Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Reviews: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M. Harris
I really enjoy Norse mythology. It has a lot of cynicism, doom, dread, bad a$$ boasts, and ultimately hope. It's quite similar to blues in many ways. So I was all set to enjoy this book. And I did. Loki is in the Norse eschatological sense a leading force of evil. But he didn't start out that way. In most of the stories that have been passed down Loki is more a trickster. He's the Norse incarnation of the archetype demonstrated in other myths/religions/stories by such Gods or heroes as Eshu, Anansi, Odysseus, Robin Goodfellow, Brer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny and so on. The trickster is not necessarily evil but he is usually untrustworthy, much as the name suggests. Loki lived up to that name in the various Norse stories. 

Loki was useful to the Gods (Aesir and Vanir). He often got them out of serious trouble. Of course he usually was the one who got them into the trouble in the first place. Loquacious, elegant, attractive, intelligent, gender-fluid, and often vindictive, Loki is the quintessential bad boy joker. As mentioned, in most of the stories that remain, Loki wasn't always a bad sort. It's just that his sense of humor wasn't always shared by everyone. Over time his jokes, tricks and pranks become progressively more malicious until he commits an act which can't possibly be forgiven. This leads to his expulsion from Asgard and the long foretold Ragnarok, or final battle between good and evil, which will destroy all of existence. This is all foretold which of course brings the age old debate between free will and determinism into the forefront.

Harris reworks the grim serious stilted language of the Norse eddas into something much easier to read and fun in a different sort of way. Harris adds her own ideas to the stories. She will make you wonder if previous translators missed some important nuances. She decides to tell everything from Loki's point of view. He is of course a highly unreliable narrator. To hear Loki tell it he was just a free fire spirit of Chaos, minding his own business until Odin named him and thus summoned him, somewhat against his will, into the material planes of existence. Loki becomes Odin's blood brother. Odin swears unending hospitality to Loki. Loki thinks that Odin uses him to do the things that he can't be seen to support. People may love God but no one likes the Angel of Death or wants to lose their firstborn. 


Regardless, it's via Loki's actions that Thor gets his hammer, Odin his spear and eight legged steed, and Asgard its high unbreakable walls. The Gods acquire many more trophies, weapons and victories because of Loki. 

Despite this or perhaps in some ways because of this Loki is never trusted or respected by most of the Gods. He's just as likely to sell them out to their enemies as he is to help them. He is after all a blood relative to their enemies. Everything is a joke to Loki. Insults and irony are his bread and butter. He is much smarter than most of the Aesir and Vanir. After an incident with a vengeful dwarf goes badly for Loki he decides to nurture his resentment and look for ways to weaken the Gods. 
"And so I became the Trickster, despised and yet invaluable, hiding my contempt for them all behind my scarred and twisted smile. I found my appeal undiminished among the ladies, who seemed to find that scarred smile quite attractive--but that wasn't the point of course...I would never be one of them. I would never have a hall, or earn the respect I so clearly deserved. I would never be a god--only ever a dog on a chain. 
Oh I might be of use to them now and then, but as soon as the current crisis was done, it would be back to the kennel for Your Humble Narrator, and without so much as a biscuit. I'm telling you this so that you'll understand why I did the things I did."
You don't have to be familiar with Norse mythology to enjoy these stories. Harris' Loki is if nothing else, always humorous. He's also a demon spirit of fire who struggles to understand or accept such material concepts as fidelity, marriage, love, loyalty, hunger and so on. Loki's infrequent attempts to be a good father to his illegitimate children: son Fenris Wolf,  daughter Hel and son Jormungand are pretty funny. Hel has a bad crush on Balder, the most handsome god, one which only intensifies over time. Given that Hel is well, half-corpse, this is a decidedly one way infatuation. As Loki plots his elaborate revenge, he starts to wonder if Odin or some other force is manipulating him from afar. 

This story is definitely not a sop to those who only know these stories from Marvel movies. Harris takes inspiration from the original Norse stories. Although she has muted some of the explicit violence and increased the humor, she keeps the theme that with the possible exception of Balder and some others, few of these gods fit human concepts of "good". Especially Odin.

This book was just under 300 pages in trade paperback form but is something you can read in a little less than two hours. Harris enthralls the reader. You won't want to put this down.
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