The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris

11th January 2014

The Gospel of Loki is a retelling of some of the stories that comprise Old Norse mythology. The Elder Edda and Prose Edda (themselves influences on Tolkien) seem to be Harris’ major source materials here. They contain original versions of the anecdotes that feature in The Gospel of Loki, and I will admit, it was fun to revisit those escapades from Loki’s point of view.

But here comes a niggle: in the style of most surviving mythological texts, The Gospel of Loki is narrated with a certain omniscience. It may be told from Loki’s perspective, but it still has a sense of being removed from the action. Of course, as Loki himself reminds us, Ragnarók has already happened and the story is simply a recap. Although I was able to overlook that in itself, I struggled to warm to the narrative.

On one hand, Harris has achieved a level of authenticity by maintaining the structure of the original texts. The clue is in the title: a gospel is a literary genre in its own right. And it is characterised by a narrative account of an individual’s birth, life and death. As such, it’s the most suitable genre to house Harris’ idea.

On the other hand, this form naturally makes it harder to capture and hold the reader’s attention. We aren’t experiencing events alongside Loki for the first time. He has already lived them and is merely relating them to us sometime after Ragnarók. This is reiterated frequently at the end of chapters, where Loki says something along the lines of but if I thought that was bad, worse was yet to come. 

For my part, once I was past the opening pages (which could have made a little bit more of a bang), I actually enjoyed the story, and was reluctant to put the book down. Loki’s voice is engaging, witty and likeable, except for his three-word pet phrase which made me grind my teeth whenever he used it, which was every five pages.

It’s an odd paradox that I also felt reluctant to pick the book up again. Once I was in the midst of the narrative, great. But outside of it, away from Loki’s silver tongue, I had no urge to return. Possibly the story was not compelling enough, or the characters too unreachable. The gods, after all, are fairly stereotypical.  Each is characterised by an Aspect derived from a rune, Loki’s being wildfire. Although I liked the concept, it did make for some one-dimensional characterisation, especially of Thor and Heimdall. Odin was better, perhaps because Harris gave him more air-time, but none of the characters actually felt real. 

That is the danger of working with archetypes. Loki, as everyone knows, represents the Trickster, Odin the Wise Old Man, Freyja the Maiden, Thor the Hero… Almost everything in this novel is an archetype or an archetypal motif: creation, apocalypse, immortality (inherent here in the cyclical nature of the Nine Worlds). An archetype is black and white. When someone is possessed by one, they are unable to be anything else. Loki is the Trickster, and reacts to every situation in the only way he understands. There is no capacity for traditional character development because everyone is an archetype.

Perhaps the problem lies also in the fact that Harris’ novel isn’t offering anything new. I don’t mean to say a ‘modern retelling’ should be set in a modern world. Indeed, this accessible book may well tempt a few into reading the original Eddur, which is all to the good. But – despite Loki’s entertaining style – I felt I was simply reading an updated version of stories that have been around for hundreds of years (same characters, same setting, same conclusion). Harris has at least done them justice, and they are therefore the novel’s strongest feature.

In recreating a mythological world so close to her heart, I wonder whether the author is too focused on fulfilling her own desires to consider her audience. The title will attract a lot of younger readers due to Loki’s current celebrity, (which – as Harris illustrates – he loves to advertise). With actor Tom Hiddleston’s popular portrayal of the Trickster fresh in everyone’s minds, there won’t be a lack of interest in this book. Has Harris missed a trick here to tell a less…vast story in a more inclusive narrative structure? She has Loki’s voice down brilliantly, so why not use it to coerce readers into a world  more her own? There are some who might appreciate a less orthodox approach to these myths.

Despite a few clichés,  the prose is engaging and well-crafted. It’s easy to read; Harris doesn’t sacrifice pace to extraneous detail, which can be the bane of fantasy. Loki’s infamous exploits are conveyed with humour and verve, and I’ve no doubt he will be a popular – if not wholly fleshed – anti hero. For myself, I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed. I would have liked to see more depth, more time spent on memorable scenes (of which there are many), and a greater sense of intimacy with Loki himself.

3/5.

The Gospel of Loki is published February 13th 2014 by Gollancz. Thanks to Orion Books for this review copy.

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