We are thrilled to welcome Joanne M. Harris to the Gollancz Blog. To celebrate the paperback publication of The Gospel of Loki we asked Joanne for a reader’s guide to the world of Loki, the Norse gods and how Loki found himself playing such a pivotal role in Ragnarók.
Who is Loki? Loki is by far the most interesting and dynamic figure in the Norse pantheon. He’s also the most misunderstood. This is partly because the original Norse myths (passed down and enriched over centuries by a long and ancient oral tradition) have been almost entirely lost, existing now only as fragmentary accounts written down by Christian scholars.
Why is this important? Because the myths of the oral tradition were from a very different time and culture to that of the men who transcribed them. Snorri Sturluson, the 12th-century Icelandic historian and author of the Prose Edda (one of the most important retellings of Norse myth), was a Christian, looking back on a vanished belief system, trying to impose order and morality onto a world picture that, to him, must have made little sense. This is why in some of these retellings, Loki has a great deal in common with Lucifer – he’s an adversary to the gods, evil just because he is.
Why not stick with the version everyone knows? I didn’t want to go with Snorri’s interpretation. In THE GOSPEL OF LOKI I wanted to return to what I believe is the essential spirit of Loki – a Trickster figure in the long tradition of Trickster figures in mythology everywhere (Crow, the Pied Piper, Coyote, Prometheus), a rebel; a comedian; a chaotic figure, antagonistic in some ways, but who is nevertheless necessary to the gods, helping as much as he hinders them.
Is Loki a god? Many retellings suggest that Loki’s a god. He’s not. He is a jotun – a word that imperfectly translates both as “giant” and “demon”. I’ve used “demon”, even though it’s not a perfect term (although I’m thinking about the Classical usage of the word, which has no negative connotations). His mother is Laufey (the name suggests some kind of woodland spirit); his father Farbauti (a fire/lightning-jotun). From this, it could be concluded that Loki is the essential Promethean spark that comes from the marriage of sky-fire and earth-kindling – basically, Wildfire).
How did Loki get mixed up with the gods in the first place? The myths tell of Odin befriending Loki, swearing brotherhood with him and bringing him to Asgard – although it’s never made clear why Odin does this. In GOSPEL I have tried to give their friendship a framework, and explain how this relationship came about.
What does LOKABRENNA mean, and is it the name of a real text? No, it’s an imaginary text, first used in RUNEMARKS, which Loki translates roughly as “The Gospel of Loki”. Actually it’s the name of the star known in Scandinavian countries as Burning Loki (what we call the Dogstar). I wanted the name of Loki’s narrative to reflect his Promethean nature – remember, Lucifer was once the Morning Star.
So, how much of THE GOSPEL OF LOKI is new? There’s quite a lot of new stuff here, although the book also contains most of the best-known myths from the Prose Edda, and the new material is woven subtly through and around the familiar stories.
The division between the realms of Order and Chaos in GOSPEL and my RUNE books is my own invention, and is not taken from Norse myth.
Also, I’ve tried to give a sequential structure to the myths, to convey the passage of time, the end of the Golden Age of the gods and Loki’s growing disillusionment with Odin’s people. This isn’t in the original text – there’s no reason given in the Eddas for Loki’s hatred of the gods, or for their mistrust of him. For that reason I’ve restructured the stories, taken out some timing inconsistencies and expanded the character of Gullveig-Heid (who barely gets a mention in the original myths) to recreate a sense of escalating conflict.
I’ve also moved Surt, the fire-demon who eventually destroys Asgard at Ragnarók, into the realms of Chaos, giving him a new dynamic as Loki’s master and the natural adversary of the gods.
The interpretation of the runes and their usage by the gods is also my own addition – although runes were associated with the gods, there’s no explanation in any of the texts as to how these runes work, or why. I’ve chosen to interpret runes, as well as being the foundations of storytelling and magic, as the basic building-blocks of reality.
There are a lot of unanswered questions in the original myths – how does Loki escape his chains before Ragnarók; how (and why) does he get to marry Sigyn; his relationship with Angrboda; his origins; his relationship with his children, etc – questions to which I’ve had to find answers on my own.
What kind of person is Loki in this book? In some ways he’s very much the archetypal Trickster, as depicted in Snorri’s Edda. In the original myths, we don’t get to know anything about Loki’s thoughts and motivations. The longest and most complete description of his voice and behaviour is a text from the Poetic Edda called LOKASENNA (Loki’s Flyting – a kind of ritual flinging of insults, part of a long tradition in Norse culture), in which Loki, gate-crashing a party to which he is not invited, insults all the gods in turn. I started with this text in mind. It shows Loki as bitter, defiant, mocking and cruelly funny – although there’s not a lot to explain how he gets that way.
Because GOSPEL is written in Loki’s voice, what you also get is Loki’s internal monologue; his little asides, his observations on life; his thumbnail descriptions of the gods; the details of his existence and his emotional life. He is a very unreliable narrator, and says so from the start; he is also the supreme narcissist, marrying an impossibly elevated opinion of himself with a deep scorn of everyone else. However, Loki is also entirely lacking in self-awareness; as he gets used to human form and begins to come to terms with new and dangerous human emotions, he starts to experience doubt; self-loathing; envy; self-pity; guilt; maybe even love. This dual nature is what defines Loki, and ultimately causes his downfall. One part of him wants to help Odin and the gods; wants to fit in with Asgard’s society; wants to be popular. The other half despises the gods and can’t help defying them. As such, Loki uses mockery as a means of keeping others at a distance. Which brings us to . . .
Sigyn. What’s with her? Sigyn is Loki’s faithful wife, the one person who stands by him when he is bound in the Underworld. In GOSPEL she is depicted, rather cruelly by Loki, as a slightly neurotic woman, obsessed with baking and keeping up appearances, whose uncritical adoration of Loki means that she finds it impossible to believe that he could do anything wrong – even when he’s cheating on her with Angrboda. Yes, it’s an unfair portrayal of a devoted spouse. But remember, this is Loki’s viewpoint. And Loki believes that love is a dangerous weakness – besides which, his self-loathing runs deep enough for him to mistrust anyone who seems to hold him in affection.
He doesn’t seem to think much of the other gods, either… In the same way, in this book as in LOKASENNA, all the gods, even Odin and Thor, are mocked, ridiculed and satirized. It’s in Loki’s essential nature to do this, and the reader’s job is to try and see through the protagonist’s lies (including the lies he tells himself) and try and glimpse the truth he is so desperately hiding. So many other retellings have portrayed the gods of Asgard in the Wagnerian, “heroic” mould favoured by the Victorians. But in the original myths, the gods were portrayed very differently. In GOSPEL I’ve tried to go back to the early, ambiguous, flawed, comic – sometimes even slapstick – depictions of the gods, which I find much more interesting, rather than use the later, cleaned-up and romanticized versions, as popularized in so many retellings.
Why write in such a contemporary voice? All myths, when they were first told or written down, were told in contemporary voices. This is no exception. In the original myths, Loki speaks in a very informal voice, often insults the other gods, often speaks with defiance. Rather than write his dialogue in the mock-heroic language used by Snorri (which even then was dated and inappropriate), I’ve used modern slang – besides which, there’s a strong hint in the narrative that Loki has somehow survived the end of the world and even his own death, and is therefore addressing us as the recipient of his tale, right here, right now, in the 21st century.
The Gospel of Loki is out now in paperback, eBook and audio download. You can read an extract of Loki’s amazing tale here. You can find out more about Joanne Harris by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.