With Loki by Melvin Burgess &
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
Who doesn’t want to rewrite the Norse myths from Loki’s POV? (I definitely do. And if I get a chance to give Sigyn her rightful place in the story, all the better. But we’ll get back to Sigyn later.) I’ve recently finished Loki by Melvin Burgess, and I’ve been comparing it mentally to The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris, and wondering what makes a mythical retelling work, what doesn’t, and what are the common pitfalls.
The first thing to decide, when delving into a mythology and making it into a novel, is what order to tell the story in. Myths are often eclectic, without a strong timeline: making them into a coherent plotline, with a feeling of continuity between each story, is a big part of the challenge. Picking an order will shape your story: for example, Burgess justifies Odin and Loki becoming blood-brothers by using a myth in which Odin is bound, and needs Loki to pay his ransom, as character motivation. Because he’s stuck, Loki asks Odin to commit to their friendship and to brotherhood, and Odin has to comply. This is an interesting way to use the source material: ordering it in a way that creates character motivation.
Circe by Madeleine Miller does something similar, justifying some of Circe’s actions through the order of the story: notably, she is attacked just before she meets Ulysses and his men, thus justifying her transforming them into pigs to pre-emptively protect herself.
The downfall of all this is that it’s very hard to make something feel like it has an overarching plot when stringing bits of a barely-consistent tales together. Both Harris’s and Burgess’s novels suffer from it, and feel a tad bitsy, without a strong arc.
The second thing to decide, when rewriting a myth, is how to create consistent characters out of inconsistent characterisation. Loki, for example, is a character who goes from comic relief (he sleeps with a horse and gives birth to the foal Sleipnir, he ties his balls to a goat to make a woman laugh) to a sinister figure (he’s the birther of monsters who eat the gods at Ragnarök, he kills Heimdallr and Baldur) to a friend or ally of the gods (he’s Odin’s blood-brother, he travels with and helps out Thor).
Harris and Burgess both chose to make Loki likeable, with flaws. Deciding in what light to paint those events, how to depict Loki in them, is part of the fun.
When characterising the Norse myths, Sigyn is an interesting secondary character. We know very little about her, except that she’s married to Loki, stays with him when he’s bound to protect him from a poisonous snake, and that her name means ‘the friend of victory’ – literally, sigr (victory) and vina (friend). In The Gospel of Loki, she’s treated as the one real victim of Loki’s tricks, the only transgression he regrets – the person he condemned to stay under the earth with him. Burgess goes the opposite way, and paints her as the goddess of victory who only stays with Loki as long as he’s winning, then leaves. She’s punished alongside him, but for different reasons. Two authors picked two opposite interpretations of her, yet both are valid. (Sandman, tangentially, makes her a non-entity, a person with no agency and maybe even no understanding of what’s going on about her.)
The third fun choice to make is to pick a POV. Harris and Burgess both decided on a first-person POV – I’m not sure it’s essential, but it does allow for an unreliable narrator, which makes sense in the context of an inconsistent mythology. It also brings us very close to the character, in stories that generally exist as third-person omniscient texts, so it makes sense to take something wildly different for a rewriting.
Both authors addressed their reader, which is an intriguing quirk. It allows them to acknowledge that the reader knows the story already, that they’re hearing a new, different version of it. To contrast this, Circe is written in first-person, but she isn’t aware that she’s addressing a reader who already knows her story. Maybe Loki lends himself to the tongue-in-cheek, ‘hello dear reader’ address.
Next, the writer has to decide on the tone of the story. In Loki, Burgess went for grimy, gritty, crass sometimes. He wanted an anti-god story, anti-cleanliness and vulgar. He challenged a lot of the canon stories, stating they were lies, and rewrote others, painting the gods as the villains and Loki as a hard put-upon friend of love and peace. I’m not sure it always works, but it is a different take on the myths. In The Gospel of Loki, Harris went for high fantasy, a bit fluffy, with a light, adventurous feel to the stories. Again, it’s a choice – it makes for a fun read, but the unsavoury bits have to be cut out, all the death and blood and murder needs to be toned down somewhat.
Finally, and this is probably the hardest narrative decision, the writer has to guess how well their reader knows the original myth.
Of course, that will change according to each reader. It’s something for the author to fine-tune: how much they explain, how much they assume the reader knows. Burgess decided we knew the myths very well (to the point of recognising characters such as Angrboda on sight, which I did, but I’m sure not everyone would). On the contrary, Harris stuck close to the original myths, rewriting them without twisting the facts of the story much, making them more accessible for readers who didn’t know the myths well, but maybe less challenging for readers who were well-acquaintanced with the source material.
To summarise, there’s plenty to do when rewriting a myth, although there are a few pitfalls to look out for. Ordering the myths to create a consistent narrative is fun, but the risk is that the story feels unstructured, disjointed. It’s a chance to change or play with the characterisation of well-known characters. Any POV will do, but a first-person POV allows the writer to play with the unreliability of old stories by having an untrustworthy narrator. It requires the author to guess how well their audience knows the source material, and deciding what tone they want to go for, before they write their own spin on the story.
What are you waiting for? Pick a story you love and get your hands dirty!
21 Oct. 23