Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world fallsVoluspo
Many fantasy readers don't remember where they first encountered the stories from Norse mythology. The stories from the Eddas and the Sagas form part of the bedrock of many readers' childhoods. Not so mine: apart from some vague schoolchild knowledge, I came to the Norse myths through SFFnal reinterpretations such as Greg van Eekhout's Norse Code and Elizabeth Bear's By the Mountain Bound (both 2009), bit-part appearances in a dozen-odd urban fantasies, and most lately the Marvel franchise films. It is only two years or so since I read the Eddas, elder and younger, in their shiny black Penguin Classics translations, and perhaps it is because my engagement with the Norse mythic universe is as much academic curiosity as emotional investment that Joanne M. Harris's The Gospel of Loki falls so desperately, disappointingly flat.
Victor Gollancz have pulled out all the stops for this offering from powerhouse Harris (most famous for Chocolat ): The Gospel of Loki comes in a very shiny package. The textured cover glitters with gold leaf, and the sharp lines and rich colors of the art recall a stained glass window, subliminally reinforcing the gospel of the book's title. Four tiny runes from the Elder Futhark hint tauntingly from below the title—ansuz, a reversed þurisaz, kaun, and mannaz—and tempt the reader familiar with their meanings into a symbolic reading. (One of the gods, the reverse of Thor/a giant, a torch/ulcer for man—but I'm academically trained, and it is well known that such people like to make much of small hints.) Every single adage about not judging a book by its cover aside, the art is sharp, vibrant, and open to multiple readings.
The art between the covers, on the other hand, is very much less so. For here we meet Loki Laufeyson, otherwise known—as the novel's front-matter list of dramatis personae has it—"as the Trickster; the Father of Lies; Loki; Lucky; Wildfire; Dogstar," among other names. He's here to give his account of his role in the Norse story, from the creation to Ragnarok. Not Odin's account, not—it is stressed—the authorized version, but Loki's version. The Trickster's story, "Lokabrenna, or in rough translation, The Gospel of Loki."
Lokabrenna more closely approximates "Loki's burning-up" or "Loki's torch" than it does "Loki's gospel." Funny word, gospel: it comes from an Old English translation of a Latin phrase itself translated from the Greek, meaning good message. It's inextricably entwined with Christian ideas of salvation, with the narration of a didactic life, and over the course of centuries gospel has become an emphatic modifier for truth. The gospel truth: faithfully true. To translate Lokabrenna as The Gospel of Loki is a sly move, one that undermines the whole idea of gospel—but one which relies for its subversive force on the reader's ability or willingness to puzzle out the Norse. And for all its sly possibilities, it seems that the novel's first subversive move is also its last.
For Loki's story doesn't, in fact, deviate all that much from what he refers to as the Authorised Version. Not in its events, and not in the significance of those events.
Loki relates this narrative in a breezy, careless style. The world he moves through is familiar in its fantastic elements: the gods of Odin's hall are men and women with magic; Loki is a shapeshifter who gives birth to an eight-legged horse and sires a werewolf; the Middle World feels fantasy-generic and vaguely pre-medieval with squalid farmhouses and fuckable young women, neither specifically located in time or in place. Yet Harris's language is consistently, at times even jarringly contemporary. Loki's metaphors are modern, and so are the terms in which he frames his misogyny—although his overweening self-regard, narcissistic contempt for everyone else, and whiny misunderstood self-pity may well be timeless. The Dudebro Trickster: Loki the eternal manchild. We have a guided tour, a Loki's-eye-view, of the stories in the Eddas in which Loki never takes responsibility for anything.
Which is fine, I suppose, if that's your kind of thing: but narcissists are fairly boring characters to follow around. Particularly immensely irritating narcissists who think they're cleverer than they really are. If Loki has a redeeming feature, I can't find it—and while I don't demand protagonists be likeable, I think it's a terrible waste to have a Trickster who doesn't even seem to enjoy his game of tricks in a starring role. The Eddas have an edge of gleeful delight when Loki pulls off a grand (or farcical) con, but there's no joy in Harris's Loki, and very little spark: for someone who answers to the cognomen Wildfire, he's a bit of a damp squib.
And yet Loki is a role with such immense potential for humor, for tragedy, for joyful-fun-turned-gleeful-malice; potential to be the ultimate unreliable narrator, whose accounts are always amusing but never to be trusted. But Harris doesn't exercise that potential. Not even close. This is Loki with a potbelly propping the bar in his local pub, ogling the women, telling stories of the days when Angrboda was hot, I tell you, haaaawwwwt, and complaining about how no one ever appreciated him, no one ever loved him, except for his wife but I couldn't fuck her, she's all sappy and cutesy and clingy. (I mentioned the sexism, didn't I? There's plenty of that in the Norse myths, but it's regurgitated here with all the modern gloss of college boys during Rag Week.)
Mythos has become soap opera, shallow, lackluster, devoid of anything approaching grandeur or pathos. The tragedy of Ragnarok is not that the world ends and Chaos reigns, but that Loki won't stop whining.
The Gospel of Loki is a breezy, bland, and ultimately disappointing entry in the list of mythic reworkings. I can't find it in me to recommend it: in fact, I'd rather reread my little black Penguin Classics editions of The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda a dozen times over than ever crack its spine again.
From below the dragon | dark comes forth,
Nithhogg flying | from Nithafjoll;
The bodies of men on | his wings he bears,
The serpent bright: | but now must I sink.Voluspo