Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard-Merritt

Parts of this book were a little bit hard to read – but there are some stories that I’m just not going to tell because the people involved aren’t dead yet. When I am old, I will enjoy telling all the stories. In the meantime, I read other people’s stories. Carol’s story is evocatively written, moving, and sometimes quite surprising. Her prose is, as always, intelligent and approachable, and periodically poetic. Each chapter ends with thoughtful exercises that take the things Carol is writing about and makes them into concrete practices.

Anyone who knows me can probably tell you that I don’t usually read memoirs, as a general rule. Maybe it’s jealousy, since I haven’t lived an interesting life and don’t think anyone would want to ready my memoir. I’m neither old nor important, so it hardly seems like the time. While Healing Spiritual Wounds is not a memoir as such, it is framed as a reflection on Carol’s own life and experience that unfolds to include what she has learned on her journey that might be helpful to others.

The way that Carol writes is a sort of gestalt – you have to read through the whole book to get it. It isn’t one that is easy to review in the future by skimming notes or main topics, because it moves around in time and flows along the lines of Carol’s recollections from various parts of her life – as an adolescent, as a student at Moody Bible Institute, as a full-time pastor in the D.C. area, and so on. That’s why it isn’t a memoir, though it draws on memoir – the text follows the process of healing, drawn from Carol’s experiences of healing and then abstracted out a step in the hope that she can help others heal.

This book is therapeutic – I bet it was therapeutic to write, and it is intended as therapeutic, as a vehicle for healing. In my own case, my wounds are different. I don’t share the story of needing to recover from trauma at the hands of conservative Christianity that so many others have, a fact for which I am thankful. I still got a lot from reading Carol’s book – it was therapeutic to read. And from what I know of healing, I think that this book could indeed prove therapeutic to a wide variety of people in addition to its intended audience of people harmed by their religious past. Even if you are not seeking healing from spiritual wounds, Carol is an excellent writer, and in her story you might find healing for other wounds as well. Even if you aren’t looking for help in healing, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a well-written and thoughtful book that approaches painful experiences with grace, whether Carol’s experiences or your own.

(I know that I’m supposed to refer to authors by their last name, but Carol is my buddy. Don’t hold it against her.)

Buy Carol’s book.

Seriously, buy it.

What is Magic?

I recently posted about the intersection between magic and technology, riffing off of the well-known Arthur C. Clarke quote, and then applying my thinking to various kinds of speculative fiction. But this of course begs questions – what is technology, is one question, but I think that we have a good sense of this, living in a technological society. What is magic, though?

I’m not going to get anywhere a definitive answer. Magic always has an imaginative definition because, as far as I understand the world we all share, magic is imaginary. Or, at best, metaphorical perhaps. We create the meaning of magic, through art and culture – we also create the meaning of technology, of course, but through distinct means because our activity in the world and understanding of it is mediated through technology. (It’s something to think about and explore, though – to imagine how the world would appear if our activity in it and understanding of it was entirely mediated through magic. But that’s another question for another time)

First I’ll talk about what I think magic is, and then I’ll talk a bit about what I think magic should be in order to be compelling and meaningful.

Magic is Minority Religion

This is always my starting point with  magic, because it is where magic comes from in our own world. If you think about it – druidism, kabbalah, hermetic magic traditions, secret societies and so on, where we get our magical traditions in our world, are all just minority religion. Imagine the pre-industrial world: a priest chants a prayer to a god, expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s religion. A wizard chants a spell to the spirits of the world, or in the Old Tongue, etc., expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s magic. Sorcerers and djinns in Islamic stories are similarly holdovers from the pre-Muslim belief systems and animism that existed in the regions that Islam conquered. “Medicine men” and “witch doctors” are just practitioners of religious that existed before the currently dominant ones came to power.

Magic is Intrinsic (Arises from Character, Situation, Place)

Technology differs from magic in that technology is always instrumental. Anyone can pick up a smartphone and, theoretically, use it to do the same things. Not so with magic. Magic arises from a person’s identity, or from a particular situation, or from a specific place, in a way that technology does not. In the classic example, a person often must be born with the ability to use magic – like Harry Potter compared to a Muggle. Often this is literally genetic, with magically gifted bloodlines, or is because of someone having elves in their ancestry, or dragons, or demons. A person might be changed by contact with magic, or by a trip to the Perilous Realm, and when they return, they are attuned in a new way to the supernatural.

Magic might also arise from a particular situation, or confluence of events – the Night of the Eye on Krynn, or Tarmon Gai’don in the Wheel of Time, or an astrologically auspicious day in Chinese legend. This could be as simple as when the shards of the magical sword are reforged, or as complex as the interweaving of deceptive prophecies in the Mistborn trilogy.

Magic can be intrinsic to a place. The One Ring can only be unmade in Mount Doom where it was forged. The True King can only come from Avalon when the time is right. Sun Wu Ying is born on the top of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and nowhere else. This place might be a place in the world, or a place that is in itself magical, like the classic Faerie, or Shangri-La, or Atlantis.

Magic Arises from Story

Magic is always an element from a story. One does not need a story to understand the functioning of an internal combustion engine, but one does need a story to understand the functioning of magic. This is true whether it is the magic intrinsic to a person, a situation, or a place. In some situations, like the Neverending Story, it is the story itself that is magical. Otherwise, the magic will only function in, and make sense as part of, a story. Even in the coloquial meaning of “magical”, referring to something that was especially interesting or unexpected or moving in our lives, we will have to tell a story to make sense of it to ourselves and to others. And sometimes, “you just had to be there.”

Magic is Numinous

In this case I am using numinous in its philosophic sense – the sense of an encounter with Other, sometimes seen as a divine or supernatural or otherworldly presence or truth. As much as magic can be intrinsic to character, story, situation and place, magic is also an intrusion into the everyday world. To be in the presence of magic is to be in the presence of Other, of something that is outside of our normal experience. Magic an have its own rules, different from the rules of everyday life. There is a sense of joy, or wonder, or fear, or even alienation in the experience of magic. This is why in our descriptions of events, we might describe an experience as “magical” because it stands out from the rest of our lives.

So, then, what is thoroughly imagined magic, that makes for compelling stories and games?

Magic Should Have a Cost

Hopefully this is something more than the “cost” of studying and learning magic, which almost always happens off-screen (though Rothfuss does a fantastic job of showing us the cost of learning magic as a real thing by I think, as does LeGuin in a very different way). In your classic fantasy game setting, you create a wizard character who already has spells, and who will continue to advance and learn more magic, and it would make a boring game if every time she learned another spell she had to go to school for a semester. The study that made her a wizard in the first place happened before your story begins. This means that it isn’t really a cost at all.

And this is something more than the mere opportunity cost of having to use one kind of magic rather than another – cast this spell now instead of that one, etc. Because every action has that same cost. I’m saying that magic should cost something as magic, per se. Whether this is sacrifice, or a limited supply of cosmic energy, or the need to grow in wisdom before you can control it, magic should have a cost beyond opportunity cost, and this cost should be exacted as part of the story.

Magic Should Have Rules

“Because it’s magic” is not a sufficient explanation for anything. It might be a stop-gap, like saying “the spaceship moves at the speed of plot”, but it’s hardly satisfying, and basically closes the door on ways to leverage magic in a story or game. When magic has rules, those rules can be enforced in interesting ways (as it is for Harry Dresden), or they can be hacked and manipulated to achieve surprising things (in every Brandon Sanderson story), or they can be used to raise the stakes and further the story (as with Earthsea).

The need for magic to have rules is basic if this magic is part of a game, but is also important for stories. If there are no rules to magic, you can’t create expectations and then break them, or set up foreshadowing, or provide a meaningful surprise. Magic without rules is just the arbitrary whim of the creator or storyteller, and quickly reduces to boring, or a succession of Deus Ex Magica.

Magic Should Serve the Story

As I said above, magic comes from story, and to that end, magic should serve story. Magic should be driven by what is ironic, or dramatic, or moral and immoral. Magic should have an emotional impact on the creator and audience, like any good artwork. As Brandon Sanderson advised on his podcast Writing Excuses (and doubtless others have elsewhere), magic should be both surprising and inevitable. It should elicit responses of “I can’t believe it!” and “Of course!” simultaneously, just like any good twist in any good story.

This is of course hard to do, but what worthwhile magic is ever easy?

Magic and Technology

A few weeks ago, I made the claim that Arthur C. Clarke was wrong about magic and technology when he said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But then this begs the question – how do magic and technology, particularly in imaginative fiction, interact? I thought I would talk about this by using some examples and characterizing how various creators use these two non-opposing, non-complimentary (in my view) concepts.

Dungeons & Dragons

Magic is technology and technology is technology. Magic functions according to defined rules, is highly limited in its effects, etc. This is partly necessitated by D&D being a game, and partly comes from the source material used in creating it, including Vancian magic and tabletop wargames.

Harry Potter

Magic is technology, and sometimes true magic (which is moral and dynamic) intrudes. The example I think of is the magic that protected Harry Potter himself, which was the magic of his parents love and self-sacrifice. There are other examples, but for the most part, magic is technological in the Potterverse. Say certain words with certain gestures and it happens. You just have to know the trick and execute the trick skillfully. The only thing that is magical about magic, really, is that it is innate to a person rather than accessible to anyone. But that’s just like having an ID card that lets you access the magic.

Mage: the Ascension

Magic is magic and technology is magic. In Mage: the Ascension, it is more like what Jason Godesky once said to me – any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.  Once magical procedures become defined and widely used, they become technology. There is even a world-spanning conspiracy organization, the Technocracy, whose goal is to reify magic into technology to keep the world safe from magic’s volatility.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys

Magic is magic and technology is banal, lesser magic. Neil Gaiman has a fantastic ‘feel’ for magic, in my own view, that comes from wide reading in comic books and fairy tales and other speculative fiction. In his stories, the magic arises from the story in ways that seem both surprising and inevitable, which is the sweet spot for me. But in the American Gods universe, technology’s new gods are just arrogant, vapid newcomers, compared to the gods, who are deep and complex but also neglected and increasingly forgotten.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council

Magic and technology share space and bleed both ways. Magic is minority technology (the crisis engine), minority culture (the grindylow), and cosmic invasion (Ghosthead Empire, the Scar), but that magic is often manipulated through technological means. Magic seems to arise from people with outsider status, generally speaking, with authoritarians depending more on what we’d commonly see as technology – horrors like New Crobuzon’s punishment factories.

Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Magic is magic, and morally driven, and technology is banal, and immorally driven. Tolkien’s clear – just ask the elves. What do you mean by magic? Magic is just the way that the world works. Technology is the way the world is broken, exploited, and corrupted by those who are insatiable for power over others.

Brandon Sanderson

Magic is superpowers and technology is technology. Magic isn’t quite technology because it is often innate, or at least subjective, but not always. But I’ve argued that Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems in his books, which are usually fascinating and very skillfully used as part of the plot, are actually more like superpowers than magic. The difference is one that it would take a whole other post to parse out, I think, but think about the differences between Superman and Gandalf. On the surface, many similarities – they are from another world, sent to Earth (Middle- or otherwise) to inspire people, fight evil, and try to make things right. But the how, and the why, are quite different.

LeGuin’s Earthsea

Magic is magic. It arises from the nature of the world, and dragons, and true names, and wisdom, and self-understanding. It is bound up in the world, and the plot, and the characters. LeGuin is a master.

Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear

So far magic is technology, but it is thought through in much more detail than normal for magic, so it is at least very cool technology. We’re kind of back to a D&D style, where magic is technology, but very complex and interconnected technology. You have players, who will lift the hood and poke at the workings of whatever game you put in front of them, and for Rothfuss, you have a main character and protagonist who is highly intelligent and curious, and pretty fearless about experimenting with the world around him to better understand and control it. That is the technocratic drive, right there.

What other examples would you add? Do you think I’m missing the point, or leaving important things out? 

 

Arthur C. Clarke Was Wrong

In imaginative fiction, and in the many ways that people engage with and talk about imaginative fiction, this is one of the most-often referenced quotes that I hear time and time again:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It’s a great quote. The main problem with it is that it is wrong. Or, to be more precise, if it is correct, someone is doing something wrong. For it to be true, I would have to add an addendum: “…poorly imagined magic.”

A technological device that is activated by waving one’s hands around effortlessly is an impressive piece of hardware. Magic that is activated by waving one’s hands around effortlessly is poorly imagined magic. Magic and technology are not the same – they are not two sides of the same coin, nor are they different approaches to the same thing. When I say this, I am saying it in reference to the examples we all share, examples of technology and magic from human societies, but I think these differences should also apply to imaginative fiction.

Which brings me to one important difference between magic and technology – technology has a much higher success rate in solving problems (and a much higher success rate in creating problems, but that’s probably another blog post entirely). While human societies have all practiced magic and practiced technology, it is technology that has built on the past and which has the proven track record of predictable, replicable, and sometimes staggering results.

Magic, on the other hand, as a real-world way of solving concrete problems, is at best unreliable if you believe in its efficacy at all. And when I talk about magic, I am talking about all different ways of interacting with the supernatural – religion, spirituality, psychics, fortune-telling, geomancy, mediums, faith healing, etc. This is leaving aside, for this post, moral problems, theoretical problems, etc.

In our imaginative fiction, though, magic and technology can both be redefined and re-imagined. Magic can have tremendous efficacy, and technology can accomplish things that as of now we understand to be patently impossible. We might imagine them as opposing forces, or as comparable approaches to the same problems – but in my view this is to imagine them as other than they are.

Magic and technology both arise out of the particularities of culture (though that is often harder to see for us today, in the context of cultural and technological hegemony). Magic and technology both require a procedure to use, but magic differs in very important ways. No matter how advanced a particular technology becomes, it should remain easily distinguishable from magic.

Belief

Beliefs have no impact whatsoever on the functioning of technology, but in almost every way magic has been imagined (and practiced) throughout history, belief has been at the center. The strength of one’s belief, one’s wisdom and understanding, one’s trust in the subtle forces in the world, directly correlates with one’s ability to use magic, or even understand its function.

Almost always implicit, this connection to belief is sometimes made explicit as well. Mage: The Ascension is the game and world that come to mind that best exemplify this aspect of magic. In Mage, magic is enlightened belief, period. It functions because someone who has an Avatar believes it will function, and those beliefs shape its function at all times.

Historically, magic has been the purview of particular cultures and societies. In the Western world, “magic” has been, in many cases, simply minority religious practices, sometimes “occult” or secret and at other times simply the religious practices of minority cultures like druids or hunter-gatherer medicine men.

The More-Than-Human World

This is a phrase on my mind lately, mostly because I ran into Jason Godesky at Save Against Fear and it got me thinking about The Fifth World again, but this phrase, the more-than-human-world, fits in with the distinctness of magic very well. Technology, especially the way that my society practices it, treats the world as an object, whether that world is full of living things or non-living things, matter or energy – every single bit of it is there to be used by human beings by way of technology.

Magic differs from this view in many ways, not the least of which being what “the world” contains and includes. I’m not aware of any magical worldviews that include philosophical naturalism or reductionist assumptions. Most, if not all, include a non-material world of some kind; a spirit world, or a realm of the gods, heavens and hells, elemental planes, even alternate universes and timelines.

Magic is also almost always imagined to impact the natural world and to connect human beings with it. People transform into trees, or speak with animals, or breathe water like fish, or fly like birds. People ask questions of the stones, learn songs from plants, or worship giant bears in caves. Animals are more likely to be seen with human characteristics in a magical worldview – they have thoughts and speech and will and memory. Magic might even be driven by a fully animist worldview, wherein all living things are people, and everything has a spirit.

Drama and Story

Technology doesn’t care about what story it is a part of. Technology can certainly be used in powerful ways to fuel narrative (HAL and Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, among innumerable other examples), but your smartphone doesn’t care whether it’s part of a story, or what’s dramatically appropriate. Its functions are always determined.

The opposite is true of magic, at least most of the time. Magic is much more likely to happen in the nick of time, or at the climax of the action, or at the “all is lost” moment at the end of Act 2.  Magic is in part driven by what is right and wrong, and by what is supposed to happen at a particular time. Some cultures reflect this with the idea of magic needing to be “auspicious” – this is particularly true in cultures influenced by Daoism for example, and is one of the core concepts behind feng shui and many kinds of fortune-telling. 

Brandon Sanderson writes stories that feature interesting magic systems, and he talks about how when the magic system is used to a character to solve a problem, he wants for it to be a surprise, and also to feel inevitable. A combination of “I can’t believe that happened!” and “Of course that had to happen!” These moments are the purview of the way magic is imagined, not technology.

Conclusion

Magic and technology differ in other ways as well, but these are three that I wanted to highlight. The point is that magic and technology are not connected in the way that the Arthur C. Clarke quote reflects. Writers, gamers and game designers, technology should always be clearly distinguishable from magic – if not, it is a failure of how we are depicting either the technology or the magic.

Core Emotions

Inside Out emotions

I was recently listening to an episode of the Two Pastors Podcast dealing with fear, anxiety, anger and hatred, and it got me thinking. I really enjoyed Inside Out, in part because it very effectively and dramatically incorporated a lot of research on core emotions that I have been learning about for the last few years, particularly based on the work of Paul Ekman. (If you have ever heard of a “micro-expression” then you’ve heard something of Ekman’s work) In brief, Ekman and others have identified five (or maybe six) core emtions based on universal human facial expressions and bodily cues. In the context of Inside Out, there were five core emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. To this list Ekman and others might add surprise, but that isn’t an important one for what I want to talk about.

I’ve used ideas around these core emotions, and their healthy expression and function, in situations like pastoral counseling and the spirituality groups I led for the behavioral health program at a hospital in San Francisco. I’ve also used these ideas a lot in my own life, not only trying to increase my EQ but also better understand myself and better manage my own mental illness challenges (depression and anxiety).

I found this really cool matrix based on the Inside Out emotions online that show show these five core emotions can combine to create other emotional experiences. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was quite right, so I made my own:

Anger Disgust Fear Joy Sadness
Anger Rage Hatred Panic Triumph Grief
Disgust Hatred Revulsion Horror Morbid Fascination Loathing
Fear Panic Horror Terror Surprise Despair
Joy Triumph Morbid Fascination Surprise Ecstacy Nostalgia
Sadness Grief Loathing Despair Nostalgia Despondency

One of these that I think I need to explain is the combination of joy and anger, I decided to characterize as triumph. Previously, I had fiero and also righteous anger in that slot: fiero I get from Ekman – he thought there was a particular facial expression for the feeling one experiences in something like a crucial sports victory, and he didn’t think there was a good English word for that feeling, so he used an Italian one. But just imagine the exultant, gritted-teeth, clenched fist emotion someone might exhibit right after they score a goal. This emotion might be distinct from righteous anger, but righteous anger was another example of how I understand a combination of anger and joy. I decided to go with triumph, however, but I’m not as confident about that one as I am with others.

Another key note: of the five core emotions, each has a healthy and necessary function for us, even though we think of most of them as “negative emotions.” In fact, of those listed, the only obviously “positive” one is joy. But one thing I loved about Inside Out is that each of the emotions had their place in one’s health, and a person couldn’t get by without all of them. Just like in real life.

Where one emotion intersects with itself in the matrix, I just listed an extreme form of that emotion, each of which is probably less healthy in its own right. But how these various combinations map to “health” and so on is a whole other discussion.

For now, just check out the matrix and tell me what you think. For me, it was helpful just to write out, if nothing else.

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.