Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interview with M. D. Lachlan (Wolfsangel), Part Three

Click here for Part Two of the interview.

KS - In another Wolfsangel scene, Vali prays, "Lord Loki, prince of lies, friend to man, let me endure. Let me endure." Despite the beliefs of some neo-pagans today, there is actually no historical evidence of there ever having been a cult of Loki. Recently, a producer for the History Channel got very short with me when I pointed this out, as he’d already planned an episode around the idea of Loki’s supposed worshipers.

Loki by Carl Emil Doepler (1882)

Near the midpoint of the book, you write that "Vali was not religious but for a heartbeat he realized the truth of the gods of his people. Every one was a god of death – of war: Freya, goddess of fertility and war; Thor, god of thunder and war; Freyr, god of pleasure and prosperity but battle bold. Only Loki was not a fighter. Only Loki stood at the sides and laughed, a laughter more deadly to the self-important gods than any sword or spear. No wonder they had chained him." In Norse myth, Frey gives away his mystic sword for interracial love. Balder, Bragi, Idunn, Njord, Idunn, Sif and others have no connection to war – and Loki famously taunts them for it.

Vali later says that "Loki is an enemy of the gods, not of people. When did you ever hear of him acting against men? He kills giants, he kills gods, but men he helps or leaves alone." Thor is, of course, the giant-killer of myth. Loki’s involvement in the murder of Balder is portrayed in the Edda as unequivocally evil. Placing your book after death of Balder and binding of Loki means that – in mythic time – it’s after Loki has become a wholly wicked creature. His next step is to destroy the world and kill all of humanity (save for one lucky couple).

In The Star-Crossed Stone, Kenneth J. McNamara writes of the pentagram: "turn it upside down and the black dogs of hell are unleashed, symbolizing, at least from the nineteenth century onward, evil and the devil." After thousands of years of use of the pentagram as a positive symbol, we have the Late Romantic era to thank for its unshakeable association with Satanism and, eventually, heavy metal of the 1980s. Recently, there seems to be a similar – if reverse – process at work on Loki. Despite being a clearly evil figure by the end of the mythic timeline, there is a trend to make him a sympathetic character. Is this part of a Western focus on anti-heroes and villains as being intrinsically more interesting than simple heroes? What does it say about the values of our contemporary culture?

McNamara's The Star-Crossed Stone

ML - People have been doing this for years. I mentioned Don Quixote, but I could easily chime in with Richard III, the figure of the malcontent in Elizabethan drama, Tom Jones, Becky Sharpe, Moll Flanders, Sam Spade – Robin Hood, for goodness sake! However, we are at a point in history where it is difficult to find a traditional Roy-Rogers-style hero. The growth of the anti-hero says nothing negative about us at all. It just says that we enjoy moral complexity and won’t settle for simple categories of good and evil. I’m not sure "anti-hero" is even a meaningful phrase any more. "Complex hero" is less snappy but more descriptive.

Actually, I think it’s only partly true that we want greater complexity from our literature. We’ve seen a huge growth in the anti-hero but not a corresponding growth in the anti-villain, at least not in genre fiction. Modern films and books still bristle with straightforwardly horrible villains who almost appear in a puff of smoke with a thunderclap. Not every depiction of a villain is so straightforward, and moral complexity has been introduced into the figure – Hannibal Lecter springs to mind, although I’d argue he’s actually an extreme form of anti-hero, as is Dexter and Tony Soprano. But the traditional villain is in much better shape than the traditional hero. Hollywood still usually characterizes its antagonists as in some way intrinsically bad (and often British!), not simply misguided or acting from legitimate but competing interests to the hero.

Tony Soprano with Viking beard

In both Wolfsangel and Fenrir, I have complex villains. However, when I wrote Lord of Slaughter – third in this series and out next year – I decided to come up with one who is a little more down-the-line evil. It was quite good fun writing a no-holds-barred nasty piece of work.

I was thinking of the main Norse gods when I wrote that speech for Vali. I wouldn’t read too much into Loki’s taunts – he also taunts Thor for hiding in battle, something that has no corroboration in other stories. Also Eldir, a serving man at the home of the gods, says of the Norse gods who are drinking in a hall: "Of their weapons they talk, and their might in war." He, unlike Loki, is not associated with lies so we may trust his word better. All the gods you mention are in the hall that Eldir is referring to. Loki is outside it when the action begins.

You are correct – there is no evidence for any worship of Loki. However, I don’t think it unusual that people at odds with their society – and Vali is in some ways that, a figure who is thinking beyond the constraints of his upbringing – should identify with marginal figures from the myths. Again, I’m not making an academic point or trying to suggest that Vali is even in a cult of Loki; it’s an interpretation that just feels right. Also, remember in the story that Vali is Loki’s son. It’s the consciousness of that that’s dawning on him.

Vali by Carl Emil Doepler (1882)

The notion of Loki as a hero is interesting. Again, I didn’t think of him as that. As far as I recalled, I was being true to the myth to make him antipathetic to the gods but friendly to men.

My Loki hates heroism and finds heroes boring, self-centred egotists. Loki is not straightforwardly heroic, but he is outwardly sympathetic to ordinary humans. I’ve hunted for the story where I formed this impression and can’t find it. Perhaps you will know it – he basically helps two islanders outwit a giant, I recall.

KS - Despite the book’s final scene – in which Loki gives his own spin on Christian mythology – your version of Loki seems grounded in a Judeo-Christian worldview. Early on in the novel, he describes Odin's quest for knowledge: "He would eat the world! . . . He would know it all, devour every mystery until the whole of creation came at his call. He’s mad, you know. He drank so deeply of the knowledge well but the waters splashed on that burning hunger and boiled all his brains. Yet still he wants to know, ever more, ever more." Although this echoes the refrain from the Eddic poem Völuspá ("Would you know more, or what?"), the idea that the quest for knowledge is a dangerous thing comes straight from the Book of Genesis. Near the end of the novel, knowledge of the runes brings "insight and unhappiness." I understand your portrayal of Odin as battle-mad, but why did you choose to portray Odin’s quest for knowledge – such a fundamental part of his character – in this negative light?

Odin at Mimir's Well of Knowledge by Emil Doepler (1905)

ML - A quote from Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One") from the Poetic Edda:
A measure of wisdom each man shall have
But never too much let him know
For the wise man’s heart is seldom happy
If wisdom too great he has won.
It’s right there in the source text, along with "Let no man the fate before him see / For so is he freest from sorrow." The runes bring unhappiness because they reveal the truth of the human place in the schemes of the gods.

This doesn’t invalidate your point of view about the quest for knowledge being a fundamental part of Odin’s character and, in some ways, a very positive one. It just shows there are different strands within the Eddas and, as a creative writer, I feel free to pick up the ones I like and discard the ones I don’t.

Odin, Wisdom-Seeking Wanderer
by Arthur Rackham (1911)

I would accept that Loki views knowledge as a dangerous thing, but this predates Christianity. Pandora’s Box springs to mind and the myth of Prometheus. Also the idea that mystic knowledge is privileged and should be treated with great care, accessible to only a few, is central to many religions – from that of shamans through the medieval Catholic church right up to modern Masonic cults. It is Christian, but not exclusively so.

The association of knowledge with unhappiness comes out of my conception of magic – that it involves a descent into madness. At other points in Wolfsangel, knowledge is seen as very desirable. Vali wishes he had a Christian scribe to help him out and longs to learn to read. Also, remember that it’s Loki who’s describing Odin’s quest. He doesn’t like him. Loki is seen as a figure who celebrates the ordinary sensual pleasures – it’s enough for him to enjoy the light of a spring morning. He doesn’t need to know where it comes from or why it seems to glitter. So his quest for knowledge is only negative if you believe Loki and see the state of magic-induced madness as a bad thing.

KS - Odin’s self-sacrifice on the World Tree to gain mystic knowledge – which he then shares with humanity – is often compared to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the benefit of his human followers. In your book, Odin is portrayed as completely selfish, and Loki becomes the Christ figure as you foreground his binding and suffering. When Loki appears next to Vali in battle against the Danish invaders, Vali asks, “Are you with us?” Loki touches his arm and says, “I have been with you since the beginning.” Not quite “it was then that I carried you,” but we’re definitely leaving Trickster Land and getting into Christlike “friend and protector” territory. Why did you decide to portray Loki in this fashion?

"It was then that I carried you" - Footprints now available on a coffee mug

ML - He’s Vali’s father and has appeared to reassure him. I hope there isn’t a parallel with the "it was then that I carried you" story. I find the Bible evocative, inspiring and frightening. The footprints story has always struck me as a piece of unbearable latter-day schmaltz! I remember hearing it for the first time as a kid and having difficulty keeping my dinner down.

Loki is clearly an interesting figure in Norse myth and one who doesn’t behave particularly consistently. He is capable of being helpful to the gods, of being mildly mischievous and of being murderous. Again, I approached this as a creative writer, not an academic. I didn’t particularly plan for Loki to appear – he came with Saitada. She was not a planned character but only came into the book when I realised Authun needed someone to feed the babies on his trip to the Troll Wall. So I put them with their mother. Then she kind of took over.

The Troll Wall is a difficult climb (even without carrying babies)

I knew the twins were Loki’s children, so I needed to account for how a slave girl came to lie down with a god. That’s when Loki appeared. He’s not Christlike when he seduces Saitada. My mental model for him was John Hurt playing Caligula in the BBC series I, Claudius. He’s not Christlike – he is governed by extremes of emotion and is a little deranged himself.

John Hurt's Caligula enjoys cross-dressing as much as Loki does!

We have one view of Odin in Wolfsangel, and it’s a view that lasts the first three books. However, there is a large development planned in Book IV that shows another view of Odin. Is there a possibility Loki might have been lying? Or – more consistent with my Loki – speaking truths that he knows people will misinterpret?

KS - In the last few years, neo-pagans have looked to Loki as a positive role model, especially for gay and transgendered individuals. I understand the impulse, but the Loki of Norse myth very clearly progresses from Trickster to Destroyer of Worlds. You have said that "Ragnarök is not the end of the world, as the Edda make clear. It’s the end of the old gods, and a time of great trial for the world, but the world survives and new, kinder gods take over." This seems to posit Loki as an agent of positive change, yet the Eddas clearly portray him as an evil figure who brings about the death of Balder – "the wisest of the [gods], and the fairest-spoken and most gracious" – and whose actions indiscriminately kill gods and humans and drown the world. How do you read, for example, Snorri’s statement that Loki is "the Æsir’s calumniator and originator of deceits and the disgrace of all gods and men"?

Loki helps Hoder kill Balder by Carl Emil Doepler (1882)

ML - It’s an interpretation. I’m not presenting a paper on Norse myth, I’m offering a view. What happens when you write is that the characters take on a life of their own. The Edda has its view of Loki, I have mine. Now I know that sounds enormously arrogant, but Snorri is doing what I am doing – changing the form in which the myths are rendered. These are part of a spoken tradition. Snorri is writing them down and, in doing so, inevitably changing them. OK, he’s nearer to the source material, but that doesn’t mean we have to take his word as inviolable – not as creative writers anyway. It would be different if you were coming at the text as an academic.

Also, the world renews after the gods are gone – Loki’s actions make the place better – unless you read the last couple of verses of Völuspá. So it’s a telling of a story from a different point of view.

I still perform as a stand up comedian, and the spoken discipline is entirely different to the written. Things that work well in written form die on stage, and stage jokes often don’t quite cut the mustard on the page. So I think it likely that these myths were told in many different ways down the years and, in the case of skilled storytellers, adapted on the hoof. If the storyteller senses the audience are enjoying Loki, he will elaborate a bit more. If they’re bored by him, he’ll dismiss him and move on. Snorri gets a snapshot of the myth and – as it’s all we have – then that’s what we must go on when making our judgments. But you can’t regard it as canonical in the same way you would a novel.

Snorri Sturluson - creative writer or academic?

Odin brings war into the world. With his death it disappears. Now, you can view that as a bad thing if you like, but I interpret it as a good one. And, yes, it does entail me ignoring certain statements of Snorri’s, but that’s fundamental to the nature of storytelling, and it’s been that way ever since people began telling stories. As I’ve compared myself to a Nobel Prize winner, I may as well compare myself to Shakespeare. If you look at what he does with Macbeth, for instance, he entirely ignores the actual history and turns Macbeth from a reasonable real ruler into a monstrous fictitious one. I don’t think it works as a criticism to say, "But, Shakey, baby, you haven’t got it right." No, but it’s rather irrelevant to the drama Shakespeare created.

KS - The names of your characters all resonate with allusion. In a seeming editorial oversight that perhaps refers to an earlier version of the character’s name, Authun is called Authwi at one point – from the Icelandic auðui (“wealth”). This seems to underscore the emptiness of this haunted king’s physical treasure and power. Near the end of the novel, Authun’s battle with the werewolf occurs in a chapter entitled “The Battle in the Hoard Cave” – an echo of Beowulf’s struggle with the Night Flyer. Authun’s wife is Yrsa, named for the Icelandic saga character who is both sister and mother of the hero Hrólf Kraki – a man with a name that itself references the wolf. Adisla’s mother (“a noted healer”) is Disa, from dís (“lady,” “woman”) – but also associated with dísir (“goddesses”). Bragi is named for the poet of the gods, and he – like a courtly skald – tries to instill young Vali with a love of tradition, history and Viking manliness. This creates a deeper current beneath the surface of the text for those familiar with Norse myth and legend. Did you create characters and then search for meaningful names, or did the names suggest the characters?

Beowulf vs Dragon in DC Comics (1975)

ML - The answer is "neither." Again, I have to say that I approach this stuff as a creative writer, not an academic. So I pick names I like. The correspondences – particularly those of Disa and Bragi – did strike me at the time I thought of them but only as an afterthought. Academics tend to want the creative process to be mechanical – an identifiable train of cogs that can be traced back to the power source of myth. They assume that because something refers to something else, it was intentional. Sometimes that’s true, but in this case, it isn’t.

Authwi is a typo in the Pyr version – my typo, but a typo nevertheless. I could say, then, that you’re simply wrong to deduce the correspondences that you do. However, the correspondence seems too strong - Authwi is pretty much a direct rendering of auðui – for there to be nothing at all in what you say. So I would say that the allusions you’ve identified are both accidental and revealing. I don’t think there’s a contradiction in that.

As I’ve said, the creative process is a mysterious and weird thing, and I’m convinced it comes from a different part of the brain to the one requiring rational thought. There really is very little similarity in the way academics construct their arguments and how writers produce their stories. There is not always a trail of footprints back to the text. Some things appear from thin air – or at least appear to. I’m prepared to accept that these correspondences are correct and that – as I am someone who has been immersed in the myth for many years – they hopped out of my brain. But they had nothing to do with planning, forethought or deliberate allusion. Maybe, as you say, it is Odin working through me – though I can’t think he’d approve of me too much!

Paradoxically, "Creative Writing" is now an academic subject!

I’m not mining the myth like an academic would mine a text for references to support their central idea. It’s much more haphazard and organic. What is remarkable is that, when you proceed in this way, you can come up with some remarkable allusions that you never actually intended and in such a number that would make you believe it couldn’t be just coincidence. Spooky stuff, eh?

The exception here is Vali. Vali comes from the following passage: "Now Loki was taken truceless, and was brought with them into a certain cave. Thereupon they took three flat stones, and set them on edge and drilled a hole in each stone. Then were taken Loki's sons, Váli and Nari or Narfi; the Æsir changed Váli into the form of a wolf, and he tore asunder Narfi his brother. And the Æsir took his entrails and bound Loki with them over the three stones: one stands under his shoulders, the second under his loins, the third under his boughs; and those bonds were turned to iron."

Loki in Chains (1880)

Again, I’m not looking for direct correspondences in the myth, but this was where the idea of two brothers bound to a destructive destiny came from, and it was appealing one turned into a wolf. Originally, Feileg was called Narfi. Unfortunately, to the British ear that name is comic. It either conjures up NAAFI – which used to be the notoriously foul army catering service – or the word "naff," so it had to go.

It was only as the story was written that I saw that the werewolf transformation would be related to the Fenris wolf and therefore a threat to Odin rather than to Loki.

There is no process of logic to this. I think sometimes logic can be the enemy of creative thought. I could have said, "but the myth says he must kill his brother and bind Loki." But I’m rendering the spirit rather than the letter of the myth and I have no problem with that.

KS - The mother of Vali and Feilig is named Badb, after the Celtic goddess associated with the raven, the wolf and “fury” – all very Odinic. She changes her name to Saitada, the name of a goddess known only from one engraved altar stone in Northumberland, England. Despite a lack of sources, British historian R. G. Collingwood theorized in 1908 that she may have been the "lady of grief." Associating your tragic character with grief is very understandable, but why did you link the consort of Loki with Badb, who seems more simpatico with the Raven God than with the Trickster?

Badb by Elizabeth Caffey (2011)

ML - I agree. She was originally thought of as an incarnation of Odin. However, as the story wrote itself, it became more obvious she was an incarnation of Loki himself. That emerged at the moment I wrote Loki’s line to Saitada:

"My name is Misery. Do you want to know a secret?"
"I do."
"Yours is too."

She emerged at that moment. I may be misquoting a bit there, but the gist is correct.

I changed her function but not her name. However, it may turn out that Loki wasn’t right about her in later books and that the Trickster has himself been tricked. Or it may not.

KS - There is a complicated character in the novel named Veles Libor. He’s an Obotrite, which sounds like a creature from the first seasons of Star Trek, but is actually a member of a Slavic tribe that lived in what is now northern Germany. Veles was a Slavic god with Odinic qualities, and your character is both wise and treacherous. Did you intend for his name to literally mean “Odin Liberated”?

Note: Star Trek's Tellarites do not appear in Wolfsangel

ML - Veles the Slav god has Odinic qualities, but Loki-like ones too in that he’s the enemy of the central god of the Slav pantheon. He’s also a shapeshifter and a mischievous figure. Again, I just thought of the name and liked it, although its connotations did strike me.

I didn’t intend a correspondence between him and Odin, but it did occur me that there might be one. I’m not an academic, so I don’t have to tie up these loose ends. I thought it was an interesting possibility he might be an incarnation of Odin or Loki, but I didn’t feel the need to nail that down for myself or the reader. One of the interesting things you can do in a novel is let things float.

Veles the God by Viktor Križanovskij

Veles has a more direct and less mystical role too. He is a member of the coming merchant class – the people who will eventually become the rulers and powerbrokers of the world, an echo of the future. There is a small victory for trade over heroism – at least for a time – in the book. Veles is also a member of an oppressed minority and exposes Vali’s naivety in thinking that he would have forgotten the injustices he has suffered enough to be Vali’s friend. Veles hates the people he serves, but he is clever enough to disguise that. He’s a pragmatist rather than an evil figure, and I think there’s nothing wrong with the way he treats Vali. After all, Vali’s people have burned his home town, enslaved him and dragged him halfway across the world. Would he not naturally want revenge on them, given the chance?

Click here for Part Four of the interview.

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