Friday, October 12, 2012

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

Click here for the previous installment of the interview.

KS – Like the Norse gods portrayed in the Eddas, the gods in your version are flawed and fallible; they are definitely not omniscient or omnipotent. Your Odin describes Order and Chaos as “the twin forces that even gods cannot hope to understand,” and he spills “the last few drops [of wine] onto the earth as an offering to any old gods that might be around.” Your Loki, when in a real bind, prays to any gods that may be listening. How would you describe the nature of the Norse gods – especially as opposed to gods of monotheistic traditions? Has your conception of their nature changed over the many years you’ve thought about this material?

JH – Of course, and my fiction in no way pretends to cast any light on their nature. Rather, what I’m trying to do is ask questions about the changing nature of belief, the way our perception of the Divine changes to suit our changing society, and to ask the question why we need those gods in the first place.

Red Horse Hill on the Runelight cover

KS – Your characterization of Sleipnir is fascinating. He’s the carving on Red Horse Hill come to life, and you explain his eight legs by saying that he “has a foot in each World except in Pan-daemonium.” You describe him like this:
It looked like some madman’s dream of a horse. The body’s proportions were almost right; but the legs – all eight of them, no less – were grotesquely long and thin, like the legs on a midsummer crane fly, digging so far into the ground that they might have been the roots of trees and reaching so far above her that Maddy had to tilt her head back to see the creature standing over her, its colours like St. Sepulchre’s Fire, obliterating half the sky.
This seems a spot-on description of the Valkyrie welcoming Sleipnir on the Tjängvide stone, down to the red color. Elsewhere in Runelight, Sleipnir appears as “a regular horse – a strawberry roan with a long black mane.” Throughout the books, you make a distinction between the physical appearance of the gods (and associated characters) and their true Aspects – how they manifest in more purely spiritual forms. This ties in with a discussion in modern heathenry that asks whether the gods are physical beings or disembodied Powers, whether they are actual or metaphorical. Would you explain your concept of Aspect? Aside from its use as it a plot device, how do you think this idea relates to modes of religious belief, both ancient and contemporary?

Valkyrie and Sleipnir on the Tjängvide image stone

JH – I think it relates to both. In Runemarks, the gods have mostly lost their divinity as new beliefs took over. Of course, this is the way the Edda depicts the gods – as warlords pretending they were gods in a world where Christianity was gaining popularity. But in Runelight, the gods rebuild Asgard and re-acquire their godlike Aspects. This could be seen as a metaphor, if you like, of the way paganism has grown over the last few decades.

The idea of Aspect gives room to believe in either the physical or the metaphorical, as we choose. It suggests that – although our perceptions of the Divine may differ radically from one another – we all see some version of the truth and take from it whatever we can.

KS – Both novels are full of very subtle yet very deep use of Norse mythology. Concepts from Norse myth are put into action, such as Odin using rune magic to free himself from chains – which is one of the powers he brags about in Hávamál. There is a real attention paid to mythic detail, such as Odin only drinking “a little wine” when sitting down to a meal, echoing Grímnismál’s “on wine alone the weapon-magnificent Odin always lives.” You’ve studied Medieval Languages and Old Norse, but you’ve written that you “don’t do very much research, and if can get away without doing any, I will. I use reference books and the internet when I need specific details on something, but most of the time I write about topics where I already have some knowledge, or where I have access to someone who can give me first-hand information.” How has your formal study of language affected your writing on these mythological subjects? How does your intellectual study of the subject interact with creative inspiration in your writing process?

1882 Carl Emil Doepler illustration of Odin enthroned with spear
(Gungnir), ravens (Hugin and Munin), and wolves (Geri and Freki)

JH – I’ve always been interested in mythology and religion. You might see it as a lifetime’s study, which is what I mean when I say I don’t do much research. I’ve been reading about the Norse myths since I was seven years old, and I guess it was inevitable that a lot of what I’d read would find its way into the story on some level.

However, while I was writing Runemarks, I started to teach myself Old Icelandic, which I found unexpectedly rewarding, both in terms of reading texts in the original – and arguing about translation! – and in terms of the insight that learning a language gives you about the priorities and preoccupations of a culture. Some of this also found its way into the books; I’m not sure how much. I allow the ideas that interest me to enter the story through intellectual osmosis rather than any kind of formal planning.

KS – Your version of Loki is reminiscent of Richard Wagner’s Loge. In Der Ring des Nibelungen, the German composer conflates Loki with the Edda’s Logi, who is wildfire personified. You give “Wildfire” as one of Loki’s many names (as well as the meaning of his runemark) and associate the Trickster with fire throughout both novels. Your description of him as “a slim red-haired person” – coupled with his link to flame – reminded me of one of Arthur Rackham’s classic illustrations for the Ring. Was the version created by Wagner and Rackham a source for your character, or does he come from some other creative place entirely?

Wotan (Odin) and Loge (Loki) in 1910 Arthur Rackham
painting illustrating Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen

JH – No, this is always how I’ve envisaged Loki. As a child, I wrote a great deal about him and did a great number of drawings. Looking back at some of them now, it’s clear that my early pictures and descriptions of Loki are very similar to the way I describe him in Runemarks. I only discovered Rackham later, when I developed a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites and their artistic descendants. For a long time, my only visual point of reference for Loki and the Norse gods was a book by H.A. Guerber called The Myths of the Norsemen, which contains a number of illustrations. Like a child watching a bad movie based on a favorite story, I felt that the gods were not portrayed at all as I imagined them.

Thor & his talking hammer in Legends of Valhalla: Thor
The horror! The horror!

KS – In Runemarks, Loki gives Sugar a common pebble marked with runes that “make a sigil that was unmistakably Loki’s” – a plot device similar to one M.D. Lachlan’s Loki uses in Wolfsangel. In Runelight, Thor’s hammer appears as a sort of wisecracking midget, a bit like the talking hammer in Iceland’s Legends of Valhalla animated film. Your works predate both of these others, and I’m not saying there’s any cross-pollination here; similar source material often leads to independent arrival at similar ends. I’m just curious about your relationship to contemporary fantasy, whether in literature or film. Do you keep up with the latest releases? Do you follow modern fantasy or steer clear of it?

JH – I’m not familiar any of the works you mention, but there are so many Norse-related stories out there that it’s not surprising if there’s cross-pollination. So many of these stories and characters are archetypal – it’s what makes them so familiar. I don’t avoid modern fantasy at all – or if I do it’s because of the pressures of time rather than indifference. On the other hand, there is an awful lot of it, and nowadays I find it hard to know what to choose. I loved George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books – I was into the series long before it became fashionable – but there’s a lot of indifferent material out there, and I’m tired of reading fantasy books that read like a game of D&D.

Thor's pretty awesome in D&D's Deities & Demigods. Check out his hit points!

KS – The Marvel Comics version of Thor has been around for over fifty years, and the series has built up a deep mythology of its own. It pervades popular culture, and it’s sometimes hard for the iconic imagery and characterization of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and other contributors not to seep into our own imaginings. I see a similar impetus in Lee and Kirby moving Thor’s adventures to contemporary New York and your own desire “to explore the humour of the legends and to make them accessible to a different readership.” Have you ever been a reader of the comic? Did the successes and failures of the series affect the design of your own mythological world in any way?

JH – I’m not familiar with the Marvel comics – I wasn’t allowed comics as a child – though I have seen and enjoyed the movie Thor. As for the design of the world, it wasn’t really a conscious thing. My version of Inland and its inhabitants has evolved over a very long time – and, I suspect, will continue to do so for as long as I write these stories.

Thor's hammer Mjölnir on the Runelight cover

KS – These two books have already manifested themselves in various media. Random House filmed a moody “book trailer” for Runemarks, and you’ve held a contest for fan-made Runelight videos. I first discovered your books by stumbling across the Runemarks audiobook. Our mutual friend Becca Maravolo has created a line of Runemarks-inspired jewelry, and Yoda designer Wendy Froud has created a Loki figurine modeled on your version of the Trickster. Leaving aside purely financial considerations, how would you most like to see Maddy’s adventures translated – audio drama, graphic novel, TV series, feature film, puppet show or prog rock concept album? Would you rather see the book remain a book, or do you look forward to collaborating with artists in other media to create a new version of your work?

Loki figure by Wendy Froud

JH – I’d love to see what people make of my books, regardless of the medium. I’ve seen a great deal of fan art and fan fiction, much of it very imaginative. It just goes to show what affection there is for these characters. Of course I would like to see a film, as long as I could choose the director. I’d love to work with Guillermo del Toro, for instance, and if anyone ever felt like developing Asgard! The Musical, I’d be their friend for life.

KS – Many, many months (and sixteen single-spaced pages of notes) after I first asked you for an interview, that’s finally the end of my questions! There’s definitely a depth of concept in your work, and I feel we’ve only scratched the surface here. Thank you for your patience and willingness to dig into these matters.

JH – Well, thank you for your very interesting questions. I don’t think I’ve spoken as much to anyone on the subject of my personal beliefs, or spent quite so long on a single interview. But I really enjoyed it. I hope you find it useful.

Joanne Harris wanders on ancient paths
Photograph by Jennifer Robertson


Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Harris,s books, and they really don't deserve to be simply labelled 'young adult' -we old 'uns love 'em as much!

Liz said...

Good, aren't they?? (Not so sure about 2014's The Gospel Of Loki, though! 😏 Love the subject matter: not so sure about the tone or treatment! Looking forward to forthcoming Testament Of Loki though. Once you start with that Loki guy, in any form, you can't put him down..)

Next Post Previous Post Home