The Language of Loki

As a child I was a mythology purist. I started with retellings by H. A. Guerber and Robert Graves. I read Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus; I snapped up every translation of the Poetic Eddas and longed to read them in the original. Finally, I taught myself Old Icelandic and did just that. My interest in Norse myth dates back over forty years, and my passion for these stories has followed me throughout my life.

In the light of all this, it may seem strange that I chose to write THE GOSPEL OF LOKI in the style in which I did. It’s a style as far removed from the epic poetry of the Eddas as you could imagine; it’s filled with verbal and historical anachronisms; it’s conversational, rather than heroic in tone. Some readers have commented on this, wondering why I would choose to take my retelling of the Norse myths so far from the original source.

Well, here’s the thing. The “original source” is unknown, unquantifiable. These myths are the product of centuries of telling and retelling; an oral tradition of story that was never written down. How could it? Every storyteller had their own style; their own personal take on the myths. There was no authorized version. And yet, everyone knew the myths. That is clear from the language, filled as it is with kennings; little expressions and figures of speech, which show how very familiar the stories were to the people of that culture. Thus, gold is “Otter’s Ransom”, or Freyja’s Tears” or “Sif’s hair”: mistletoe is “Balder’s bane.” It’s tempting to think of these kennings as part of a tradition of heroic, skaldic poetry, but it’s likely they were used all the time by ordinary people, just as the proverbs and sayings of the King James’ Bible have entered our own vernacular. When people hear the word “bard” or “skald”, they often imagine a kind of romantic, troubadour-like figure, as popularized by the Victorians. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s likely the storytellers of the oral tradition were ordinary people, speaking, not in the language of romance and refinement, but in the robust language and coarse humour of everyday folk.

We owe Snorri Sturluson (the 12-century Icelandic historian largely credited for the Prose Eddas) a significant debt of gratitude. Although his account of the Norse myths is fragmentary, without him, we might have lost much more. But Snorri was a Christian and an academic; his version of the Norse myths, written after the Christianization of Scandinavia, is strongly coloured by his own beliefs. Since then, every subsequent retelling of those vanished stories has been another step along the road to cultural appropriation. In the seventeenth century, a renewed interest in what was now being referred to as “Viking” culture led to more romanticized retellings of the myths (still widely regarded as history). Later, the Victorians – themselves great rewriters of history and cultural appropriators worldwide – added to the stew. Artists like Rackham; composers like Wagner; writers like Walter Scott; these, and not the bards and skalds, are responsible for the way we perceive the Norse myths and the culture from which they spring. Through them, and later, through Tolkien and many others, the fantasy of “Norse culture” was perpetuated.

But it is a fantasy. It’s no closer to the truth than the Marvel version – and at least, Marvel Comics don’t pretend to be writing history. The fact is, that academics, artists and poets have claimed the Norse myths for themselves for too long. The myths do not belong to them. They belong to the people; to the ordinary folk who worshipped the old gods and kept their stories in their hearts. To relegate those stories to the past, or to some imaginary era of heroism and epic poetry is to miss their point entirely.

That’s why I’ve chosen to write my version of Loki’s story in the language of here and now; to challenge the “epic” stereotypes created by artists and scholars. The title of “Gospel” is deliberately ironic – Loki, the liar, tells you himself not to expect the truth from him. His story is designed from the start to ridicule the tropes of epic writing. There is no reverence in Loki’s Gospel; no Biblical grandeur; no echo of the pompous Victorians. His voice is rarely heard in the myths, except in Lokasenna; the “flyting” in which Loki gleefully, cruelly and hilariously insults the gods, one by one, and exposes their failings. This is the source of “my” Loki’s voice; crude, irreverent, juvenile. There’s no heroic language here, just the voice of everyday folk. For too long, academics have claimed the Norse myths as their own. With THE GOSPEL OF LOKI, I’m trying to redress the balance. To take back the myths from the scholars at last, and give them back to the people.