There’s never just one side to a story. Most of the time, we only hear the winner’s story, the hero’s story. The Norse myths come us through a few written sources—eddas and sagas and rune stones—that were handed down from the oral tradition. All of them are the stories of the victors and great heroes. With The Gospel of Loki, Joanne Harris gives us a version of the mythology from creation to Ragnarók through the eyes of the pantheon’s trickster. Because Loki is our narrator, this revision of the mythology is packed with schemes, humor, and chaos.
As Loki tells it, he was a child of chaos before he was tempted by Odin into joining the Aesir and the Vanir against the giants and other enemies. Odin, being a creature of Order, needs someone who can bend the rules and provide wily strategies. The problem is, no one appreciates Loki’s work. The other gods—especially Heimdall—loathe Loki because he’s just not one of them. They all look at him askance, expecting him to betray them in one way or another. The constant distrust and scorn wear on Loki. He can’t go back to chaos and there’s nothing for him to look forward to.
Because the source material is so scanty and full of plot holes, Harris has a lot of room to play around. The chapters in The Gospel of Loki are based on stories from the Norse myths, with a trickster spin. They follow an arc from creation (involving a cow) to the epic end of the world, Ragnarók, in which everyone kills everyone else. The gaps in the source material let Harris give us stories about Thor in drag or Thor and Loki going on a celebrity tour and turning pesky followers into goats.
Loki’s alternate version of events starts to hew more closely to the mythology the closer things come to Ragnarók. As the plot rolls along, I sympathized more and more with Loki. If Heimdall hadn’t been waiting for Loki to screw up all the time, if the other gods had been more welcoming, if Odin had been more supportive, perhaps all their deaths might have been averted. Instead, Odin and the other Aesir and Vanir create their own downfall through their unassailable sense of superiority over any of chaos’s creatures.
Harris’s stories strip the Norse myths (at least the versions I’ve read) of their a lot of their pompousness. There’s still an awful lot of testosterone (because Thor), but I laughed at Loki’s antics and the reactions of the Aesir and Vanir to those antics. If nothing else, the story of Thor in drag makes this book worth the price of admission. This is my favorite version of the myths I’ve read thus far.