Review: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

Crawk, said Munin morosely, helping herself to a pineapple.
‘Does she not talk at all?’ I said.
‘Not much,’ said Hugin. ‘But what she says is usually worth listening to. And she says that the only way to stop the End of the Worlds is to combat Chaos with Chaos, which means to set free will against determinism. If we believe the Oracle, free will is merely an illusion, and all our actions were written in runes that were preordained from the beginning of time. But if we take matters into our own hands, then we can write our own runes, remake our own reality.’
‘She said all that in a crawk?’ I said.
‘More or less,’ said Hugin.

In his book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson explored the nature and theories around what modern society calls the ‘psychopath’/‘sociopath’. As a form of an alternate way for people to be the psychopath is currently a fashionable topic with popular works dedicated to identifying psychopaths in the works place, TV shows characterizing Sherlock Holmes as a ‘high functioning sociopath’ and even some of the darker sections of the net extolling the inherent virtue of the sociopath.

Currently being a psychopath is not covered by the diagnostic criteria of the DSM. However a set of characteristics have been proposed by Robert D Hare. They are:

1. Glibness/superficial charm
2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
3. Pathological lying
4. Cunning/manipulative
5. Lack of remorse or guilt
6. Emotionally shallow
7. Callous/lack of empathy
8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
9. Need for stimulation/prone to boredom
10. Parasitic lifestyle
11. Lack of realistic long term goals
12. Impulsivity
13. Irresponsibility
14. Poor behavioral controls
15 Early behavior problems/Juvenile delinquency
16. Criminal versatility

I’m wary of such lists and the current whirl of interest around psychopathy because it makes it to easy for folk diagnosis of people you may encounter as psychopaths when they are merely just bullies or arseholes. However these modern psychological insights do provide additional insight into the other more productive kind go folk psychology that we employ when we read or write about people.

Characters in stories have to be believable and the stories we read allow us to create mental models of how these characters will behave. Those models are also what we use to navigate our way through our social dealings with others. No one can truly know completely another person but we manage by our multitude of simulated people in our heads. This is why I believe fiction matters to us so much and before modern fiction, why myths with characters mattered.

Naturally we should expect our modern psychological assessment of people to be in dialogue with our own mental models and the fictional portrayal of characters. Our cultural models of characters will inform how psychologist will form models but also for fictional characters to appeal and to be plausible they must already carried at least some germ of our actual experience of people.

Assuming that psychopaths are not just an artificial construct caused by reification of a set of co-morbid personality traits defined purely in modern times, then we would expect the psychopath to be a recurring figure in our dramas and stories. The psychopath in particular because their list of traits is so suited to dramatic events.

Fictional psychopaths are not hard to spot and unlike a folk diagnosis of real people (which is inherently problematic) I think it is meaningful and worthwhile to see how invented people match up with an invented psychological profile.

Shakespeare’s version of Richard III is an obvious example. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling and it is one of the great dramatic works precisely because Richard is both so charming (despite his appearance) and so ruthless. The audience is happy to see his killed by Henry Tudor (who in reality is a more disturbing figure) but Richard also enthrals the audience and his mischief is seductively entertaining. Despite his overt self-deprecation he is narcissistic, cruel, calculating, manipulative, charming and predatory.

Which brings me to Loki.

Loki has charmed me since I read Kevin Crossley-Holland’s retelling of the Norse Myth in my youth. Joanne Harris’s version of Loki is much the same and much of her book follows the style of Crossley-Holland. However, Harris leads with the true central character of those myths: Loki – the chaotic wildfire of the Asgardian gods. If you don’t know these stories in detail then be warned that spoilers do follow. However, given that Snorri Sturluson committed them to text in the 13th century, I think it is safe to assume people know the general gist.

After a confusing creation story the world is divided into multiple realms and multiple kinds of beings. Us humans, the folk, live on middle earth and don’t get much of a look in. The action is with the gods, giants, dwarfs, elves and other beings. Harris avoids terms like ‘dwarf’, ‘elf’ and even ‘frost giant’ but the creatures are ones that readers of modern fantasy will have some passing familiarity. Odin, through stealth and force has positioned himself as king of the gods but the gods are just one faction among many in a cold war of order versus chaos. Thor is the big but dim hammer wielding popular hero, Heimdall the watchmen, etc etc Frigg, Freya, Njord, Idun plus assorted others make up the wider cast. While Odin has many strong heroes to defend Asgard he finds that he needs an agent with more guile and tricks and so recruits Loki – a demonic being of disorder – as both a blood-brother and as deniable, black-ops doer of dirty deeds.

Loki is the classic psychopath character. He is an outsider but he is a charmer. Despite his worlds renowned reputation as a liar and a trickster he repeatedly works his way into the trust of others. He manipulates and he decides sometimes as part of wider goals, sometimes under orders from Odin and sometimes just for cheap lulz. Loki is sexual promiscuous fathering (and mothering) a very strange range of children from god like twins, to a monstrous werewolf, to a world spanning snake and to birthing Odin’s magic horse.

However he is always resented by the other gods and underneath his playful actions is a dark fate. Odin knows of a prophecy in which the gods and the world will be destroyed in a terrible conflagration known as Ragnarok – and in that prophecy it is Loki and Loki’s children that will bring down the gods.

Harris makes Loki the narrator through out and gives him a modern voice. He quips and runs a commentary on the notable stories of the god’s that touch on him and his cleverness. He reveals his thinking and concerns (perhaps less than honestly) as events progress. From dressing up Thor as bride to tying his testicles to a goat, Loki is both a clown and a villain. He cheats the gods and is unfaithful (and contemptuous) to his wife. He makes enemies of every faction in the three worlds and inevitably finds himself punished, imprisoned and persecuted when his lies and machinations become too much for Odin’s gods.

If you know the stories there are no surprises but Harris finds her own (or rather Loki’s) voice to retell them. Only with Ragnarok itself does Harris build her story beyond the established myth and allows the book to meditate on issues of free will and fate.

Overall this a clever re-telling in which the god of psychopaths plays his mind games as only the charming king of lies can.

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