Warning: spoilers ahead for the TV show “Loki,” currently airing on Disney+.
No History Club this week; I’m trying to finish my book manuscript.
Between writing sessions, I’ve relaxed by watching Marvel Studios’ “Loki.” For those unfamiliar, Loki is a character from the Marvel comics and its accompanying Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). First appearing in the comics in 1962, he debuted on screen in the 2011 movie “Thor,” played by British actor Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston’s portrayal was such a smash that Loki became a fan-favorite. He starred as the lead villain in the 2012 film “The Avengers,” then re-appeared in “Thor : The Dark World” (2013); “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017); and “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018). Now, he has his own spin-off.
The show has a convoluted plot. Loki is taken prisoner by an entity called the Time Variance Authority (also from the Marvel Comics) who accuse him of straying from his predetermined timeline, thereby throwing all time and existence into chaos. Loki challenges the TVA in its authority to dictate the proper flow of time through its “sacred timeline,” learning along the way that others before him have committed similar transgressions. The TVA enlist Loki to help them apprehend one such timeline criminal, and hi-jinx ensue.
Like all time-travel fiction, “Loki” invokes several historical allusions to past events, including the destruction of Pompeii, the USS Eldridge and the D.B. Cooper hijacking. Yet the greatest historical allusion in the show is Loki himself, a character from Norse mythology whose meaning and purpose have been much debated by scholars. Who, or what, was Loki—and why does he continue to fascinate us?
Icelander Snorri Sturluson writes about Loki in his book Edda in the approximate year of 1225. Sturluson describes Loki as a “slanderer” and an “originator of deceits.” The son of a giant, Loki is handsome, evil, and shape-shifting. He possesses extraordinary cunning and “tricks for every occasion.” Indeed, Loki is known in Norse mythology as the tricker of the gods. In the comics and the movies, he’s referred to as the God of Mischief.
Loki has attracted more scholarly attention than any other figure in Norse mythology. This is, in part, because of his ubiquity; Loki appears throughout the surviving mythological records. In part, too, it’s because of his character. He is a beguiling anti-hero who features in numerous fantastical plots. Scholars have debated Loki so often that articles about him are titled “About Loki once again” and “Loki… and no end.” His numerous roles and vexing identities make solid determinations about his purpose confounding. Is he evil? Is he good? Is he meant to be a check on the gods? An aide to the gods? Coming to grips with what he means feels as elusive as the TVA agents trying to apprehend him in the show.
In various Norse mythologies, Loki shape-shifts into a bird, salmon or fly. He frequently switches genders, in one story dressing up in drag in order to retrieve a stolen hammer. In another story, he transforms into a mare and gives birth to an eight-legged horse. In one gruesome episode, Loki is responsible for a murder and is punished by being bound to three sharp rocks using the guts of his son while a snake drips poison on his face. Loki breaks free and helps lead an army against the gods that causes ragnarok, the end of the world where everything is consumed by fire and sinks into the sea.
Loki plays a-sort-of Judas role in this myth. His betrayal of the gods leads to the end of one world and its rebirth as another. In other stories, Loki explicitly calls out the Norse gods, exposing their faults and failures for all to see until he is threatened with violence. He speaks truth to power, exposing the arrogance and hubris of those in higher positions of authority. Scholar Kevin J. Wanner has argued that Loki can be understood as the god of poets; perhaps, to our modern-day sensibilities, Loki is the god of investigative journalists. He exposes the hypocrisies of those in power by either going undercover or leading a charging army that topples their institutions.
Indeed, toppling institutions has been at the heart of the social media age. What began with the Arab Spring in 2010 has evolved over a decade to the toppling of Confederate monuments, the removal of men in power by #MeToo activists, calls to defund the police by #BlackLivesMatter, and even the destabilization of journalism itself through Twitter and Facebook. Social media has played a crucial role in challenging existing structures of power and exposing their hypocrisies, calling into question their authority and, in some cases, leading to their demise. Loki seems a perfect embodiment for such an age, perhaps why he has developed a cult following in his current manifestation.
In some interpretations of Norse mythology, it’s Loki who brings about the end of the world. [Spoiler] Indeed, that appears to be the role he will play in the TV show and the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series suggests that Loki will ultimately bring down the TVA, exposing its hypocrisy and ushering in a new reality that likely involves a multiverse. Likewise, social media has clearly brought about the end of one world and the rebirth of the next. That new world feels chaotic, shape-shifting and fluid in its nascent stages—much like Loki himself.
One constant in the Loki myths is the notion that cunning intelligence is the only power capable of resisting or overcoming superior force. Loki is not the strongest of the gods; he is inferior in strength to Odin and Thor, for example. But Loki can deploy his crafty intelligence in ways that give him an advantage over stronger foes. For the underdog and the downtrodden, he offers a compelling folk hero. Your opponents may have more weapons, more authority, more power and more resources. But cunning intellect, cleverly deployed, can topple any dynasty—even ones with god-like powers.
Have a good week.
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