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The Real Story Of Loki: Norse Mythology In The Movies
Joanne Harris explains the real mythology behind Marvel's favourite villain

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Joanne Harris's name may still be best known to film fans as the author of Chocolat, but in real life she's also an expert on Norse mythology. In fact, that's what she has spent most of her time writing about for the last few years, with two fantasy books (Runemarks and Runelight) based on the Norse pantheon already out and a new adult take on the mythology, The Gospel Of Loki, just published. Given that Loki's just about the most popular character in film these days and that Thor: The Dark World is out this week, we sat down with Harris recently to learn a bit more about everyone's favourite villain, and the other surprising influences of the Norse gods on film...

The Real Story Of Loki: Norse Mythology In The Movies

So just to be clear, your book wasn't inspired by the Thor movie; you've been writing about the Norse gods for a while?
I had been writing my Rune books [Runemarks and Runelight], the first of which came out four years before the first Thor film. So I have been comfortably expanding and inhabiting this kind of universe for all this time. But I knew that there was going to be a Thor movie. I've watched it all with some interest but it's not quite Norse mythology, as we know it, although they are great fun! They are very American superheroes, the Marvel Norse Gods. They are much more American in their kind of group dynamic than they are Scandinavian.

How so?
The thing with Norse myths is that the characters don't fit the pattern of what we think gods will be. They're neither all-powerful, nor omniscient, nor benevolent particularly.
They've been re-interpreted. For instance, the blood relationships have changed. Odin is not Loki's father in Norse myth; he is the brother of Loki, which is a very different dynamic. In fact, he's not the brother by blood, he's the brother in blood in that he's sworn brotherhood with Loki. One of the reasons I wanted to write from Loki's point of view in The Gospel Of Loki was that I wanted to investigate this relationship between Loki and Odin, because Odin is the chief and the most powerful of the Gods. Loki isn't a God at all and we never really properly find out what Loki did for Odin to want to swear brotherhood with him in the first place and why he brought him into Asgard when, very clearly, he wasn't one of them and was not accepted as one of them and never even had a hall in Asgard the way the others did.

There's nothing in the Eddas (the Prose and Poetic Eddas are the main source of Norse mythology) or the sagas to suggest why, so it seemed to me that there was a backstory there and I wanted to write some of it. In the Marvel universe it's a much simpler dynamic. Loki is an adopted child and has been brought up with Thor but has always felt like an outsider, which is partly taken from the myths and partly it's there because it makes for a very interesting story and good dramatic relationships.

But your book is similar to the Marvel version in that they're not strictly gods there either.
I had fun with that. The thing is, the Eddas were, by and large, written down after the Oral Tradition had more or less died out and so some of it has been Christianised. Some of it has been already slightly messed round with. A lot of it is incomplete. So there was already a feeling that this was what people used to believe. But of course it's not true because we are Christians now. Much of it is filtered through the approach of Christianity and so you've got the idea that, well they weren't really gods, they were heroes who people believed were gods. These are the stories that were the told about them that may or may not have a basis in truth.

The thing with Norse myths is that the characters don't fit the pattern of what we think gods will be. They're neither all-powerful, nor omniscient, nor benevolent particularly. They have very human characteristics, which is part of what makes them so appealing - but it also makes it very difficult to think of them as gods. You look at the creation myths in the Eddas and they're wonderful, but they're highly implausible even by the standard of creation myths! The whole business about the universe being licked into existence by a giant cow and then made out of the ground-up flesh of a big giant, we have to take that with a pinch of salt.

But giant cows aside, the Norse gods are pretty popular right now.
I think it is, but I don't think Norse mythology has ever been that far away from the public consciousness. When we look at all the references in literature and popular culture and comics and graphic novels and art and music, it's absolutely full of them.

My daughter is into a Scandinavian metal band called Tear and all their songs are about Norse mythology; there's another one called Dragon Force. There's a big old Scandinavian rock contingent which never really left, and actually I can see why heavy rock music would be a good place for latter day Vikings to settle because there's some good shield banging rhythms in there. Wagner had its day with Norse myths and now it's Dragon Force's time!

These two sources of Norse mythology, the Poetic and Prose Edda, those were both major influences on Tolkien as well, right?
There are huge amounts of names and world building and various races from there. What you don't get in Tolkien, interestingly, is any sense of the Norse Gods. You've got everything else: you've got the light elves and the dark elves, you've even got the sense of Midgard in there, but you don't have any Gods. You don't have Asgard, you don't have that pantheon at all. Obviously it was a conscious decision on his part. But linguistically it's all Norse. Given how enormously erudite he was and what a linguist he was, I think he had tremendous fun with the runes and different languages and the pronunciation of things. And it's familiar ground to anybody who knows anything about the Norse mythology world. Fantasy would not be the way it is, would not have developed the way it is, without Tolkien because he gave a shape to this world and fantasy has been circling Tolkien's world ever since. And as such, fantasy owes a debt to Icelandic literature.

The Real Story Of Loki: Norse Mythology In The Movies

Tell us about Loki himself. How does the film version compare to the mythology?
There isn't really an awful lot of similarity, except in some obvious areas; the idea that Loki is the alien, the outsider and resents being the outsider. Within the Eddas, Loki is a much more pivotal character, because pretty much every piece of action is catalysed by Loki in one way or another. He's not always directly responsible but very often he is. Usually when a problem emerges he is at the bottom of it, and usually he's at the bottom of the solution of the problem as well. He's the archetypal Trickster character, in the Brer Rabbit / Coyote tradition; every culture has its own.

I think Tom Hiddleston has done a great job of Loki, but he's so very much his own character now, the Marvel Loki, that if I were to make a movie I'd have to cast somebody else.
But he also has this profoundly dark side to his character, which also makes him the Joker in that respect. He doesn't really understand his own motivations; certainly no one explains that in the original literature. Nobody explains how he comes, from being this relatively harmless trickster figure, to bringing about the downfall of the gods, and his own downfall, and the end of the world, pretty much. We don't see his thought-process, only what he does.

There's a long and astonishing piece of poetry called the Lokasenna, which is basically Loki ritually insulting the gods in turn at a dinner party to which he is not invited. He turns up like Carabosse the fairy, drunk and launches into this thing. There was a tradition of ritual insulting in Icelandic culture called flighting, and it was a prized skill. It was almost Shakespearean. Loki goes around every single one of the gods, he points out their flaws and gets under their skin. He tells everybody the thing they least want to hear. He reminds Thor that he had to dress up as a woman to get his hammer back; tells Freya that she farts in bed - which is to the goddess of love and beauty is the most devastating thing to be told in public! He just excoriates every one of the gods and then he leaves, and that's his cathartic moment of defiance - after which, he is never welcome in Asgard again.

For my book, I started with that character: clever, self-destructive, highly abusive but very funny character. His character is what lifts this god pantheon beyond just mythology into something we can relate to as modern readers. That's why I think they've gone native in popular culture and penetrated all sorts of art forms.

So he's the reason that the whole group are so popular now?
The thing about that character is that over centuries he has become easier for us to understand than he would have been in the 13th or 14th century, because people wanted heroes to be very obviously good guys. Nowadays we quite like ambivalence in characters, and we understand the marginalised character much better than we would have done a few hundred years ago. It's an interesting thing that this character has stayed alive. Now some of the Greek and Roman heroes have become incomprehensible to us.

I think Loki is a character who's appealing to a younger audience too because he's defiant to authority. There's massive alienation there.

Who would you cast as your version of Loki?
I would probably like to cast someone who isn't known. I think Tom Hiddleston has done a great job of Loki, but he's so very much his own character now, the Marvel Loki, that if I were to make a movie I'd have to cast somebody else even though he's very good. I think Paul Bettany would make a good job of it. I also think David Tennant would make a good Loki. Both have a very broad range, so could bring that darkness and destructiveness into the role as well as the comic side.

What about Thor? The Marvel version is a straightforward hero-type; in your book, he's a good bit dumber.
I think Marvel has basically made Thor a more modern version of himself. I kept very much to the original Thor, who was by far the most popular of the Norse gods when they were actually worshipped - partly because he was not too bright. He's honest, straightforward in his dealings, brave, physically imposing - but he's not so bright as to make people uncomfortable. People felt they could rely on Thor, they knew where they stood with Thor. In the original stories, Thor is always eating things or hitting things. He loses his temper all the time, but he's quick to forget grievances - unlike Loki.

The Real Story Of Loki: Norse Mythology In The Movies

And Odin?
He's interesting. He's one of these ambivalent characters. He is at the same time all-wise, all-powerful and a great warrior in battle - which is important to the Scandinavians. But he's also the thinker, the plotter, the manipulator and the one that nobody understands. He's a bit scary. I liked that. It struck me that he's the only one who knows why Loki is in Asgard. He chose to bring him in, and to swear blood-brotherhood with him. They have something between them and we don't know what it is.

And there are interesting vignettes in the original myth where Odin is not cast in a positive light. He has this moral ambivalence, and he's a bit of a politician. He's a manipulator of people, and he gets his own way not necessarily through straightforward means. But that's why he's a good leader. He's willing to sacrifice almost anything for power.

That sounds closer to the American Gods version of Odin than the Marvel version.
Yes, the American Gods Odin is probably closer to the spirit of the original, although there are lots of different interpretations of Odin's character depending on which bit of poetry you read. He was definitely, in terms of everyman and popularity of worship, he was a bit too smart and a bit too scary for people to feel real affection for Odin - whereas people did feel real affection for Thor.

How about the supporting cast? I'm thinking about characters like Frigga and Heimdall.
Some of them are just names in the Eddas. In some cases it's uncertain whether a figure is two names for the same person or two people, or different Aspects of the same character. Some of the gods and goddesses I left out because they didn't really have a role. Freya has a fairly significant role; she's interesting because she has two Aspects. In the original material that's not explained terribly well. She's the goddess of love, beauty and desire and also the goddess of carnage and battle, and she has this hideous crone Aspect. She's almost like some Indian goddesses, or the Morrigan in Irish. For my book, I took the idea of desire, which can be a positive or negative force, and played with that.

I'm a little uncertain about Heimdall; he's definitely part of that pantheon but we don't get a great deal of information about what he's really like - except that he hates Loki, and we don't know why. He hates Loki right from the start, and he and Loki kill each other at Ragnarok. But we don't quite understand this tremendous hostility, so I wanted to explain that in slightly more human terms so I created an episode where they clash right at the beginning and they never got beyond that. But sometimes you hate someone on sight, and Loki probably has one of those faces!

You don't hear much about his personality in the Eddas, just his golden teeth and his eyesight. But mostly he's just sitting up there on the Rainbow Bridge waiting to blow his horn - which is not a very interesting role. He's very different onscreen, and that's good: these characters should be explored in different directions.

Ragnarok, the big final battle at the end of the world, is interesting in that the entire story of the end is laid out, down to the details of who'll kill whom.
I had to take some liberties in my book. In the Eddas, you have the Voluspa, the prophecy of the Oracle, which says in the future this will happen. The way I see it, Ragnarok has already happened; the world ended for the Vikings when Christianity came along, so their Ragnarok has come and gone. It's the end of the Scandinavian, pagan tradition as we saw it. The Eddas had a mystical pronouncement of what would happen, and I thought it would be interesting to have the gods aware of what was going to happen and see them through it. It's a lot of fun to write about; I really enjoyed it.

The Gospel Of Loki by Joanne M. Harris is out now from Gollancz.

Interview by Helen O'Hara

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