Loki as Absentee Villain

I get stuck on things, and for a while now I’ve been stuck on Norse history, legends and mythology. It is coming out in the D&D campaign, Twilight of the Gods, I’m running; it is coming out in a homebrew campaign setting and system I wrote up but have yet to playtest; it is coming out in my listening to more than one podcast that is based on a close, scholarly look at the eddas and sagas.

I got to thinking about Loki last night, having read the section that introduces him in the Prose Edda. He is a god, or maybe a giant, or maybe a hybrid giant-god. He is a trickster par excellence, of course. He is also the father of at least three of the Big Bads of Ragnarok: Jormugandr, Fenrir and Hel. He ends up bound by his own son’s entrails beneath the earth, burned by serpent venom, and his faithful wife Sigyn stays with him to catch it in a bowl.

An interesting thing about Loki, who is so active in the Marvel universe, is that so much of what he does is from off-screen. He is the father of Ragnarok monsters; Jormugandr will kill Thor in its death-throes. Fenrir will devour the sun, and then devour Odin himself. Hel will sail to Midgard in a vast ship made of the fingernail clippings of the dead (I kid you not) with an army of undead and dark elves, among other things. But Loki’s fate is just to be killed by Heimdall.

Baldr, the Marty Stu of the Aesir, was thought to be safe from all harm because his mother Frigg had everything in the cosmos swear an oath not to harm him – everything but mistletoe. So the gods are having fun, throwing things at Baldr and watching it all bounce off harmlessly. Hodr joins in, blind son of Odin, and throws a dart or spear made of mistletoe, killing Baldr. Hodr says that it was Loki who gave him the idea, and some versions of the story say Loki guided the missile that would kill Baldr, but for all we know, Baldr could have just been unlucky and over-confident and Hodr the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When Loki is bound underground for his hand in killing Baldr, his agonized thrashings are said to cause earthquakes felt in Midgard. But he isn’t so much the cause of earthquakes – he isn’t choosing to shake the earth, it’s just a result of his tortuous punishment.

It’s interesting to me that so much of Loki’s affect on the world is from the background, or indirect in nature, and I really liked this as part of a story set during Ragnarok. I’d like to write a story from the point of view of the world that the Norse thought they were in; take their worldview as true and go from there through the end of the world. And I really liked the idea of Loki being the invisible antagonist through all of this. His children, his followers, his aggrieved wives, his bitter enemies, push things along toward destruction, but Loki himself never makes an appearance.

I think of Sauron in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The climactic battle between the Dark Lord then known as the Necromancer and the White Council happens entirely ‘off-screen’ in The Hobbit, as does Saruon’s destruction, death throes, and collapse of his great fortress. He never makes an appearance in the main stories (he does in the Silmarillion, but that was an in complete work when it was posthumously published). The evil is all about what his followers and servants and other Shadow-spawn do in the world, theoretically because of him, but who knows? The story would be the same if the Necromancer was just an evil dude in a tower, and if Saruon was a figment of people’s imagination.

I like the idea that the evil force behind everything never makes an appearance. For all we know, the monsters Loki supposedly spawned are just monsters. The trouble Loki causes is just trouble. Not that poor Loki is blamed for this, but rather that he is invisible in the story itself. For the purposes of the story, the villain doesn’t matter.

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