LOKI AND ODIN: OLD GODS REPURPOSED BY NEIL GAIMAN, A. S. BYATT, AND KLAS OSTERGREN.
In the last forty or so years, authors have tried to get mileage out of non-classical mythology as well. Leslie Marmon Silko in Almanac of the Dead (1991) and other Native American writers cast their novels in terms of tribal myths. Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon (1977) and Gloria Naylor in Mama Day (1988) use the myth of the flying Africans to talk about the legacy of slavery. The characters in Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings (1983) and William S. Burroughs's The Western Lands (1987) seek ways to be brave enough to deserve afterlife, which the authors cast in ancient Egyptian mythical terms.
As part of this use of myth to increase the intensity of meaning in recent novels, the Old Norse gods Loki and Odin have emerged in the twenty-first century as major players. Given that Odin is characteristically inscrutable and Loki is notable for pathological anti-social destructiveness (thanks particularly to the Old Icelandic Lokasenna), this prominence invites curiosity and uneasiness. While not presented as heroes in Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001), A. S. Byatt's Ragnarok (2011), and Klas Ostergren's The Hurricane Party (original Swedish, 2007; English, 2009), Loki and Odin are central figures, and are used in ways that reflect our ecological behaviors. As such, they embody warnings or indictments, but because they represent attitudes rather than ecological issues, we are led to condemn their outlooks and only belatedly see the connections to our own behavior.
Authors recasting gods as characters have an interesting problem: such characters resist our attempts to understand their minds according to our usual psychological and neurocognitive assumptions and practices. Loki and Odin have no inner life--at least in the Old Icelandic texts. As A. S. Byatt felicitously puts it, such mythic figures "do not have psychology.... They have attributes" (159). A deity may be hasty or violent or sneaky, but will remain so throughout a particular story, though he or she may possibly exhibit some other trait in another story. Because Orpheus is an artist, we read into Orphic characters many of our assumptions about arts and artists. What, though, can we do with these figures from Old Norse culture who have totally different moral values from ours? They do not even operate according to romance heroic codes: they remorselessly lie, deceive, cheat, steal, and kill. What have they to say to us today? And how and why are authors such as Gaiman, Byatt, and Ostergren finding them artistically useful for engaging with the present?
Since Gaiman is odd man out in giving more scope to Odin, let me start with him and then look at the two novels that emphasize Loki. Unusually, both gods have trickster elements, and they are linked, thanks to their sworn blood-brotherhood, so they often appear together. (2) Indeed, they seem fatedly unable to escape one another, and their linkage brings on the destruction of the world. Gaiman is well aware of Loki's peculiar powers and gives them full play in his retelling of the myths in his Norse Mythology, but his Loki plays jackal to Odin's lion in American Gods. According to this novel, all the gods who came to America with immigrants are fading out of existence on that continent because cultural memory of them is waning. In place of those original gods, Americans worship such new gods as media celebrities, the latest technologies, flashy cars, clothes, and the like. The American Odin has survived as a grifter, and he plots a terrifying con: he tries to persuade the old and new gods to battle one another, and by consecrating that battle to himself, as was done in the Old Norse past, he will gain all the power once possessed by those slain. Loki will replenish his reservoir of strength by feeding on the resulting chaos.
Gaiman's stance on gods is not immediately clear. He makes Media and Technical Boy and their men in black disgustingly unattractive in their slick hollowness, phony smiles, and soulless menace, but this does not make the old gods lovable by contrast. Slavic Czernobog longs for the days when human sacrifices to him had their skulls smashed by a hammer. Bilquis, a goddess of sexual love, destroys the men she takes to bed. The many traditions that demand human sacrifice make plain that old religions in and of themselves are not attractive to modem views; part of the plot concerns identifying and destroying a Germanic kobold who kills one child a year to extend his own life but rewards the village with prosperity. The old gods, however, do embody emotions that are strong and human. The new gods are too shallow to exhibit any humanity. Gaiman seems to argue that human emotions have a terrible side, but if we reject all human essence for that reason, we lose the good side of human emotional experience, and the new gods will not supply us with any positive emotions. We also leam one comforting lesson from Czernobog late in the book: if you offer yourself as sacrifice freely, he refuses to take you. This broadens out to suggest that if you give yourself or something willingly, you will not be hurt. You may indeed gain benefits from true generosity--an implicit message that would not be out of place in Christian thought.
In American Gods, Odin and Loki are apparently killed, and the final battle is prevented by Odin's human mixed-race son, Shadow. Shadow hangs from the tree for nine days and nights, as did Odin to gain wisdom, but Shadow dies. He is brought back to life by the goddess Eoster (Christian echoes), so perhaps he is now immortal, or he may just be given a new lease on life. He travels to Iceland and finds that the Icelandic version of Odin still exists, even though the American version has ostensibly died. The Afro-Caribbean trickster Loa Anansi is still thriving at the end of the novel; he is sociable and a good drinking companion, if unreliable, and he still flourishes in African-American culture. Also surviving are the Native American gods and spirits, those who seem most truly one with the country, as the later imports never managed to be. Leslie Marmon Silko also believes that imported belief systems have never thriven in America, including Christianity; this is a central claim in her novel Almanac of the Dead. The later European and African imports mostly focused on humans' behaviors and rituals. What makes the Native American spirits different is that they are seen to grow out of the land and the native animals, representing or embodying them. As such, they rate far fewer black marks than we see in Gaiman's portrayal of other gods. Gaiman does not make a major point about the value of the land and gods that protect it, but that issue will emerge as more obviously important when we see it developed in the novels by Byatt and Ostergren. Gaiman's focus is primarily on the attitudes of Odin and Loki, and how they put their interests above those of everyone else.
Critics have made much of American Gods being a road novel, an exploration of America and its beliefs by someone from Britain whose cultural background includes Anglican, Jewish, and Scientological myths. The primary effect of this travelogue is to suggest that America seethes with different gods and has no shared core values. Irish leprechauns, North African djinn, Germanic kobolds, and Native American spirits of rocks and trees: these beings abound in the story, as do members of more familiar pantheons. Gaiman says little about Christianity or Judaism, their God being still alive for some worshippers, but that God no longer enjoys nearly universal recognition and belief. The novel showcases immense variety but points to the absence of a stable center. Not only does America lack a shared religion; it lacks shared images of a possible future toward which it should be striving. What attitudes and values should we adopt? Gaiman shows Odin and Loki making power the value they desire. Those who foment trouble can gain power directly, as Odin plans to do, or benefit from chaos, as is Loki's modus operandi. Strife produces profiteers, as does outright war. Odin and Loki's lives will be enriched, while those of the rest of the divine and human population will be impoverished and damaged.
In contrast to the road novel and multiple mythologies of American Gods, A. S. Byatt's Ragnarok: The End of the Gods is semi-autobiographical and focuses on Old Norse myths. Byatt's central figure is a "thin child" evacuated from the steel city (Sheffield) to the country during World War II. (3) Given a translated German book on Norse mythology, this very literate five-year-old finds its stories meshing with her wartime experiences. Odin's Wild Hunt becomes the night-time German bomber raids. The girl puzzles over the connection between these "Germanic" myths and the Germans who are trying to kill her family. The onrushing end of the world seems all too plausible in war terms. Where Byatt applies her imagination, and mingles adult insights with her childhood impressions, is in ecological issues. The Old Icelandic description of the World Tree morphs into a vision of the tree transporting water up its xylem to the farthest leaves that, in its detail and celebration, sounds very like a David Attenborough program on this process in The Private Life of Plants. In unmythological detail, she recounts how
[i]ts tall trunk was compacted of woody rings, one inside the other, pressing outwards. Close inside its skin were tubes in bundles, pulling up unbroken columns of water to the branches and the canopy. The strength of the tree moved the flow of the water, up to the leaves, which opened in the light from the sun, and mixed light, water, air and earth to make new green matter, moving in the wind, sucking in the rain. The green stuff ate light. (13-14)
Byatt lists all the animals mentioned in Old Icelandic sources that live in, on, or at the foot of Yggdrasil, nibbling its leaves or roots, but she adds to them and to such processes as spreading mulch, supplying the worms beneath, who in turn supply root food. She details the fungi and beetles, the tree-frogs and ants, all living off this central structure of the Norse world.
This might just be Byatt giving richness of detail to the much barer mythic description, but then she invents an oceanic equivalent to Yggdrasil, the giant kelp "tree" that she calls Randrasill. She gives as much detail to the inhabitants of the ocean in its various depths. In the Old Icelandic accounts, the Midgard Serpent, Jormungandr, was the principal inhabitant of the ocean, but Byatt is pushing for a richer ecology and a more thoroughly imagined world. The Vikings imagined a world in terms of Aesir and Vanir, Giants, light Elves, dark Elves (or dwarves), and their interactions, which consist mostly of killing, stealing, and outwitting one another. Their surviving mythic tales say little about the plant and animal life populating the various parts of their much-divided universe. Compare that sparseness to Byatt's oceanic realm:
The Sea-Tree stood in a world of other sea-growth, from the vast tracts of bladderwrack to the sea-tangles, tangleweeds, oarweeds, seagirdles, horsetail kelps, devil's aprons and mermaid's wineglasses. Shoals of great fish and small fish went by, wheeling packed globes of herring, rushing herds of tunny. There were salmon on their long journeys--chinook, coho, sockeye, pink, chum and cherry salmon. There were green turtles grazing in the fronds. There were streamlined sharks in many forms, thresher, shortfin mako, porbeagle, tope, leopard shark, dusky shark, sandbar shark and night shark, and hunters of the hunters of the hunted. (19)
Byatt's mythicized world pulses with life.
In addition to enriching the sketchy mythic world with her lush language and detailed observations, Byatt matches this kind of complexity with what her five-year-old self sees as she walks two miles to school through the wildflowers and plants, the "ordinary paradise of the English countryside" (3). She lists the flowers, and repeatedly refers to this variety as "the tangled bank," Darwin's phrase for the complexity of wild life. She relishes the mouth-filling words: "There were vetches and lady's bedstraw, forgetmenots and speedwells, foxgloves, viper's bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bittercress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celandines, campions and ragged robin" (34). In addition to the plants, she notes the sounds and antics of birds, tadpoles, spiders, and butterflies. The complexity of her observed world enters into her imagined version of the Norse world, and the world of gods gives force and dynamism to the observed hedgerow realm around her. The gods had power, and she relishes that, but she also applies what she knows from fairy tales, so she knows when they were making mistakes. Frigg's attempt to protect Baldur will not work, as the thin girl recognizes. Her two worlds intersect, and she draws conclusions and applications from both.
One of her conclusions is a feeling that the world will end, maybe as a result of the war, but more probably, she feels in retrospect as an adult, because of humanity's blind destruction of nature and its webs of interlocking life forms. When she is older, she sees symbolic equivalence in Naglfar, the ship made from the fingernails of the dead, and the vast rafts of plastic now amalgamating in the oceans. She does not believe in the myths, but they resonate for her and suggest meaning and patterns. She does not believe in the Christian myth either yet finds its patterns less satisfying than the grand crunch of Ragnarok, with its destruction of everything.
Finally, what makes that catastrophic ending probable for the young girl is Loki, her favorite among the Norse gods. Loki stands out for his curiosity. He studies things and tries to understand them. Whereas Thor just wants to bash enemies and assert his magically enhanced strength, Loki observes, thinks, and ponders. He is, in many respects, the scientist, fascinated by whatever natural phenomenon he is studying, and he often has no evil intent in his beguilement. Somehow, though, what he creates as the result of his pondering is used for evil by himself or others. The exemplification of this pattern is Loki's invention of the fish net, which other gods use to capture him in his salmon form before chaining him under the poison-dripping serpent until the end of the world. The fish net itself is ingenious and potentially useful and good, but someone else finds a way to use it that does its inventor no good, and the binding of Loki is the first fated step in the ending of all things.
Loki has other interesting characteristics. He is a shapeshifter--able to fly as a hawk or swim as a huge salmon. To help the gods break their word, he turns into a mare in heat who distracts the stallion helping the giant who is building Asgard. He becomes so completely female in that role that he bears a foal, Sleipnir. (4) He is thus male and female, both human and animal in shape, and though allied with the Aesir through blood-brotherhood oaths with Odin, he is not a member of the Aesir, and may be of Giant extraction or Giant-Vanir blood or something else. He is an enigma. No altars were raised to him, and we have no evidence of actual worship, which reduces any claim of his being a god in the strict sense. He has children by a giantess who are monsters: Fenrir the wolf, the Midgard Serpent, and the giantess Hel. By a goddess, he has two non-monstrous sons. Fetters strong enough to hold Loki imprisoned cannot be made from standard materials but the intestines of one son slain by the other can hold him until Ragnarok. Thus Loki's son pays with his life for his father's actions, and Loki's other monstrous children--the Midgard Serpent and Fenrir the wolf--help bring about the end of the world. Byatt intimates that we too are acting in ways that may cause the ruination of our heirs and the world through destructive applications of our scientific endeavors. She suggests this pattern through Loki's amoral curiosity and his refusal to consider consequences as well as the Midgard Serpent's destruction of the oceanic habitat. Loki's descendants join in a final war against the Gods and kill several of them, so war too is part of what they embody as an image reflecting our values and behavior.
Byatt lists other reasons for expecting the end of the world, the most salient being the nature of the other gods. They are stupid. They know the end is coming but can think of nothing to do to stave it off, and do not even try. She recounts their adventures of theft and trickery, crude schemes that gain no moral credit for any of them. They are good enough at fighting, but not at thinking or planning or being creative. Odin, in some ways, embodies this mental stasis. He has more knowledge of the future, at least in bits and pieces of vision, and he is supposed to be wise. However, he seems unable or unwilling to do anything about what he knows is coming. His oath of blood-brotherhood keeps him from slaying Loki or even banishing him. His wisdom does not lead him to action. The Aesir admire facing death bravely and prefer thus to live by their highest value rather than save life itself. Byatt's gods value their lifestyle over its continuance; in that, they resemble the humans in American Gods, who worship a high-tech and ecologically destructive lifestyle, no matter what the long-term consequences may be, and enshrine those values in their new gods. Preserving that lifestyle matters more to us than the ecological future, and arguments that we should drastically retrench our patterns of consumption fall into a void. Thus Gaiman and Byatt showcase the same moral blindness to the state of the world through their portrayal of gods and the values of their worshippers.
Byatt thus uses the background of World War II to exemplify the sort of international violence that has occurred periodically, much like the strife between Aesir and Giants. She senses that at some point our propensities will tip us over the edge into an unstoppable final scenario, whether through war or through ecological profligacy. Her childhood experience with the pre-herbicidal countryside's great variety of plants contrasts with her adult awareness of the impoverished fields and hedgerows. The cutting down and regularizing of the country's flora was first made emotionally real for her when her family returned to the city after the war. Her father cut down an unaesthetically-placed volunteer tree and drastically altered the neglected garden to make it neat and conventional. That same impulse was also taking place agriculturally throughout England, with pauperizing results. Songbirds, butterflies, and flowering weeds vanished or became rare because hedgerows were bulldozed or sprayed. The war morphed into a battle against nature, and the gods whose lives are devoted to war fit in with that mentality. Byatt thus combines her early memories with her adult vision of the world and society. The myths she chooses to reshape in a novel for the Canongate myth series let her put this social, political, and ecological warning in terms that give them some sense of meaning. In the gods, we can see ourselves. They do not offer answers; they themselves embody some of our problems. If we will not face those issues, then we too will meet a "Fimbulwinter," her name for the Icelandic "fimbulvetr" that sounds all too like a nuclear disaster, massive volcanic eruption, or meteorite impact, all of which put so much dust into the atmosphere that the sun cannot shine through. The result is several years of unbroken winter. The dinosaurs died out, thanks to such an extended winter, and volcanic dust brought on a little ice age in the Middle Ages, causing widespread famine. Such a monstrous winter could easily happen again at any time, causing starvation and war over much of the globe. Whereas Gaiman uses these gods to identify power as the principal, if not only, value that may destroy us, Byatt lets them showcase our feckless attitudes more generally, attitudes that can bring on destruction of culture and probably human life, whether through ecological disaster, warfare, or the unintended consequences of scientific experiment. Like Odin, we know our life patterns point to devastating problems, but we make no effort to change those behaviors. In the next section, we will see yet a third target in Ostergren's novel, but of the three Norse-inflected visions, Byatt's seems to me the scariest because her Loki has qualities that we often admire.
The Hurricane Party
We are given yet a different Odin and Loki in Klas Ostergren's Swedish novel Orkanpartyt, translated for the Canongate myth series as The Hurricane Party. Ostergren rapidly locates us in a dystopian, impoverished world, and we struggle to get oriented. Rain contains harmful substances, and finding corpses in one's stairwell or on the street is a routine experience. Hanck Orn, the main character, listens to a radio "concert" from the cathedral organ, but it consists of a single note, and people bet on when the note will change or what it will change to. Most inhabitants listen to this or to a sexual lottery program that often ends in the winning man's death after trying to survive the physical gymnastics of the voracious Tombola woman. Both entertainments encourage betting, a way of keeping people focused on the immediate present and distracting them from longer-term thinking. Ecological disintegration is fairly well along. Humans primarily live in the city, but time spent in the open air is physically damaging, so most of the city is domed or roofed over. People mostly get around on foot for lack of other transport, and provisions are meager. Electric appliances such as refrigerators and freezers are rare, so people shop often for small amounts of food. We do not know where this city is located, but it is somewhere near the sea and a line of outer islands, on which some people are well-paid to labor in the open air, and then return home for stints of recuperation under the protecting roof. This city seems cut off from the rest of the world. It is self-sufficient, and we have no idea what else may still exist.
Readers learn that this city is ruled by "the Clan," so we imagine a city whose politics are run by the Mob or some similarly sinister political or criminal machine. Only gradually do we realize that the Clan is actually the Old Norse pantheon. Thor is the hit man in a literal sense. Odin is the Godfather or capo di tutti capi. He and others are gathered in what was once a fancy resort hotel for a banquet. While the social atmosphere is apparently uneasy, it does not seem dangerous until Loki saunters in and starts flinging insults and accusations of infidelity, unmanliness, or cowardice--the famous flyting from Lokasenna. Byatt's Loki is often a scientist, stirring things up to see what will happen. He lacks any personal feeling for the gods or the social fabric in general, and so has no brakes when it comes to his actions. Ostergren's Loki seems more of a psychopath. He attacks any and all under a compulsion to cause trouble and a vague sense of satisfaction when he upsets people and the social order. He kills the human chef for sneezing, not knowing or caring that the act of sneezing is a quasi-religious action for that young man. Nor does he care that the savorous food being enjoyed is this young man's creation. Loki knows the kind of trouble his accusations will cause among the deities, but insofar as he has any positive feelings, he rejoices in that result. Perhaps because he does not feel at home anywhere, he resents even the fragile pretense of fellowship achieved by the Aesir in such meetings. So, one psychopath, or even just one egomaniac, can precipitate the first pebble that will eventually trigger the avalanche. In this damaged world with narrow tolerances, the fatal first step might be something quite small. (5)
If that is a gloomy view of how easily a member of the ruling class may bring on the end, what is the overall shape given to this story? Hanck, the main character, is grappling with the Clan and the murder of his son Toby, the sneezing chef. Hanck at first works with an insurance company until being fired for turning in a claim that Clan berserkers were responsible for destroying an insured building. He then comes across a large collection of manual typewriters, and in this world where black-outs are common and most work is increasingly low-tech, he cleans and adjusts them until they will work well, then sells them to support himself. He has little money but spends recklessly to get himself to the outer island where he was told that his son Toby had died. In a strange hotel run by nine sisters (figures from myth, though here enigmatic, mad, and otherwise difficult to interpret), he learns the circumstances of Loki's murder of the young man. He tries to track Loki (the shapeshifter) down, and evidently Loki feels enough curiosity to meet Hanck in a basement bar, but the god takes the guise of the prostitute Lucy, so Hanck does not recognize his questioner's true identity. Lucy gives him a sealed note that will get him into the government office of Odin. Petitioners stand in line outside that office for weeks, months, even years. When Hanck shows the note at a back entrance, a private plea from Loki to Odin, he is admitted immediately. Hanck demands to know where his son is, and in return for the information of where he was given the note, Odin takes him to Hel, the shadowy Norse world for the unheroic dead, where Hanck speaks briefly to Toby's spirit. Toby has lost interest in the living world, and is fairly angry with his father, both for having gone to pieces emotionally and for failing to tell him the truth about his mother, a one-night stand who was evidently seeking a pregnancy by someone outside her religious Sneezer's band. When Hanck leaves, he is deeply confused. He wants vengeance, and wants to see Loki suffer, so he is taken to where Loki is chained to rocks with the guts of his own son and poison drips on his face, but that does not quiet Hanck's inner turmoil. He has done nothing to achieve vengeance and can find no outlet for his violent emotions.
Hanck had once claimed to be a writer when he was snooping for information, and Odin astutely obliges him to accept that title and provide a report on what he has seen and learned. Back in the city, official committees are working to try to define all human emotions, and Odin demands that Hanck write a saga about raising and loving his boy. He had twenty years' experience of love, more than most, so he should define love as he has experienced it personally and individually. Though Hanck has been drinking a great deal and also considering suicide, he does not really seem drawn to death, despite the narrow range of rewards offered by this constrained and impoverished world. He realizes that his exertions in ferreting out the circumstances of Toby's death and demanding acknowledgment from Odin have given him a sense of energy: "demented recklessness and self-glorifying despair, the feeling of standing at the centre of the world, in the eye of the storm" (Ostergren 306). The demand to write compels him to reexamine his life and his relationship with the baby who became Toby, and to turn that reexamination into words that others can read. Odin demands that he not just hug his experience to himself, but that he share it with strangers. Odin is forcing him to new levels of awareness, and while suicide seems simpler at times, we get the impression that Hanck will probably write the story of his love. He will be forced to go from repairing typewriters to using one. He will need to turn his life into an act of transformation.
Like Byatt, Ostergren identifies ecological impoverishment as a major problem. Whether Hanck's account of love will have any effect on the badly damaged world is unclear. If he manages to tell his story, though, it will have something authentic in it that is missing in a committee-driven definition of love, even if it starts out "Once upon a time...." This world appears to be in fragile ecological shape, but as people have been reduced to much less consumerist patterns of living, humans may have reached a balance that need not tip over into Ragnarok any time soon. However, the lives most people experience fail to give them any sense of meaning in this world. We see no signs of creativity or commitment to anything. Mindless betting is their chief amusement. If more people reached Hanck's level of commitment--first to raising his son and then to describing the nature of that love--change might be possible. Ostergren does not offer much hope but seems to feel that leading a life that does not just take but gives to others as well might make a difference, or at least might enrich the individual and make each individual life more worth living. Ostergren touches on the same truth that Gaiman does: that which is freely given rewards the giver.
We accept the use of classical myth in modern works as a routine artistic tool, since those myths have, until recently, been the cultural capital of the educated class. We assume their ability to add value to a modem story. They echo the original, but suggest depths and further meanings, a quality that Joyce called a parallax effect. The Norse myths function in a slightly different fashion. Their uses in contemporary fiction are surprising, since ecological sensitivity and protecting the land have no place in the originals, and Loki's deliberate blizzard of insults does not strike us as a pattern we wish to copy. Nor do the originals say much of anything about love. Since most English-speaking readers do not even know the original Lokasenna or "Loki's flyting," they have no obvious way of linking its actions to the present. Scandinavians have some advantage there over other Europeans. What in these stories, though, can trigger a sense of relevance or meaning?
In Gaiman, Byatt, and Ostergren, we see a number of parallels to the present. The gods, and Odin in particular, do nothing to prevent Ragnarok. They see its ultimate coming but take no steps to prevent the end of all things. Gaiman's Odin knows the future but looks only for short-term personal gain. He cares nothing for the suffering that his plan may cause other gods or humans now or later. The destruction of his rivals for power is his aim. That kind of thinking is likely to lead toward disaster. Perhaps what seems so important to these authors is not Odin in particular, but the very idea of a final destruction that is not redeemed by a new beginning. The Norse outlook is much bleaker than that of Christianity, and in that sense more attuned to readers who do not believe in heavenly rewards or in afterlife. We see afterlife in the Norse stories, but it is limited. Come Ragnarok, even the dead will die.
Loki is more puzzling yet. In the most positive interpretation, his curiosity is the curiosity of the scientist. Byatt admires and enjoys the ways he goes beyond the other gods with this habit of mind. However, Loki does not worry about the objects on which he experiments. Byatt makes us realize how central that blindness is to us all by linking it to her own behavior as a small child:
Maybe most of all she loved the wild poppies, which made the green bank scarlet as blood. She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk--slightly damp, she thought--and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding, for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower-flesh. Which wilted almost immediately between finger and thumb. But there were always more, so many more. (36)
Her act of destruction is one of aesthetic pleasure, tinged with sexual overtones as she explores the hidden flesh. Neither she nor Loki, nor we, hold back; after all, there are so many other examples, why worry about this one that we experiment on? Her presentation of her own reaction is a clear argument that Loki resides in most of us. Perhaps just his better, curious side rather than the destructive, but in the long run, they may not be divisible. The impulse to explore and experiment, however worthy, seems doomed to be misused or at least to produce unintended consequences.
Scholars have speculated on why Odin and Loki are so often partnered. (7) That both have trickster elements in their characters is defensible, though I would be inclined simply to call Odin tricky and untouched by the moral standards with which we judge his behavior. His tricks seem less malicious and less done for the sake of making trouble than are Loki's. Odin's behavior can be interpreted as power politics by any means, but not Loki's, and Loki is the one who attracts Byatt and Ostergren. He fascinates because we see something of ourselves or of our actions in him. His refusal to care about consequences reflects our attitudes in many realms of behavior, but particularly in ecological matters. His refusal to see others as worthy of consideration is perhaps another trait that makes our inner tuning fork vibrate sympathetically. Obviously, saying that we are like Loki is harsh criticism, but by delivering it through mythology and applying it to ecology (a non-mythological topic), the authors avoid putting off readers with such an upsetting accusation. Besides, Loki as a method of critique applies to just about everyone likely to read the books. However careful some readers may be about recycling or eating organic, they almost certainly maintain a lifestyle that involves a lot of electricity, rare earths, and food raised in unhealthful ways or ways that waste water or damage topsoil. Loki's refusal to worry about consequences is a widely applicable trait. As readers, we may enjoy being shocked at his behavior, or feel virtuously ready to condemn him, but then we are shown ways in which his values are not unlike our own. Even Gaiman, who puts more emphasis on Odin than Loki in American Gods, shows his Norse gods facing a diminished future and deciding that they will try to kill off a lot of other gods so that they can empower a comfortable life for themselves, rather than having to scrounge for a very reduced level of comfort. The value put on one's own comforts and the determination to preserve and expand them at the expense of others speaks to our era.
Greek gods let us explore a wider variety of emotions and situations, many of them more attractive and high-minded. Orpheus's love and effort to bring Eurydice back from Hades stirs largely positive emotions. We see domestic disputes between Zeus and Hera over their backing different heroes in the Trojan war. We can sympathize with the difficult decision Aeneas must make to leave Carthage. Margaret Atwood, it is true, shows us the male-centered devaluing of women in her Penelopiad, where she and Penelope's maidservants can never forgive Odysseus for hanging those servants, although as slaves and low-status women, they had no choice but to sleep with the suitors. Commonly, though, myths from various cultures are used in novels to impart grandeur or importance to human concerns. These contemporary endeavors with Norse myth use gods for important issues, but darkly and forebodingly, not grandly or heroically. All three authors have placed the slightly altered versions of Western society at a cusp of ecological unraveling. Culturally, we are ignoring the warnings. Since the actors are gods, though, and not human stand-ins for ourselves, we get drawn into the stories and their values before we see the relevance to our own actions and how they point toward Ragnarok.
THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY
(1) For analyses of Orpheus as postmodern creator, sec Ihab Hassan. For romantic agonies expressed as Orpheus's descent into the underworld, see Walter A. Strauss. Elizabeth Sewell discusses American and particularly transcendentalist uses of Orpheus. Merrill Cole studies the homosexual and homocrotic element attaching to the myth.
(2) H. R. Ellis Davidson and Tomoaki Mizuno treat Odin and Loki as sharing trickster elements or as being two sides of that trickster impulse. Carl Holmberg, Brian Murdoch, and Preben Meulengracht Sorensen have worked on Loki's role as trickster and outsider (e.g., Sorensen, "Starkadr"). That has long been our way of interpreting his antisocial behavior as well as his cleverness, though where he fits in a Dumezilian system or a structuralist system or in comparisons to Irish and Carpathian mythology or in Christian understanding is much debated. For a summary of Loki research, see Ulf Drobin.
(3) Charlotte Beyer has produced the chief article to date on Byatt's novel, and analyzes it as a war-trauma narrative.
(4) Davidson (9) mentions the possibility that his monstrous children by an otherwise unknown giantess are born by a female version of himself, and he certainly appears as a giantess when tricking information about mistletoe out of Frigg, so his female roles suggest an unusually fluid gender/sexual identity. See also Richard North for arguments on his transsexuality, and Triin Laidoner for the possible derivation of this sexual duality coming from Lapp/Sami culture.
(5) John McKinnell has argued of Loki in the Lokasenna that his attacks are a deliberate attempt to push the gods into chaining him and thereby starting the process that will bring on the Ragnarok. He will then be freed and can destroy them all in satisfying chaos. That he himself will also die is apparently acceptable to him. Sorensen argues a modified version of that in "Loki's Senna."
(6) As Byatt points out, the hinted promise of a new beginning after the Ragnarok may be a Christian imposition on a bleaker original myth of total destruction (147). For a scholarly claim that the new beginning is endemic to the Norse myth, see John Stanley Martin, pp. 133 ff.
(7) H. R. Ellis Davidson treats Loki and Odin as variants on the Trickster; Thor Ewing calls Loki Odin's comic sidekick and parody; Jerold C. Frakes sees Loki as an anti-function in Dumezil's Indo-European system of triune deities; Einar Haugen identifies Loki as comic shadow or alter ego of Odin; Triin Laidoner argues that Loki and Odin both have shamanistic elements strongly reminiscent of the Sami culture; Preben Meulengracht Sorensen uses Odin and Loki to illustrate the culturally acceptable and non-acceptable patterns of marrying out in "Starkadr, Loki and Egill Skallagrimsson."
Beyer, Charlotte. '"Life Was a State in Which a War Was On': A. S. Byatt's Portrayal of War and Norse Mythology in Ragnarok: The End of the Gods" War, Myths, and Fairy Tales. Ed. Sara Buttsworth and Maartje Abbcnhuis. Singapore: Springer, 2017. 195-218.
Burroughs, William S. The Western Lands. New York: Viking, 1987.
Byatt, A. S. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011.
Cole, Merrill. The Other Orpheus: A Poetics of Modern Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. "Loki and Saxo's Hamlet." The Fool and the Trickster: Studies in Honour of Enid Welsford. Ed. Paul V. A. Williams. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1979. 3-17, 120.
Drobin, Ulf. "Myth and Epical Motifs in the Loki-Research." Temenos 3 (1968): 19-39.
Ewing, Thor. "The Birth of Lugh--Odinn and Loki among the Celts." Sinsear 8 (1995): 119-31.
Frakes, Jerold C. "Loki's Mythological Function in the Tripartite System." The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology. Ed. Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington. Taylor and Francis, 2002. Accessed online, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com. N. pag.
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----. Norse Mythology. New York: Norton, 2017.
----. The Sandman. 1989-1996. The Absolute Sandman. 4 vols. New York: Vertigo, 2006, 2007, 2008.
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Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. 1971. 2nd ed. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1982.
Haugen, Einar. "The Edda as Ritual: Odin and His Masks." Edda: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Robert J. Glendinning and Haraldur Bessason. Winnipeg: U of Manitoba P, 1983. 3-24.
Hoban, Russell. The Medusa Frequency. London: Jonathan Cape, 1987.
Holmberg, Carl Bryan. "Loki, the Norse Fool." Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Ed. Vicki K. Janik. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998. 295-97.
Hospital, Janette Turner. Orpheus Lost. London: Fourth Estate, 2007.
Kitt, Selena. The Song of Orpheus. Alpena, MI: Excessica LCC, 2010.
Laidoner, Triin. "The Flying Noaidi of the North: Sami Tradition Reflected in the Figure Loki Laufeyjarson in Old Norse Mythology." Scripta Islandica 63 (2012): 59-91.
Mailer, Norman. Ancient Evenings. New York: Little, Brown, 1983.
Martin, John Stanley. Ragnarok: An Investigation into Old Norse Concepts of the Fate of the Gods. Assen, NL: Van Gorcum, 1972.
McKinnell, John. "Motivation in Lokasenna." Saga-Book 22 (1986-1989): 234-62.
Mizuno, Tomoaki. "Loki's Buffoonery: The Dialects of Sagacity and Folly." Special issue, "Merlin et les vieux sages d'Eurasie." Iris 21 (2001): 105-22.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Murdoch, Brian. "Loki." Verfiihrer, Schurken, Magier. Ed. Ulrich Muller and Werner Wunderlich. Tubingen, DE: UVK, 2001. 555-61.
Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1988.
North, Richard. "Loki's Gender: Or why Skadi Laughed." Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe. Ed. K. E. Olsen and L. A. J. R. Houwen. Leuven, BE: Pccters, 2001. 141-51.
Ostergren, Klas. The Hurricane Party. Orig. pub. as Orkanpartyt (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers, 2007). Trans, from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally. Edinburgh: Canongatc, 2009.
Paffenroth, Kim. Orpheus and the Pearl. Salt Lake City: Magus, 2008.
Phillips, J. J. Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale. Berkeley: City Miner Books, 1966.
Powers, Richard. Orfeo: A Novel. New York: Norton, 2014.
Sewell, Elizabeth. The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Sorensen, Preben Meulengracht. "Loki's Senna in AEgir's Hall." Trans. Beatrice La Fargc. Idee-Gestalt-Geschichte Festschrift Klaus von See: Studien zur europdischen Kulturtradition. Ed. Gerd Wolfgang Weber. Odense, DK: Odense UP, 1988. 239-59.
----. "Starkadr, Loki and Egill Skallagrimsson." Sagas of the Icelanders: A Book of Essays. Ed. John Tucker. New York: Garland, 1989. 146-59.
Strauss, Walter A. Descent and Return: The Orphic Theme in Modern Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1971.
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|Title Annotation:||"American Gods," "Ragnarok" and "The Hurricane Party"|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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