Published in Interzone in 2014
The Gospel of Loki
Joanne M. Harris, Gollancz, 413pp
I cannot remember when I did not know one version or another of the Norse myths. Most likely I began with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen (Puffin, 1960), or Oxford University Press’s Scandanavian Folk Tales and Legends (1956), by Gwyn Jones. The version that sticks best in my mind is John James’ masterly reworking of the myths, in Votan (1966) and Not for All the Gold in Ireland (1968) (republished in an omnibus edition by Gollancz in 2014). Here, Photinus, a Greek trader, undergoes a series of adventures in Northern Europe that bear an uncanny resemblance to aspects of Norse, Welsh and Irish mythology. While James suggests that some myths might have a factual basis, and that Photinus is also working old stories to his advantage, there are places when Photinus crosses into a liminal world where events are not easily explained.
Photinus is a quick-witted and charming rogue, who tells a good story. Joanne M. Harris’s The Gospel of Loki suggests that she may have some acquaintance with James’s work as her Loki tells his story in a not dissimilar way. However, while Photinus kept one foot firmly in the real world, Loki is a purely magical creature, moving through mythic worlds; a shapeshifter, who gives birth to an eight-legged horse and fathers a werewolf. When Loki enters our world – the Middle World – it is a generic fantasy world of hovels, ale-houses and beddable young women in vaguely pre-medieval homespun, not a contemporary setting.
Like Photinus, Loki is jaunty and colloquial; a little too colloquial, in fact. His account is marked by a self-conscious use of contemporary language, as though he’s desperate to show how relevant he still is. Which is strange given that one theme of this narrative is supposedly the power of words. This is Loki’s own version of a story in which he is so often cast as the villain. Odin may have charge of the authorised version of events, but Loki is here to give us the gospel truth. (The Christian analogy is deliberately stressed, although it is picked up and put down at the author’s convenience throughout the novel without ever becoming integral to the story.) Yet Loki’s version of events turns out to be surprisingly, even disappointingly, similar to Odin’s account. No revisionist narrative, this, whatever Loki might imply. Instead, it turns into a rather tedious justification of epic bad-boy behaviour, on the grounds that as the Aesir will never truly accept Loki, it is perfectly fine for him to embrace his outsider status and fulfil the Oracle’s prophecy whichever way he chooses, because he is going to anyway. Thus, the creativity of free will is sacrificed to ‘the Oracle made me do it’.
Harris’s Loki is indeed more man-child than mythic figure. He may be Wildfire, son of Chaos, but this daemon behaves more as though he is suffering from a mid-life crisis. He might as well be propping up a bar in the Middle World, whingeing about how he hates his wife, his mistresses don’t understand him, his children are running wild, and worst of all, his dad has it in for him so he won’t inherit the family firm, all the while eyeing the bar maid and hoping she’ll take pity on him.
Harris’s retelling is faithful in many ways to the original stories – all the familiar events are here, from the building of Asgard, through Odin’s acquisition of writing and magical objects, the humiliations of Thor, and the death of Baldur. Yet somewhere along the line, Your Humble Narrator has turned into the worst kind of pub bore, droning on relentlessly, while myth becomes second-rate soap opera. There is little variation here: Loki describes all events in much the same tone. There are no moments of grandeur – not even in the fall of Asgard – or of pathos, though Sigyn’s protection of Loki, chained while a snake sprays venom into his eyes, momentarily touches the heart, though one does want to lean in and say ‘leave him, Sigyn, he ain’t worth it’.
It may be that every generation get the reworking of Norse myths that it most deserves. Harris’s reworking is perfectly competent but to my mind bland: all surface, no depth, like a coat of magnolia paint in a rented property. Myths persist, surely, because of their continuing power to move the reader or listener yet Harris’s version offers stories that have been somehow denatured. Loki provides a smoothly commercial account that reeks of mythic suburbia rather than epic grandeur. For all he may chafe at the situation in which he finds himself, it is Loki who told us this story in the first place. And Loki, it seems, has no imagination.