I’m a huge fan of mythology, and have myself written some humorous, modern spins on classical myths. As far as stories go, I’ve always preferred the focused narrative of the Prose Edda, the source for what we know of Norse mythology, to the more dense accounts of Homer, or the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, which recount the Greek myths. The Prose Edda is a story you can sit down and read. The Greek sources… well, not so much. I’ve watched Greek drama because my English teacher forced me to, or as a favor to a dear friend who still owes me big time. A ripping evening of entertainment these things are not, but I’ve never found a boring retelling of the Norse myths.
And, of course, the Marvel movies’ portrayal of Loki by the talented Tom Hiddleston has made the trickster god something more of a celebrity these last few years. A young, sympathetic Loki has even starred in several of his own Marvel comic book adventures, ably scripted by Keiron Gillen and Al Ewing. I really enjoyed those.
So when I found The Gospel of Loki on the shelf and read the first few pages, I was hooked. What could be more refreshing than to hear the tales of Odin and Thor from the perspective of Loki, the villain of so many of the myths? I remember thinking, “If she (Joanne Harris) can keep up this tone for the whole book, she’s got a winner.”
Mmmm… Not so much. Oh, the book is still very readable. Again, the tales from the Prose Edda are never boring. It’s just… by the end of the novel, the humorous tone is gone almost completely. I guess that’s understandable. The story of Asgard ends pretty sadly. (Do I need to say SPOILERS? Geez, if you haven’t bothered to see this film after 1100 years, I don’t think you have a right to bitch.) Brave Tyr gets his hand bit off. Odin falls, the gods die, with Balder, the purest and most innocent going first.
It kind of makes me wonder why I love the tales of Asgard to begin with. Maybe seeing this story closely through the eyes of any one character is not the way it was meant to be experienced. This re-telling did bring home details I hadn’t noticed before. There’s a scene where Loki’s twin sons, Narvi and Vali, are murdered (off screen) by Odin. I had to stop and look that up. Did that really happen, in the original? Well… yeah, kinda. Harris doesn’t go into the details, but legend has it that Vali was turned into a mad wolf so he could eat his brother. The myths don’t specify what happened to Vali after, but presumably he killed himself out of grief or was killed by hunters.
And Loki, in Harris’s version, doesn’t seem too bothered by this. It seems that, to him, it’s just a move in the game. This blows any sympathy the reader might have had for him, and leaves you with the feeling that Loki and the Asgardians are all bad people. I think, in the age of entertainment like Game of Thrones, Man of Steel and House of Cards, a lot of entertainment consumers are comfortable with this kind of moral ambiguity. I’m not.
I haven’t read Harris’s Chocolat, but I really enjoyed the film based on it. It was quirky, with a real depth of character and a sense of warmth and compassion about the human condition. It was emotionally satisfying. In the end, I’m sorry to say The Gospel of Loki was emotionally draining. Maybe I just can’t stomach works where children die. Or maybe works where the middle word in the title is “of” are just not my thing.
Anyway, The Gospel of Loki is well-told and has its endearing moments. Just be prepared for the change in tone.