Postmodern Re-casting of Loki, Trickster God
(Guest Faculty, Dept. of English, Bharatha Mata College, Thrikkakara)
Mythology and folklore are fascinating for most of us. There is hardly a soul who hasn’t at some point of time or the other been a steadfast believer of a certain legend or mythic story. Such tales also typically include reverberations of a certain echo: a theme (good versus evil, the rewards of being pure and guileless etc.); they tend to contain certain certain archetypal characters or figures ( wise old man, evil disfigured villain, brave hero etc). What these stories tell us is important, which account for their everlasting popularity. As Joseph Campbell elucidates in The Power of Myth, “These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries and inner thresholds of passage” (2).
Thus the knowledge one gathers from myths are a kind of deep, rich,” life-vivifying” (Campbell 2) kind which are at once spell-binding as well as instructive. Into this, comes the Gods and the Villains of mythology, who appeal to us mortals especially because of their recognizable weaknesses. The immortals of mythic lore partially represent some abstract concept but also at the same time depict something intensely humane. As Campbell comments, “Imperfection is lovable. That is why some people have a very hard time loving God, because there’s no imperfection there. You can be in awe, but that would not be real love. It’s Christ on the cross that becomes lovable.”(4) What he propounds is at once a complex yet, a basic human desire – it is one’s desire to be understood, to be accepted, to recognize a kindred soul in another. This paper intends to look at one of the most evilest character that inhabits the Scandinavian mythology – that of Loki, and establish the thread of cultural impact this character has had over the years.
There is on in every mythology – a trickster god. Usually a male, a trickster god exists on the boundaries of good and evil which makes them an entertaining and highly ambiguous figure. Be it Krishna in Hindu mythology or Prometheus in Greek mythology or the Coyote in Native American mythology – their actions can be complex to decipher. Playing tricks, instigating treachery or war, planning evil – they tend to exist outside the norms of expected norms of society. They are mischievous, crafty, cunning and yet at many instance friendly and clownish. This makes analyzing their nature and their purpose in myth to be one riled with ambiguity.
Loki, in Norse or Scandinavian Mythology is the son of a giant, handsome but evil. He is also supposed to be a shape-shifter, able to alter the shape of his form at will. Often tricking the gods by changing his shape- he steals the love-goddess’ necklace as a fly, fools Thor in the guise of fire and helps the Giants to steal apples of immortality – something akin to what Prometheus did for the Greeks. Bullfinch describes Loki in the following terms, “..described as the culminator of the gods and the contriver of all fraud and mischief. His name is Loki. (Bullfinch 107) He does appear as a harmless trickster when in a comic episode he helps Thor in getting his hammer back from Skrymir the Giant.
Loki’s progeny is a list of who’s who in the world of evil. He has fathered the dangerous giant wolf Fenris, the second is the Midgard serpent who encircles the whole world and the third being the goddess of the underworld, Hel. His most evil treachery however would stem from his role in the death of the beloved god Baldr. For his role in the treacherous act of Baldr’s death, Loki is punished – he is caught and chained to a rock where the poisonous venoms of a snake constantly drips over his face causing him agony. His wife Sigyn holds a cup to catch the venom, but it falls on his face whenever she goes to empty it. He is destined to be tied there till Ragnarok, the end of the world and the destruction of the gods.
Loki’s character has made many appearances on the three Thor movies as well in two of the three part instalments of The Avengers. The movies are themselves based not on Norse mythology but on its interpretation by co-creator Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Marvel comics. Using creative liberty, they had altered a very significant part of Loki’s story from the actual myth. Loki, has in their version been adopted by Odin when he was a baby, thus making Loki the half-brother of Thor. In the film versions, Loki resents the importance placed on Thor, however grows up alongside him, with Frejya his adoptive mother even passing down some of her skills to him. There are many instances in the film versions where one can observe that Loki cares for his half-brother and his adoptive parents even though his outward actions seem to suggest otherwise. Why has Loki, who is deceitful, cunning, wicked and scheming suddenly developed a new side? What led the adaptation to reinterpret him in all his complexities? Postmodernism will help us answer that question.
Lyotard famously expressed his incredulity against metanarratives and out of that was born a sense of discord between what was hitherto considered the ‘truth’. The one-dimensional aspect of historical truth would be further challenged by Foucault and thus bringing with it an end to the era of a single truth. In the postmodern (or even a post postmodern world) it becomes highly pertinent to note the pluralities of perspectives and the multiplicities of truth(s). As Chris Barker elucidates: “For postmodernism, knowledge is perspectival in character – that is, there can be no one totalizing knowledge that is able to grasp the ‘objective’ character of the world. Rather, we have and require multiple viewpoints or truths by which to interpret a complex, heterogeneous human existence” (Barker 20).
It is this very “complex, heterogeneous human existence” that a character like Loki helps the contemporary audiences to explore. The feeling of being a subordinate, the marginalization of a person who is equally capable if not more than the other, the constant reminder of being different and the ultimate human desire – the need for recognition. All these complexities and more is what Loki’s character, through the cinematic perspective delves into. Albeit, it has a commercial purpose too behind it but nevertheless, it makes a significant cultural statement.
Thus Loki’s character in the film adaptations can be said to deal with postmodern ideas through a fairly straightforward narrative. When in the course of the film we get to know Loki’s back story, it brings out, in our postmodernistic fragmented psyche, a particular sympathy for the underdog. Adopted by Odin and Freya at the end of the Asgardians' war with the Jotuns, Loki is treated as a prince of Asgard and was never informed of his true heritage throughout his youth. Loki is smaller and thinner, and has a darker hair colour while paler in complexion than the Asgardians. Throughout their childhood Loki spent much of his time trying to prove himself as Thor's equal, while studying magical arts rather than physical prowess. Loki becomes the Other, as opposed to Thor. Even in the way they have been conceptualised and translated onscreen shows us in many ways the binaries between the two. Light-haired/dark-haired, muscular/lean, loud/reserved, impulsive/thinker. Whereas, Loki is admittedly jealous of his half-brother, in many instances he stands up for him – when Odin decides to punish Thor and make him wait to take over the throne of Asgard, Loki tries to intercede on his behalf but he isn’t successful and Thor is banished from Asgard thus moving the plot forward.
And when the viewer’s begin to sympathise with him, Loki’s deceitful nature springs up again – he strategically plans to kill Odin and his biological mother in one go, and also trying to prevent Thor from returning. His actions though seemingly vicious, is his own version of justice. He is extremely intelligent but yet sad and broken. His search for truth had lead him to confront his adoptive father, had made him realise the truth of his origins. Thus began a new psyche in him – a need to wreck vengeance on those whom he considered to have denied him his ambitions. Following a true postmodern formula, the crisis isn’t resolved, a real solution doesn’t materialise. The existence of multiple realities, and truths - Lokis is a villain, who has redeemable values, but which renders him a highly ambiguous but a perfectly postmodern reinterpretation.
As the actor, Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki on screen puts it: Every villain is a hero in his own mind. That statement recaptures the essence of what Campbell says - what is lovable is imperfection and not the ideal. That should put things into perspective.
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. SAGE, 2011.
Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch’s Mythology. RHUS, 1959.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor, 1991.