“A Wolf in Iceland is the Child of a Lie” has a different sense of poetry and rhythm, one harkening back to the old Icelandic myth cycles. What inspired you to write this story?
When I was in second grade, I fell in love with D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants (1967). I fell in love with Loki, fire-sly, shape-changing, gender-changing, liminal. He is one of my oldest mythological imprints and — possibly for that reason — one of the figures I have written least about. For years I didn’t even try. Eventually his daughter Hel turned up in a poem [stonetelling.com/issue3-mar2011/taaffe-persephone.html], but she belongs to the underworld and got in on her own merits.
The thing is that Loki doesn’t have only the three monstrous children with Angrboða, the ones Odin variously imprisoned or flung down into the sea or the underworld — the Fenris-wolf, the world-serpent Jörmungandr, the half-faced girl-child Hel. His two sons with Sigyn are half-Æsir. It doesn’t protect them. When the gods decide to punish Loki for his part in the death of Baldr, they transform one of his sons into a ravening wolf which immediately tears out the guts of the other; it is with the entrails of his own child that Loki is bound for eternity beneath a venom-dripping serpent and the earth that shakes and fumes when he writhes in pain. (Understandably, the D’Aulaires leave this particular twist out of their picture book.) The name of the slain son is either Nari or Narfi, according to Snorri Sturluson in Gylfaginning. The wolf-son is named Váli. He does not appear again in the mythological record — Snorri may have invented him out of a confusing reference to Odin’s better-attested son of the same name — but he’s haunted me for fourteen years. The violence is part of it, the disposability with which Loki’s half-god children become, like their mother, collateral damage of their father’s crimes. But so is the silence, the idea that if none of the myths say how Váli’s life ended, then maybe he’s still out there. The possibility has not been closed down.
I tried to write about Váli for the first time in my junior year of college, right after my first few short stories had been published. It was not a success. I don’t know why I tried again in 2010, during a painful drought in my writing life — by the time I finished the story in December of that year, it was the first piece of fiction I had managed to complete since early 2008 — but this time it took. To date, it’s still my only successful attempt at Norse myth in fiction.
The story is lush with references to Nordic cities and culture, offering bottles of wine on the city streets and hearty meals at local bed-and-breakfasts. Many writers have explored the Iceland of the past, but your setting is rooted in the present. Have you ever spent time in Iceland?
I have never been to Iceland. My mother visited briefly, in 1968; the narrator’s mother shares many experiences with mine, although I think our relationship is better. I’d have loved to be able to afford a research trip, but instead I looked at vast amounts of photography, history, geology, pop culture, and all the assorted timesinks they led to. Some of the story was written to Sigur Rós. I couldn’t find anywhere to work in the Móðuharðindin, but the fact that Eyjafjallajökull was erupting during the writing of the story had an effect.
With this story you explore themes of love, loyalty, and death in some of their most brutal forms. Much of Western genre fiction has shied away from such intimate studies of real world histories and beliefs, feeling that to do otherwise might alienate readers. Do you have any particular thoughts on the value of mythical history as a stepping stone to building the future?
I don’t know if I think first of myth in terms of its future utility, but I do think it’s critical to look at stories as they were and are told (in all their polyphony and contradiction; almost nothing in myth is single-voiced), not just at the simplest or the most comfortable versions. Otherwise all you are seeing is a gloss or an illusion of familiarity: Oh, yes, just like us with different names. Alienation is important, if it’s what’s true. I die inside a little every I see Athene referred to as the Greek goddess of wisdom, because it makes her sound all judgment and prudence, a dispassionate encyclopedia. She is the goddess of μῆτις — cunning, tricky thought, creative intelligence; the ability to think around corners and into the future. Mētis is the reason Athene is associated with the technically intricate, metaphorically loaded craft of weaving; it is the shared trait that makes her so fond of Odysseus, the consummate trickster hero of Greek myth. You are far and away the best of mortals at designs and stories, while I am famous among all the gods for craft and cleverness. (Songs are woven; so are stories; so are lies.) Μῆτις makes Athene the goddess of war — not the blind berserker violence of Ares, but tactics and strategy. Take the shrewdness out of Athene and what’s left looks like white marble without the paint. It looks the way we all know Greek statues to have looked, abstract and austere, which they never did. Classical statues were loud with color. The idea is very off-putting to some people. Tough luck! You can still see the traces, especially under high-intensity and ultraviolet light. The past is inaccessible enough already; we don’t need to fuzz it out further with extra inaccuracy. That was a nonviolent example, but it goes toward the whole idea of romanticizing instead of accepting — brightly painted statues are gaudy and vulgar, virgin goddesses of wisdom are loftier than asexual female tacticians. (And who makes these judgments? What attitudes do they reinforce? What divisions do they uphold?) If the past is what you build the future on, you had better know what it really contained.
I have to ask. Are you familiar with the Scandinavia and the World web comic?
I am afraid I’ve never heard of it, although reading the question out loud seems to have occasioned some traumatized shouting from my husband.
“Matlacihuatl’s Gift” won the Rhysling Award in 2003, and “Follow Me Home” appeared in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008: 21st Annual Collection. Do you find there to be a difference in expressing ideas through poetry or prose?
Yes; I couldn’t turn most of my poems into stories or vice versa, although they can address the same subjects or concerns. What’s still slightly strange to me is how many more poems I’ve written than short stories, when for years I wrote (mostly bad, half-completed) fiction and did not think in poetry at all, although I enjoyed reading it. The year I started writing stories that were good enough to be published was the year I started writing poetry, ditto. I suspect I am better known for it now than for my fiction. Seventeen-year-old me would be so confused to hear that.
What’s next from Sonya Taaffe? What can readers expect?
I have a new collection, Ghost Signs, just out from Aqueduct Press and short fiction and poems upcoming in An Alphabet of Embers and Spelling the Hours (ed. Rose Lemberg), Genius Loci (ed. Jaym Gates), How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens (ed. Joanne Merriam), and various magazines like Not One of Us, Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Mythic Delirium. Subjects include dybbuks, classical history, secret history, demon weddings, saints, birds, the dead of beloved memory, and a dream I had once of the fourth-century siege of Tyre.
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