(Very) broadly speaking there are a couple of different forms that mythical retellings take. The first of these is simply to educate; for children (or adults) who have not learnt these stories, or this particular set of myths, from story-loving grandparents or however else this sort of thing is passed on from one generation to another. You might call this the Amar Chitra Katha model; there’s a famous story that Anant Pai started the series because he was shocked to discover Indian children who knew more about Greek or Roman mythology than about myths born on the subcontinent. Retellings of this sort tend towards the uncontroversial; a universally accepted version of the stories that doesn’t offend anyone (or anyone with the numbers or clout to have it stopped).
At the other end of the spectrum is the retelling that assumes its audience to already be familiar with the broad outline of the story (possibly through reading the sort of basic mythology above) and uses this assumption as an excuse to explore, tease out nuance, be provocative. It refers not just to the myth itself but to the centuries of meaning that have been added to it; uses the weight of its original story in its favour. To rewrite myth is to start off with really powerful tools.
Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki is in a rather strange position, in this respect. On the one hand, the Norse myths are still less universally known than the Greek or Roman, and there’s probably an argument to be made for straight retellings of the myth, even at a time when certain Marvel comics-based movies have made one form of these characters particularly popular. Harris has written two young adult novels set in the aftermath of Ragnarok (The Gospel of Loki narrates the events leading up to it); it’s clear that she has clearly embedded herself deeply in these stories, but also that she’s willing to play with them.
In Loki, Harris has the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Loki is a trickster god, the father (and mother) of lies, as he reminds us in the foreword; he is wildfire, a being born of chaos. To choose him to tell a story is a brave choice, and opens up almost unlimited possibilities for what can be done with the narrative, even when, with this myth more than most, the ending is so constantly present, and so inevitable.
There’s playfulness and some deliberate subversion in the title; early on Loki speaks of the religion that would, “five hundred years later or so, […] supplant us; not through war, but through books and stories and words” and it’s tempting to see in this a suggestion that this religious future has affected this book, this story, these words. The gospel (literally “good news”, but so embedded in its Christian context that it’s all but inextricable) of Loki, the father of lies. In his early descriptions of himself Loki often stresses the connection with Lucifer (Harris is, of course, far from being the first writer to make that connection), even calling himself “Light-Bringer”. A scattered reference to Pandaemonium (a name invented, of course, in another great mythic retelling), a narrator who swears by Gog and Magog, the lovely, stained glass-effect cover. But then we’re told that The Gospel of Loki is a rough translation of Lokabrenna; “bręnna”, it turns out, is “to burn”. There’s so much going on here; enlightenment and lies and destruction and religious truth all wrapped up in two alternate titles. It’s enough to make you expect great things.
Yet, what we get is disappointingly tame. Each chapter of the first section begins with a warning against trust (“Never trust a ruminant”, “Never trust a lover”, “Basically, never trust anyone”). The Father of Lies turns out to be surprisingly trustworthy; barring one or two incidents in which he lies only to explain the lie a few pages later, Loki’s version of events isn’t really that different from what he describes as the “authorised” version.
“there was something magnificent in the Old Man; something noble and melancholy that might almost have touched my heart.” One of the things that most appeals about the Norse myths is the vastness and doomed-ness of them. I love them for it, but it’s tempting also to puncture that sense of importance, possibly by highlighting the sillier portions of the myths, or simply by adopting an irreverent tone. Loki is mostly petulant here, and often with good reason, but his flippant accounts of the residents of Asgard are often excellent—I’m particularly fond of a throwaway description of teenagers (human and werewolf) which includes the phrase “buttock sandwich”. There are dutiful references to that one time Thor had to dress in women’s clothes and that other time Loki had sex with a stallion and gave birth to a foal of his own. Yet it’s still more pleasantly scandalous than transgressive.
There’s a place for safe-but-slightly-irreverent retellings, and perhaps to be disappointed in this book for not being more than what it is is unfair. But The Gospel of Loki repeatedly insists on the power that stories have, on how they shape worlds and destinies. “Words are the building blocks of Worlds; words and runes and names”, we’re told, and elsewhere:
Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead. And that’s why the King of Stories ended up being King of the gods; because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.
We’re told of the transformative power of myth, we’re given a narrator who is born out of the same chaos as the words he wields. High expectations only seem fair.
Perhaps there’s another clue in that title, Lokabrenna. It’s almost as if The Gospel of Loki were setting itself up to crash and burn.