The Trouble with Loki
“Wait a minute,” I said, leaning back in the nicest theater seat I’d ever sat in. “If Odin and Company drive back the giants in 936 AD, and Thor and Loki are little kids at that time, how do we have myths about them?”
“I swear to God,” said my friend Melissa. “If you try and make every little thing fit, you’re not going to enjoy it. It’s just a movie. Now shush.”
Nobody else came to the 10 PM showing of Thor, which meant that our band of five had the whole VIP room to ourselves. (Lest you think me an elitist, the VIP room was the only one showing the film in 2D, and my friend Nick gets motion sickness. I still found it worth the extra buck-fifty—instead of goofy glasses, we got leather seats and the option to drink overpriced Corona Light.) As a result, we were free to have a bit of fun talking back to the screen, pointing out moments of extreme ham and obscure Marvel Comics references.
That took the edge off the film, which I had been anxious about. I wasn’t worried that it would be terrible; I had been satisfied with most of the recent Marvel films, and I felt sure that Thor would be at least a decent action movie.
But still, I am a pagan. I wear a Thor’s hammer every day. I worried that the movie would misrepresent me. I recently wrote an article for Killing the Buddha, “Valhal-Mart,” describing some of the apprehension I had about the film. My Thor angst stemmed from a worry that, suddenly, the name of my god would be on the lips of millions of people, and very few of them would know or care that I and other heathens don’t regard him as ancient mythology but as a vital, living deity. That essay attracted a considerable amount of attention, even showing up in USA Today‘s Faith & Reason blog, as well as on pagan– and comics-centered websites. One common response was that Thor simply had no relation to the god: why was I complaining about a character who had been created by two Jewish men in New York in the sixties?
But names and symbols have meaning and power, and, rightly or wrongly, these felt like my names and my symbols. Oddly enough, the person who best understood my apprehension was a committed Christian friend of mine, who compared my feelings to his regarding Jesus Christ Superstar. Thor is just a summer blockbuster. Jesus Christ Superstar is just a campy musical. But both use religious trappings, and if those trappings are important to you, they can still leave you feeling sick and betrayed.
Believe it or not, even when I wrote “Valhal-Mart,” I wanted to like Thor. But I worried that my faith would make me hate it, just as many musical-loving Christians hated Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. I wasn’t worried that it would harm my religion, or disrespect my gods—they’re gods, and one would hope they’d have thicker skins that that. But I was afraid I wouldn’t get it. I just want to make that clear.
The movie goes a little something like this. Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three wade through several hundred (oddly short) frost giants, and Mjolnir breaks the blue-skinned menaces into ice cubes. A walking suit of armor designed for god-slaying blows up federal property in the New Mexico desert. Chris Hemsworth spends a scene shirtless for no particular reason. It was mostly what I expected. Indeed, most of the things that annoyed me had nothing to do with fidelity to the Norse myths and everything to do with scriptwriting clichés: “You’ll never see her again!” seems like sort of an empty threat when the hero has only known the heroine for about a day and a half.
I found myself grinning at the humiliation Thor endures when he’s first cast down to Earth from Asgard: within four minutes, the God of Thunder gets hit by a truck twice, and, in a clever little gag, knocked out by a tazer. (“Taze me not, brethren!” says Nick.) The gods went through all sorts of abuse in the myths, and honestly, this struck me as in keeping with myths like Thrymskvida, where Thor is forced to dress as a woman to get his hammer back. Thor has never been a stranger to a certain amount of slapstick, which, I confess, is one reason I like him so much.
And there are truly beautiful visuals in the movie, too: the sight of stoic Heimdall standing at the edge of Bifrost, staring out into the cosmos, particularly struck me. Thor takes a typical science fiction image—an endless, eternal starscape—and imbues it with a fantastic, mystical and, if I may, even spiritual resonance. The closing credits are a moving example of this, as the camera moves farther and farther out to reveal all of the cosmos in the shape of a nine-branched celestial tree: Yggdrassil in the universe. It was as powerful an image as any “true” pagan art I’ve seen.
But the biggest impression on me wasn’t left by an action sequence, or a one-liner, or even a gorgeous visual. No, it was a character—the one who I most feared would be misrepresented by the film, and who actually turned out to be its biggest triumph: Loki.
The Christian God/Devil dichotomy has had some unfortunate effects on modern interpretations of polytheistic pantheons. Most adaptations want to take a god like Set, or Hades, or even Kali, and cast them as a force of incarnate evil—a Satanic proxy, if you will. Look at the Disney version of Hercules, for example. Hades appears as a leering, ashen-skinned menace with blue fire dancing on his skull instead of hair, and stands as the virtuous Hercules’s sinister opponent. Of course, in the myths, Hercules was a naked hulk who spent most of his time apologizing for going mad and murdering his loved ones, while, except for that business with Persephone, Hades tended to keep to himself. But that hardly matters: someone’s got to be Satan. (And somebody has to be the Omnipotent-Omniscient-Omnibenevolent Father God too; Disney didn’t care about whether the mythic Zeus actually fit that role, either.)
If they give that treatment to a clean-living guy like Hades, well, what hope does Loki have? There’s no getting around the fact that, toward the end of the myth-cycle, Loki does unambiguously evil things: he brings about the death of Baldur, leads the army of giants at Ragnarok, and calls Freyja a whore. Loki is so divisive that even heathens don’t know what to do with him. “If you want to start a ‘spirited’ discussion among heathens,” says Diana Paxson in her Essential Asatru, “ask whether Loki should be honored in ritual. Some … abhor him to the point where they will not allow his name to be mentioned in the hall.” The Anglo-Saxon Heathenry that my uncle Alaric practices doesn’t have a Loki-equivalent at all, and he considers his religion better for it.
It’s easy to forget, in the light of the Baldur cycle, that in most stories Loki is more mischievous than evil, and his actions usually end up doing more good than bad. Loki’s tricks save Asgard, protect Freyja’s honor, and even bring Thor his hammer. In a good adaptation, Loki becomes a tragic figure, his villainy the result of a lifetime of abuse from the Aesir. The explanation never excuses the evil, but we feel sympathy for him anyway. Whenever I read Lokasenna, the poem in which Loki breaks with the gods through a series of bitter insults, I find myself wishing for the earlier, happier stories. Loki’s myths have a horrible, beautiful inevitability: we will have joy for a while, but we will always come to ruin in the end.
Such subtlety would have been easy to ignore—Loki is all too easily reduced to a cartoonish villain, no more complex than Snidely Whiplash. He has been subjected to that all too often during bad runs of the Thor comics. I worried that the film would interpret him just as flatly: a grinning maniac with no higher ambition than to destroy humanity for laughs.
Happily, the Loki of Thor manages to avoid those traps. This Loki is presented as a conflicted, Byronic hero. His methods may be underhanded in opposition to Thor’s heroic ideal, but where Thor begins concerned only with his own ego, Loki ultimately serves only the gods. He sets up a diversion to keep Thor from the throne of Asgard because he (accurately) believes him unready for the task; he attempts to destroy Jotunheim, the giant-home, because he considers the giants irredeemable. In a complete reversal from what I expected, Loki has no grudge against Earth or humanity at all, except for a bit of cultural superiority, and none of his plans have an arbitrary destruction-of-Earth component.
Does the film’s Loki match up with the details of the mythological Loki? Of course not. The movie Loki is Odin’s adopted child, not his blood-brother; he is unaware of his being a giant rather than a true Aesir, at least at first; and without the Baldur episode as a catalyst, Loki never switches his allegiance from the Aesir to the giants. But divergences like these are to be expected, considering the film’s fidelity to the comics instead of the myths. The spirit, however, is surprisingly accurate. Kenneth Branagh and company could have made the character a cackling demon, but instead rendered a sympathetic figure whose extremist actions damn his noble purpose. In short, they made a figure who would not look out of place in Germanic legend, and I give them a lot of credit for that.
My understanding of the ancient Germanic myths revolves around two themes. The first is that virtue consists of equal parts strength and wisdom. The second is the Germanic worldview of an entropic universe, where civilization will always fall into ruin. Beneath its hammy, explosion-filled superhero veneer, Thor deals with both of these themes. Thor’s character development exemplifies the first, as we watch the bold and foolish prince grow wise. Loki exemplifies the second: despite his good intentions, Loki falls, becoming a monster in the name of ending monsters.
So what should pagans take away from this movie? Certainly not mythological accuracy: if you only knew the myths, most of the film will probably seem nonsensical. I admit that the mythological discrepancies still leave me conflicted, if only because they drastically alter the relationships among some of these deities. But I left the theater feeling much better about Thor than I expected; while it may not get any of the surface right, it captures a surprising amount of the substance. Thor gives us the glories and the tragedies of Norse mythology, if we’re willing to abide a little trickery in the delivery. Loki would be proud.
Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.