Meet The Real Loki

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CREDIT: Loki finds Gullveig's Heart, illus. John Bauer

Let’s talk Loki. Norse myths are some of the world’s craziest, and while the good folks at Marvel have given us two solid cinematic Lokis so far, and look set to deliver a third, there’s a lot of Loki that never makes it on screen.

You see, Loki’s a weird character in the Norse pantheon. He’s not evil always, or for its own sake — this is something Marvel’s first Thor movie got right. He is, however, tricksy. And vengeful. And too smart for his own good. In Norse myths, Loki’s as likely to take up the role of “only Norse god who can think his way out of a paper bag” as he is to present as “archenemy of Thor and all that is holy.”

Also, Loki’s schemes are about as likely to blow up in his own face as they are to accomplish anything intended. The Avengers got that right — the guy’s brain really is like a bag of cats, only matched in its oddity by the brains of the other inhabitants of Valhalla.

With that out of the way, here is one of my personal favorite Loki tales. Feel free to imagine the Triple-H of Hiddleston, Hemsworth, and Hopkins in the central roles below if that tickles your fancy.

Okay, so. Back at the beginning of time, the gods wanted a fortress. But no one wants to build a fortress themselves! The gods remain stymied until a nameless workman wanders into Valhalla and gives Odin an offer: “I’m really good at building fortresses, and in fact I’ll build one for you — if you pay me with the sun, the moon, and Freia, goddess of beauty.”

This being the beginning of time, Odin hadn’t heard this particular scam before. “Sure,” he says, “but if you don’t finish the fortress within three seasons, we get to kill you. And you have to work alone.” Because, of course, there’s no way a worker could finish a fortress in three seasons, and it’s not as though this nameless stranger who just showed up at the dawn of time has anything to hide.

“Fine,” says Nameless Stranger, “on the condition that my stallion, Svadilfari, gets to help me.”

“That sounds suspicious even to us,” says Odin. Fortunately Loki’s around to say, basically: “Oh, come on. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“A compelling argument,” says Odin. “You have your deal, Nameless Stranger.”

The Stranger, of course, turns out to be immensely strong, and the horse is even stronger than his master, hauling rocks the size of mountains to build the walls of the gods’ fortress. Three days before the end of the third season, it’s clear that the gods will lose their wager, and with it the sun, the moon, and the goddess of beauty.

So, of course, they turn to Loki. “This is all your fault!”

“Wait just one second,” says Loki, “I’ll admit a certain level of guilt for the horse proviso, but seriously. Why is it every time something goes right around here it gets attributed to the guy with the eyepatch, and every time something goes wrong it’s my fault?”

“That,” says Thor, “is what you get for being the god of cleverness, not the god of Wisdom. Also I have this big magic killin’-things hammer, and I’m asking nicely. For now.”

“And on that note,” says Odin, “if you care to read the writing on my magic spear, you’ll see that you will help us.”

“Where’s the writing?” says Loki.

“On the pointy end,” says Odin.

“Fair enough,” says Loki, and sets to thinking.

The next day, before sunrise, Loki works magic and transforms himself into, well, a mare. A very comely mare, too, if you’re into that sort of thing. Loki sidles on up to Svadilfari, winks, and gallops off into the woods. The stallion is, to put it mildly, intrigued — Svadilfari breaks his bridle and chases the Loki-mare into the forest. They pursue one another for three days and three nights, before Svadilfari catches up and they start to get busy.

Without his stallion, the Nameless Stranger cannot, of course, complete the wall in time. “Excellent,” says Odin. “I win!”

“But,” says the Stranger, “the contract’s null and void, since I didn’t have my horse to help me for the last three days.”

“That’s not my problem really,” says Odin.

“And besides,” says Thor, “it turns out you’re a frost giant, and we kill frost giants around here, so –” And then he kills the Nameless Stranger.

It does not seem to occur to anyone that they could have done this at any point in the story. But perhaps since the letter of the bargain was satisfied (or not), Odin and the gods were free to kill the Stranger whether or not he was a frost giant.

Anyway, “some time later,” Loki returns from the woods, leading his and Svadilfari’s child: an eight-legged foal named Slepnir, who would grow to be the greatest of all horses and the personal mount of Odin Allfather.

So, what’s the moral of this story? Don’t give gods advice? Ask your contractor for references? Deals that look too good to be true often are? Don’t try to argue fine points of contract law with a man who has a magic all-slaying hammer? Loki fanfic is evergreen? No snarky comment goes unpunished? Only good things come out of gender- and species-bending magic?

Who knows? But it’s been a fun story for centuries and it remains so to this day.