Melvin Burgess, author of award-winning young adult novel Junk, delves into Norse mythology for his debut adult novel Loki. Told from the trickster god’s less than reliable point of view, this is a brilliantly original take on the mischievous mythological figure, detailing his life, many adventures and numerous romantic entanglements. Starting with his fiery birth in the hollow of a tree trunk, the book charts Loki’s life in Asgard and beyond, retelling many Norse myths.
Tell us about Loki and why you wrote about him.
I think we all know someone like Loki. He’s fun – there’s no better company anywhere. He makes you laugh, he entertains you. Although he’s likeable in so many ways, you know in your heart that he’s deeply untrustworthy, but he’s paid you so much attention and you’ve had so much fun together you like to think that his relationship with you is different. You’re mates! He’s got your back. He’s a liar, you know that, but somehow you think he’s your liar. He’s clever, talks a lot about loyalty and decency and about how important you are to him, so when you turn round one day and found he’s gone with your bank card in his pocket, or dropped you for someone else and just made a huge fool of you in public, you’re both surprised and unsurprised at the same time.
As I say, we all know someone like that – they’re all around us. But Loki is the chief of them all, the archetype – the actual god of mischief, father of lies and laughs. Despite everything, all his antics, his treachery, his deceit, his faithlessness, somewhere along the line he utters truths that no one else does. A trickster himself, he sees through all other tricks, all other lies. He can change your life, offer you opportunities that no one else can, make you see the world in a different, clearer way. I’m a great lover of mythology and Loki is my favourite character out of them all. I did think about writing about him, but in the end, he took over the story himself. Once his voice came, the book took off my hand. It was one of the best writing experiences I’ve had.
What was the research process for this book like?
This was something where I’d done most of the research long before. When I was a boy, my dad used to work for Oxford University Press and he used to bring me home books of folk tales, myths and legends. My favourite by a long way was Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes, by Barbara Leonie Picard. I loved that book, particularly the stories of the gods, and of course particularly the stories involving Loki. I knew them pretty well off by heart already. Also, some years ago, I wrote two books based on one of the Norse sagas, the Volsunga saga, called Bloodtide and Bloodsong, so I was already steeped in this mythology. I did go over the original sources as well – the Younger Edda, the Elder Edda and other bits and pieces. But most of the groundwork had already been done. I just had to let Loki tell the old tales from his point of view – which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be very different from the versions that were handed down to us from other sources.
How much does Loki’s take on events like the creation of man and woman diverge from “traditional” myth?
Loki’s view is that the stories that have come down to us are little more than propaganda, told to paint the warrior gods Thor and Tyr to the best advantage, and that he is being used as a scapegoat to take the blame for all the problems they caused. How much you believe is a matter for you to decide – but Loki does have a take on less political areas of mythology, and the creation of man and woman is one of them. The traditional view is that the first man and woman were created out of logs of wood that Odin found when he was out with his brothers, Villi and Ve, walking in Midgard, the Middle Earth, one day. Loki’s version is less complimentary. It seems that the substance the gods used was not as attractive as wood, and that what the gods found that day was – how shall I put this? – the result of one of the giants visiting that part of the world being caught short.
In an interview with Big Issue North, Madeline Miller, who used Greek mythology as the basis for her first two novels about Achilles and Circe, said she thought myths are “containers to hold all of our big emotions, to give us a sense of catharsis for them”. What can myths offer modern readers and writers today?
I’ve read Madeline Miller’s work and I like it a lot. I like what she says about myths as well. They seem in many ways to provide a kind of baseline, a fundamental statement about all sorts of things that we think and feel. Emotions certainly, but I think it goes deeper than that. For me, stories can be something to do with the roots of meaning. The universe itself has no meaning in it – we are the makers of meaning, both emotional and intellectual. So I think that myths are expressions of the basis of meaning. Carl Jung called them and the characters in them archetypes, and although I’m not sure that that’s entirely true, I do think that they lie close to the roots from which meaning springs. It’s for this reason that we keep going back to them, reinterpreting and making them work for our own times. A good story – and a good storyteller – taps into the places where meaning itself begins.
Loki is keen to establish a new “Golden Age… if only the right people could get their hands on the wheels of power”. What does this novel have to say about the politics of power and those who are in charge?
Basically it’s reminding us that people who are attracted to power are very often greedy, selfish shitheads who are only interested in themselves and in spreading their own power. All too often they make the stories and myths – the narratives, as modern parlance has it – that govern our lives; and the quality of those lives is not usually not very high up their lists of priorities. We see them all around us at the moment, self-righteously ruining our lives and the world we live in for their own satisfaction, all the time proclaiming that they’re doing it for our good. What bullshit it is.
Loki has become a well-known figure in popular culture thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How much did you write into or against the way this character has been represented on screen in recent times?
I knew the Norse myths long before Marvel came along. I enjoy Marvel – it’s fun, and of course these stories and characters belong to us all and are available for anyone to interpret as they wish. Having said that, the Marvel versions of Loki and co don’t tickle me up much – the originals are much wilder and get their teeth far deeper into the roots of things, for me, anyway.
You’re known for your young adult novels. What compelled you to write for an adult readership?
For me, YA is not so much about writing “for” young adults as writing about being that age. It’s a very exciting period of life to write about, because it’s a period of change – the biggest change of all, from child to adult. It’s all about becoming. But I’ve written many books about that subject now, and I just feel there’s nothing much more for me to say. And when you run out of things to say, what’s the point in saying it? I’d never say never, but for now I’m more interested in writing books for an older readership.
Are there any other mythological figures that you’d like to explore in fiction? And what are you working on next?
I have a crazy dream about working my way through the Norse pantheon and writing in the voice of each god and goddess. In reality, that’s not going to happen. Not many of them have such complete stories around them as Loki does. Most exist in only a few separate tales, and the goddesses in particular are badly served, only really coming down to us in dribs and drabs. It seems that a great deal has been lost over the ages, which is very sad. I don’t really see the point of making the whole thing up from scratch.
But one or two do have enough. At the moment I’m working on the story of Volundr, the smith god. He exists in the old stories sometimes as a man, sometimes as a god, so clearly he’s a case of a man who turned into a god – that’s interesting. Change is always a thing I love to write about. That’s well under way now. Volundr is interesting, but the golden egg in the nest of Norse myth is definitely Odin. I’ve not got stuck into that yet, but I think I’m beginning to see a way of doing it. Now, there’s a challenge!