A Solid, Entertaining Primer, But Not Much Else – A Review of The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

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I think it’s pretty safe to say that, right now, Loki is a hot commodity. Say the name, and a thousand fangirls (myself included) will likely pop their heads up from whatever it is that has us occupied, and we will pay attention. Of course, a whole lot of us will do so in anticipation of seeing Loki as interpreted in Marvel’s movies, though I’m sure there will be quite a few who will be looking for the comic book interpretations of him (especially his teenage self in the recent issues of Young Avengers). An even smaller handful might be looking for his interpretation in Tri-Ace’s Valkyrie Profile video games, though those will be few and far between, as the game is quite old. And there will be those who will be looking for all those interpretations, plus the “original” take of him in the Norse myths from which he, and the many other pop culture interpretations of him, are derived.

I’m one of the latter. I first read about Loki in Bulfinch’s Mythology, and though I didn’t like him, he did stand out – mostly because Greek mythology doesn’t quite have his equivalent. Pan might come closest, but he doesn’t have the same influence that Loki does on the goings-on of the Greek pantheon – in fact, Pan tends to stay on the sidelines, for the most part, leaving godly affairs to the gods and spending most of his time and influence amongst mortals and lesser deities.

Loki, however, is another story: his influence amongst the gods of Asgard is quite large. There are quite a few stories of the gods blaming Loki for a whole host of things that go wrong or go missing, and around seventy percent of the time, the stories indicate that the gods are correct to blame him. It gets to the point that the reader rather wonders why it is that the Norse gods haven’t just kicked Loki out and spared themselves the trouble of his presence.

The thing is, though, Loki isn’t all about trouble. In fact, there have been moments when Loki’s mischievous tendencies have proven beneficial to the gods of Asgard – after all, if it wasn’t for Loki, they wouldn’t have Sleipnir, Brísingamen, or Mjölnir, or even the walls around Asgard itself. He comes up with the most ingenious plans, because the other gods are simply incapable of thinking the same way he does. The only one who can parallel Loki’s cleverness is Odin, but he rarely interferes with anything going on in Asgard or even in the realm of mortals.

This, then, begs the question: who is Loki? When some myths say that he was evil, and when others say that he wasn’t, this can be quite confusing, especially if the reader is trying to get a more comprehensive image of who he was as distinct from the many interpretations of him in pop culture.

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris, is an attempt to answer that question. In it, Loki retells a huge chunk of Norse mythology’s most important, most notable moments – but as he saw them, as he experienced them. In his own, unique voice, he describes everything, from the creation of the Nine Worlds, to the most important events he participated in, all the way to Ragnarök. Along the way, he shows that the stories told about the Norse gods aren’t quite what they seem. After all, history is written by the victors, and it’s quite obvious that Loki is the farthest thing from a victor.

Before anything else, I’m going to say that I’m relatively familiar with Harris’ work. I saw the movie version of Chocolat, and was charmed enough by it to read the book, which I felt was better than the movie itself. I then read Gentlemen and Players, which encouraged me to read Holy Fools; I found both to be really enjoyable reads. And then I found out that there was a sequel to Chocolat, titled The Girl with No Shadow, which did not have quite the same magic as its predecessor, though they did share the same lovely language. So I can say that, to a degree, I’m familiar with Harris’ writing, and love it best when she uses her writing to not just paint settings, but personalities, as well.

She makes quite the attempt at it in The Gospel of Loki. Her Loki speaks with a thoroughly familiar, contemporary tone, one that anyone who has been on the Internet for any amount of time will recognize immediately. Hope (who read this book along with me) dubbed it “Rumblr:” a portmanteau of Reddit and Tumblr, the two main websites where this type of language is used most often. Harris’ language is, of course, only tonally similar to Rumblr: her take on it is far more refined, and contains fewer unconventional paragraph breaks and far less keysmash than anything one can find on Tumblr or Reddit.

But anyone who frequents either website will recognize the snark, the irreverence, and the general undercurrent of strong emotion (tending towards anger and/or extreme excitement), and will likely derive quite a bit of pleasure from it. For the most part I enjoyed Loki’s language, though I did rather miss Harris’ usual language, the one that tends to the more poetic, the more contemplative. But then again, could one expect such language from Loki, of all people? Certainly not, and one should not expect that here. Loki is in the driver’s seat now, and he’s the one telling the story, so he’ll tell it his way.

And this is where I run into something of a problem. While the language is quite fun initially, it does lose its shine after a while. This isn’t to say that Loki himself isn’t engaging; it’s just that I’ve read myths retold in Rumblr language already, in Corey O’Brien’s Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes. That book is a retelling of a collection of world myths – including Norse ones – using Rumblr language, complete with caps lock and awkward paragraph breaks, and a whole lot more swearing and gross imagery than might be considered completely acceptable by some readers. This means that, tonally at least, The Gospel of Loki has lost a bit of its novelty. I’ve heard this kind of storytelling before, and Loki isn’t the first one to have done it; he’s just far tidier.

And speaking of that notion of “something new”, the novel as a whole has a bit of a problem with that. When authors rewrite or retell stories, especially myths and fairytales, I tend to expect a fresh take on the material. When I read Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, for instance, I was expecting something about the story to relate back to the original Scottish ballad, but I didn’t expect it to do so word-for-word, so to speak. And it didn’t: Tam Lin is, above all else, a slice-of-life college story with a touch of myth and magic at its heart. The story as told in the Scottish ballad did make its way into the story eventually, but for quite a bit of time, that wasn’t what it was about.

There is also Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which is a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends, drawing mostly from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and assorted legends not included in Malory’s work. Told from the perspective of the female characters, particularly Morgaine (more famously known as Morgana le Fey), Bradley retells the Arthurian stories, not as tales of heroic knights going on epic quests, but as the slow destruction of an entire culture, an entire way of life, by a new religion. It is also tells the stories of women who struggle with themselves and those around them, trying to find out where they fit in a world that is in a state of rapid flux.

Because of these precedents (and a few others), I was expecting The Gospel of Loki to be somewhat similar. I was expecting a narrative that would turn the Norse myths inside out, something that would reveal some idea or theme that I had missed before, or which would be revealed in the retelling.

But that’s not quite what happened. Despite Loki retelling the myths, the myths themselves didn’t seem all that new. There was nothing new about most of the stories, except towards the end, but that’s only because Loki’s abandoned the gods of Asgard in order to play his role in Ragnarök. Most of the stories are already familiar, and if they aren’t, a quick check will usually show that Loki’s retelling of them isn’t all that different from what appears in the source material (in this case that would be the Prose and Poetic Eddas). The themes, too, are the same for the most part, with no new take on anything. There is an attempt made to tackle the concept that the pursuit of knowledge can be one’s own downfall, and about prophecies being destructive whether or not one tries to avoid them, but they’re not really tackled as fully as I might like.

As for the rest of the gods, they weren’t any different from the way they were depicted in the original myths, though they did have an extra trait or two thanks to Loki’s opinion on them. I was hoping there would be a deeper characterization of the gods – or at least, if not all of them, then at least the major ones, but that didn’t happen. The only one who occasionally escapes this is Odin, but every time it felt as if the story was going into some sort of deeper characterization, the narrative backs off and he goes back to what he was in the myths: powerful, but mysterious and isolated.

This is disappointing, because if anything was going to be different about The Gospel of Loki, I was expecting it to be the characterization. However, aside from a few reconciliations regarding otherwise conflicting aspects of character (like in Freyja’s case), there’s not much that’s new or deep about the gods.

Overall, The Gospel of Loki showed much promise, but didn’t quite live up to it. Loki’s narrative voice is fun to read, but it may turn out to be nothing new, depending on the reader’s previous experience. That, though, is a minor issue; a bigger one would be the lack of any real depth of storytelling or characterization. Retellings may hew closely to the original material, but there is always something new, something different, about the story that reveals a hidden or perhaps even a new aspect of it that the reader would have otherwise missed or not even considered had the retelling not be done.

But the retelling of Norse myths in The Gospel of Loki doesn’t really reveal anything new about Norse myths at all: rather, it reads more like a primer, something for those who want a quick entry into Norse mythology that’s more reputable than Wikipedia. This is a fine read for anyone whose only experience of Norse mythology is limited to Marvel’s take on it, or to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim video game, but for someone with a working knowledge or higher of Norse myth, this book might not prove as substantial as they might like.


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