That hurt my feelings – no, don’t laugh – even though I was guilty. They didn’t know I was guilty; they just assumed it had to be me.
Loki is written in the perfect voice; smart-aleck, intelligent, charming, a little gossipy, and possibly crazy. The story itself flies by with a nice mixture of adventure, and beautiful imagery (I especially liked the depiction of how magic is done with runes; it made me think of illuminated manuscripts). We all know the story eventually leads to a cave and a snake and a cup full of venom, and then to Ragnarök, so it’s a given that no one gets a happy ending. We can only watch as Loki schemes, plots, regrets things maybe a little bit, and proves that in the final analysis the Trickster god who’s so good at getting on everyone’s bad side will always be his own worst enemy.