Title: The Gospel of Loki
Place in series: # 1
Author: Joanne Harris
Loki, that’s me.
Loki, the Light-Bringer, the misunderstood, the elusive, the handsome and modest hero of this particular tissue of lies. Take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s at least as true as the official version, and, dare I say it, more entertaining.
So far, history, such as it is, has cast me in a rather unflattering role.
Now it’s my turn to take the stage.
There was a time I knew the more well-known stories of the Norse mythology by heart and could name all the major characters. Today, I’ve forgotten a lot, but my love for the stories have remained, even grown as I’ve become older and understand them better.
For Scandinavians, the old Norse gods are a constant presence in our everyday life. They’re in our school curriculums; our towns, streets, and weekdays are named after them. They’re in our art, traditions, heritage sites, and our architecture. They’re there when we talk, in our words, sayings, and expressions; they’re always present in some way, wither we’re aware of them or not.
On a larger, international scale, their cultural influence cannot be overrated, Durin, Dvalin, Gandalv, Torin, Bombur, File, Kile it sounds like Tolkien, but it’s the Poetic Edda. The Norse mythology had elves, dwarves, and magic rings over a millennia before The Lord of the Rings was published.
These are stories that have been in the works for a very, very long time now, most of them written down more than eight-hundred years ago and first told long before that. Over the centuries they’ve become songs, folktales, epic poems, prose and in modern times compiled and transformed into stories. So, by now, they’ve gone through a pretty rigorous editing process, there’s not much left to improve or add, and it’s even more challenging to do something original.
So, from my point of view, if you’re an author who love these characters, I think they’ll serve you best if you, like Marvel, Tolkien or Neil Gaiman in his American Gods, borrow ideas or characters from the mythology but don’t try to retell the same stories.
Let me say right away, that this is a book in which the authors love for, and knowledge of, the source material she’s chosen is apparent.
However, it’s nothing new. You can find these stories in any of the numerous books on Norse mythology. The reason I decided to read this book was that it’s supposed to be Loki’s story. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I thought it would be a bit more original, not the same stories but with Loki as a narrator.
The classics are all there: how Odin and his brothers killed a giant and made the world, and how Mimer lost his head (or his body depending on your point of view). Freyja loses her jewelry, Idun can’t keep track of her apples, and Sif gets a bad haircut. Thor makes a lovely bride, Tyr is not the dog whisperer, and Balder lacks any sense of self-preservation. And of course, there’s Ragnarok.
The author claims that around 75% of the text is the original stories and that she’s added the rest, it’s a reasonable estimate. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is the same stories told by a different narrator with a few creative changes here and there. That remaining 25 % is what you’d have to add if you want to turn these myths into a cohesive novel.
Here’s my main problem with this book: I don’t think the first-person point of view works.
What I love most about mythology is that the characters are so over-the-top and imperfect. The gods in this version are undoubtedly flawed and petty, but they lack the humor that makes them so likable. By telling these stories through a first-person point of view the characterization becomes unflattering for everyone except maybe the narrator, and they all come off as unlikable.
Joanne Harris says in her description of the book that she strived to get away from the heroic interpretation of these characters to a more modern and nuanced portrayal. That she intentionally made Loki the ultimate unreliable narrator and it’s up to the reader to see through his lies and the lies he tells himself.
The intent is there in her writing; she wants you to question Loki, his actions and how he justifies them to himself, but it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because through the first-person perspective, every character except Loki becomes one-dimensional, a cliché antagonist to his misunderstood protagonist.
She’s right that the Norse gods are deeply flawed characters, except maybe Balder, but he’s kind of obnoxious. The heroic version we see in, for example Marvel are Christianised interpretations deeply rooted in the nationalistic ravings of the nineteenth century. Now, I love Marvel’s Thor, he’s gorgeous, impressive, a heroic leader with great hair, and a firm moral compass.
But, the real Thor is something completely different; first of all, he’s a ginger! Hair, beard, eyebrows, even his eyes are red. He also hits first and asks questions later, has a terrible temper, he’s a sore loser, and honestly, he’s dumb.
To use a modern comparison, Thor is a stereotypical Hollywood jock. Which is precisely why, Thor, decked out in drag, furious and with his hammer in full swing is hilarious, but that’s lost in this retelling.
Odin is as scheming and unreliable as he should be, but my Odin is also a horny old bastard that’s always up to mischief, not just a dark and brooding dictator.
Loki, the man himself, comes off as someone whose sole motivation is his massive inferiority complex, there are too many lines like: “what did you expect, I am evil.”
My Loki is amoral, narcissistic and selfish; a creature of chaos, who mocks the other gods and their less than flattering personality traits. He’s like their mirror, harsh, unforgiving and cruel, forcing the gods to face all their imperfections and flaws.
I lack that spark of deviousness, that Loki who stirs up shit just for the hell of it because it’s fun. Someone who can’t help but press the big red button, not because he particularly wants a nuclear war, but because there’s a sign above it telling him not to.
As for how she describes the goddesses…
If your goal is to write a book with a more modern tone and nuanced portrayal, why not acknowledge that much of their story and character have been either erased or purposefully discredited by priests and monks during the Christianization of Scandinavia?
They have plenty of unflattering characteristics to make them unsympathetic from Loki’s point of view, but like most of these myths there are several versions of their stories, why choose the most unflattering, slut-shaming one? Why only describe them as either a wife, a shrew, a dimwit or a glorified whore?
If your only encounter with these gods has been the Marvel movies, then yes, they will be different. If you, like me, grew up with these stories you already knew these gods for what they are, not heroes of legend but deeply flawed and yet loveable characters in a world of fluid morality.
They fight, murder, steal, lie and betray; they cheat on their spouses and live out their desires in ways that clash with Christian values. They drink, rave, revel in their vanity, and some of them are pretty dumb. In short, they’re very entertaining; unfortunately, that’s lost in this book.
When it comes to Norse mythology, I believe that everyone has their interpretation of the characters and I bet many would not agree with mine. My Thor, Odin, and Loki are not theirs, and I think that’s important to keep that in mind when deciding if you want to read this book or not.
The Gospel of Loki is a well-written book, but it’s not original. It does not expand or change anything; it’s merely another retelling of the same old stories. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it was a necessary retelling, personally, I don’t think so.
There is a sequel that, as I understand it, is much more an original novel that takes place after Ragnarok. There’s also another two older YA/Teen books that exist in the same universe. You can read how they all fit together HERE on the author’s homepage.
I don’t think I’ll read any of the other books; I’m not a fan of Joanne Harris version of Loki or how she portrays the other gods though his eyes. It’s obvious that she adores him and there’s nothing wrong with how he’s written, her interpretation of Loki is not wrong, but her version clashes with mine, and I prefer my Loki.
On a positive note, the narrator of the audiobook, Allan Corduner, did an excellent job, you can tell that he’s done his research to get the pronunciation right. He has a pleasant, atmospheric voice that suits the story and although you can tell he’s an actor, the text isn’t overly dramatized.
Personal opinions aside, these are stories worth reading, and these new retellings might be a good way for a novice to get to know them. You can read this book, you can read Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Gods,” or you can read pretty much any book about Norse mythology, and you’ll get the same core stories. There might be some variations in specific details depending on what source material the author has chosen to ground their work in, but not to the extent that the stories are vastly different.
My suggestion is that you go out and find one of the numerous beautifully illustrated books about Norse mythology that’s out there. Wither the authors last name is Harris, Gaiman or something else; they’re not bringing something unique or original to these stories; they’re just repackaging them.
With that in mind, you might as well treat yourself to a nice package.
My Rating: 5/10
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