The Gospel of Loki: Joanne M. Harris

★★★½

I’ve only ever read one book by Joanne Harris and that (predictably) was Chocolat, many moons ago. As a result, I was intrigued when huge posters appeared all over the Underground advertising her most recent novel, her first foray into what the publicists call ‘fantasy’ but which is actually revisionist mythology. Naturally there was no way I could resist it. I’ve always loved clever, creative, not-entirely-trustworthy heroes and it’s a given that the devil always gets the best lines. Moreover, with the Vikings exhibition looming at the British Museum it seemed the perfect moment to brush up on my Norse mythology. And, although Harris would (apparently) prefer us not to mention it / him and simply to judge the book against the myths themselves, there’s always that pop-culture elephant lurking in the corner of the room. Loki is very much the man of the moment.

Friendship is overrated. Who needs friends when you can have the certitudes of hostility? You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won’t betray you. It’s the ones who claim to be your friends that you need to beware of.

And this is Loki’s version. For years, he informs us, he’s been much maligned, thanks to the pervasive influence of Odin’s pro-Asgardian propaganda. But now, sensing a more sympathetic climate, he is determined to put forward his own account of events. From the creation of the Nine Worlds to Ragnarok, this is the story of a being who has, through no fault of his own (so he says), become a scapegoat for all that is out of joint: ‘the wrong note in the symphony; the cockroach on the wedding cake; the bear with its paw in the honey pot; the razor blade in the cookie jar‘.

From the moment that Odin lures him out of his primal state of Chaos, and introduces him to the suspicious and supercilious gods of Asgard, Loki is an emphatic outsider. His role, indeed, is to provide the note of challenge and disorder that will reinforce the unity and order among the rest of the divine fraternity. He is the shadow that throws the rest of the gods into more dazzling relief. But does anyone appreciate him? No. They find his intellect threatening and, for all his clever ideas and self-sacrifice, Loki remains less popular than someone like Thor, whose chief qualities are that he is ‘big and strong and good-natured and about as bright as your average Labrador‘.

As you may have noticed, this isn’t all that serious. And actually that rather surprised me, because I had been expecting something rather more sweepingly epic and saga-like: the cover encourages such expectations. More fool me. Chocolat was such a long time ago that I’ve forgotten what Harris’s style was like; but I’d be willing to bet that it wasn’t quite like this. The chatty, informal and relentlessly modern language of this novel came as a complete surprise: like a blend of I, Lucifer and Good Omens.

The funny thing is that on paper I should have been the ideal audience for this sort of thing; but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected to at the beginning. Judging by the glowing reviews that appear everywhere else, I have a niggling feeling that I’ve missed something, but I can only speak as I find. Perhaps part of that was because the very contemporary narration felt a bit like a gimmick and the novelty wore thin towards the end. Sometimes it just felt a bit too frivolous. Take this, for example, when Loki plots to thwart the mason who has demanded the goddess Freya as his price for rebuilding Asgard:

The day a cowboy builder takes Loki for a ride is the day that pigs fly over the Rainbow Bridge and Lord Surt comes to Asgard for tea and little fairy cakes, wearing a taffeta ballgown and singing mezzo-soprano.

On the other hand, it’s true that all seriousness and no fun makes for a dull reading life, and you can’t fault the novel’s verve. It fizzes cheerfully along like a glass of cava: satisfying for the moment, but with no real lasting flavour. Since my knowledge of Norse mythology is shamefully scanty, it did give me slightly more of an idea how all the gods fit into the greater scheme of things; and I quite enjoyed being able to mentally check off the few bits I did recognise. And, for all its cheerful irreverence, the book threw up some tantalising links that I wasn’t aware of before; though I don’t know how faithful these are to the original myths or whether Harris herself might have consciously chosen to emphasise them. With his role as the Trickster, his frequent association with snakes (for all that he hates them) and (spoiler?) his eventual defection from Asgard and Odin, in order to lead the challenging forces of Chaos, darkness and evil… surely there’s a strong Loki-Lucifer vibe going on here?

If you’re looking for something lively and light, or if you have a long journey looming and want something fun to while away the hours, this might well be right up your street. I actually read it on a plane and the undemanding humour was (at first, anyway) a bit of a godsend. A lot of people have thoroughly enjoyed it and there are many reviews out there which are much more enthusiastic and effusive than this one. Just don’t expect a thorough, faithful treatment of Norse mythology, because you’ll be disappointed. I clearly came at the book with completely the wrong set of expectations, because I’m not against irreverent treatments of the myths per se (I quite enjoyed that pop-culture elephant in the corner of the room, actually). But I can’t help feeling that a promising opportunity has somehow been frittered away.

Time to finally get round to reading Magnus Magnusson’s Hammer of the North, I think.

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