Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Interview with Joanne Harris (Runemarks and Runelight), Part One

English author Joanne Harris studied Modern and Medieval Languages at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, before spending fifteen years teaching language and literature. Her debut as a novelist was The Evil Seed (1989), but it was her third novel that propelled her to international stardom; Chocolat earned the number one spot on the Sunday Times bestseller list, and the film adaption (with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche) was a commercial and critical success. Since that first breakthrough, Harris has written a series of bestselling novels including Holy Fools and The Lollipop Shoes. Two of her sixteen published books are French cookbooks, and her short stories have been featured in numerous collections.

Signed title page of Runemarks by Joanne Harris

In Runemarks (2007), Harris imagines the aftermath of Ragnarök, “five hundred years after the End of the World.” It’s a world quite different from the one suggested in the , but it has deep roots in Norse mythology. The old gods have fallen and a new religion has risen. A young girl named Maddy is born with a “runemark” – a rune on her skin that marks her as a relation of the Norse gods and invests her with mystic power. Over the course of the novel, she befriends Odin (as much as one can be a friend with the Furious One), travels with Loki, and becomes embroiled in a struggle involving the resurgent Æsir and Vanir and the minions of the new religion known as the Order.

Harris followed up with Runelight (2011), which takes place three years after the first novel. Maddy discovers her twin sister Maggie, and the two young women find themselves on opposite sides of Odin’s fight to rebuild fallen Asgard. This second book greatly enlarges the mythical cast of the first novel with the addition of several other characters from Norse myth, most notably Angrboda (here known familiarly as Angie) and the wolves Fenris, Skól and Haiti (the spelling is Harris’s).

Maddy and Sugar on the cover of Runemarks

Full disclosure: I absolutely love these books. Someday, I’ll have a daughter, and I want her to be just like Maddy (but I’ll call her Freya, if I can convince my wife about the name). The novels are absolutely brilliant in their transformative use of Norse mythology. Rather than using the myths as background inspiration (as Tolkien did, for example), Harris makes the daring choice of having the Norse gods appear as characters. She pulls it off. Runemarks and Runelight are wonderfully written and unpredictable page-turners.

For readers who may be unfamiliar with Runemarks and Runelight – or with the intricacies of Norse mythology and Norse religion – I’ve included explanatory information in my interview questions. In some instances, my preambles are longer than Ms. Harris’ answers. I hope the gentle reader will forgive this, as my only goal was to lay out a welcome mat for readers who are new to these subjects.

KS – What we call Norse mythology is sometimes thought ­­­to be purely Scandinavian property, but the old gods are documented in various forms in Europe and the British Isles. Your books have a distinctly British feel. The Old English runes represent the “New Script” in your novels; the Old English rune poem provides lines for the cantrips spoken by your characters – cantrip itself being an archaic English and Scottish word for spell or incantation. In the Runemarks world, Red Horse Hill is rumored to have been a place of heathen sacrifice or a burial mound, and it has an ancient carving of a horse that “never grassed over in spring, nor did the winter snow ever hide its shape” – which is reminiscent of the Uffington White Horse and other English chalk horses. Runemarks’ map shows that the Middle Worlds look like the British Isles, with World’s End in the general area of London. Why did you decide to use an English setting, rather than a Nordic one? Did the choice enable you tell a different type of story than if, for instance, the events took place in Iceland?

Aerial view of the Uffington White Horse

JH – I don’t think I made a conscious choice to set the books in a neo-British setting. To me it simply came naturally. I’m more familiar with my Yorkshire home than I am with, say, Iceland or Scandinavia, and there are already so many links here to Viking culture. There are Viking remains all around Yorkshire, from runic stones to burial mounds. I worked as a volunteer on the Coppergate dig in York when I was a teenager – the site that was to become Jorvik. Scratch the soil almost anywhere here, and you’ll find that our back gardens are all filled with Viking leavings.

Just outside my home village of Almondbury – which was to become Malbry in the Rune books – there are the foundations of an Iron Age fort on a hill. Castle Hill became Red Horse Hill without much alteration, and I’ve used some other local names, such as Farnley Tyas, mostly for my own amusement and that of my daughter, for whom I wrote the books in the first place. I wanted to try and recreate the way in which belief systems migrate and are recreated locally to suit the needs of each location in which they are adopted; in this case, my own region, which has harbored the remnants of Viking culture for centuries, even to adopting Danish words into our local dialect. For instance, the word laik (“to play”) was very common when I was a child, e.g., “A’ the’ laikin’?” (“Are you coming out to play?”).

Viking re-enactors at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England

All this makes Malbry and the world of Inland very, very familiar to me. I think that, if I’d chosen a more obviously Icelandic – and therefore “foreign” – setting, the story would have been different; less intimate, less familiar. I wanted to tell a story that most of us here already half-knew, if only on a subconscious level – not introduce a new culture that people wouldn’t recognize.

KS – You give very nice logical explanations for the mysteries of Norse mythology. For instance, the ability to mystically bind a goblin or god by knowing its true name (“a named thing is a tamed thing”) is explained like this:
At the beginning of the First Age, it was given to every creature, tree, rock and plant a secret name that would bind that creature to the will of anyone who knew it.
Mother Frigg knew the true names, and used them to make all of creation weep for the return of her dead son. But Loki, who had many names, would not be bound to such a promise, and so Balder the Fair, god of springtime, was forced to remain in Underworld, Hel’s kingdom, until the end of all things.
You recontextualize ideas from Norse myth (like the world weeping for Balder) and connect them to other Germanic concepts (like the Rumpelstiltskinian name-control) to provide an overarching logic to the material. From Snorri Sturluson to Viktor Rydberg to Kevin Crossley-Holland, writers have tried to fit the contradictory surviving remnants of Norse myth into a coherent whole. As an author who has so often created her own fictional worlds, what drew you to design a logical narrative from this ancient jumble of myth?

"Balder and Nanna on the road to Hel" by Norwegian artist Louis Moe (1929)

JH – Folklore rarely follows rules, especially not those of linear narrative. On the other hand, with folklore based on the oral tradition,the audience knows to suspend disbelief and to ignore inconsistencies. That doesn’t happen so much in books.

What I tried to do was sift through all kinds of aspects of folklore, myth and fairytale, bringing together what I could and adding variants of my own. Runemarks is basically a story about the power of stories – a power that has fuelled the world since long before the Vikings. The result is a kind of webwork in which myth, religious belief, fairytales, nursery rhymes and spells are all intimately interconnected.

KS – In Runemarks’ character list, all the gods and goddesses are defined by their (antagonistic) relationships with Loki. He appears more in both novels than any of the Æsir or Vanir. John Lindow writes that “[e]veryone agrees that there was never any cult of Loki,” yet he is a favorite fictional character today. Marvel Comics has given Journey into Mystery over to his adventures, Joss Whedon calls him “the kind of character that turns the wheels” and M.D. Lachlan made him the only Norse god with a real speaking part in Wolfsangel. Why do you think Loki has become such a sympathetic figure in recent years?

Loki, Sigyn, and the snake on the
10th-century Gosforth Cross

JH – During the course of the last century, the concept of heroes and villains has become increasingly ambivalent. We have come to enjoy anti-heroes – those complicated, flawed characters who often exist on the fringes of normal society. We are no longer entirely satisfied by the archetypes of story, the whiter-than-white heroes and the villains with no redeeming features.

Thus Loki satisfies our need to identify on a more human level; his flaws are very believable, and – of all the Norse gods – he seems to me the most modern. His moral and sexual ambivalence, his inability (or refusal) to integrate into Asgard’s society, his outcast status, his subversive temperament, his changes of mood and his almost existentialist sense of humor make him very accessible to a modern audience.

Angry teenage Loki in Marvel Comics' Journey into Mystery
Art by Richard Elson

He portrays the insecurities of modern adolescence – the sense of not belonging; the need to make an impact, even a negative one, onto the world of adulthood (represented by Odin and the other gods). And, of course, he is very funny – lifting what would have been a very stolid and serious pantheon into something much livelier and more human.

To be continued in Part Two.


Ronald Kaiser said...

I find it increasingly difficult to follow the new reception of Loki as a kind of subcultural hero or sympatico outsider in Asatru. Loki is a malevolent deity who causes the death of the gods by use of trickery and fraud. I can't see so much ambivalence in him. In the end he is evil. He made himself "varg i veum" - wolf in the holy grounds. I also believe we should be careful to use this figure to attract people to Asatru.

Unknown said...

I think there is an arguement to be made for Loki as a scapegoat - someone that perhaps chose sides based on how he was treated.

That being said, I'm not a fan of his glorification exactly...and am specifically bothered by people that claim to be on a trickster path, as if they have some kind of control over chaos. By it's nature, chaos is unknownable and uncontrolable. So in that I agree.

But I do think he is worthy of acknowledgement of some sort, potentially, depending on your version of the myths you choose to work with.

Anonymous said...

Love these books. Will there be a third? I do hope so.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't advise anyone to copy Loki's actions as they ended up destroying him! But he was known for doing as much good as harm. He also liked humanity and was known to defend those considered freaks and outcasts. Much of his character has been painted as far worse than he actually was - Odin, who essentially deliberately drove him mad and murdered his sons who were innocent of any crime, was more of a bad guy in my opinion!

I myself have more sympathy for Loki than most of the other Norse gods - he was a rascal but he only became evil because he was treated so appallingly. He was more victim than villain.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. I've addressed this issue a few times – the modern rewriting of Loki as a misunderstood or sympathetic hero of sorts. You might be interested in reading "Questioning Loki," which examines the nature of Loki in the Old Norse source and the ways in which modern readers are reading against the texts. Part One is here, and Part Two is here.

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