LoKi: Journey into The Self (Part 1)
The transformative allegory of Loki Laufeyson
“Self will come to life even in the slaying of self; but there is ever something deeper and stronger than it, which will emerge at last from the unknown abysses of the soul: will it be as a solemn gloom, burning with eyes? or a clear morning after the rain? or a smiling child, that finds itself nowhere, and everywhere?” | Phantastes
Ever since Loki descended into the deepening shadows of New York City, his eyes haunted and sunken into his gaunt face, grinning with devilish delight, burdened with glorious purpose, I fell in love with his character and his story. It is no secret that I usually prefer the villains over the heroes, mainly because I believe they have the most complex stories. They have the potential to showcase deeper truths about human nature and its frailties. Loki’s story has not disappointed on this account, as I loved every moment of his story within the films, but when “the powers that be” finally granted all us Loki fans his own series ten years later, they truly opened up vistas of his character to new and glorious heights.
Now this show has already garnered a lot of heated discussion amongst the fanbase. This is due primarily to the unusual choice for Loki’s love interest. For one, it has come to the surprise of many (myself included) that Loki’s story would even include a sweeping romance, and one that not only becomes the foundation of his show but also, miraculously, the catalyst for the entire next phase of the MCU! Yet the main cause of division amongst fans is that his lady love, Sylvie, is actually an alternate version of himself – a consequence of the chaotic fluctuations of the Multiverse - or as the show calls them, a variant. Some have found this distasteful that Loki would literally fall for “himself”, but I believe this criticism misses the whole point of the storytelling choice, and the entire main conceit of Loki’s narrative.
When our Loki, due to the actions of the Avengers during their Endgame “time heist”, takes hold of the tesseract and escapes causing a new branching reality, he is thrown into a perilous journey, a journey of the soul. As we follow our beloved, mischievous trickster into the realm of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), his story becomes one that cannot interpreted in a strictly literal sense. We can think of his story like an allegory, a fantastical and otherworldly journey towards revelation. I will be drawing comparisons to George MacDonald’s Phantastes throughout my analysis as a means of illustrating my point. Phantastes, for those who may not be familiar, is a fairy romance novel written in the vein of the chivalric romances of Medieval literature – think of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other such Arthurian tales - where a knight is sent on a mythical quest that tests his endurance and tries his soul. It is a test of valor, one that heralds chastity, honor, and the true meaning of servanthood. The choices and trials that Loki ends up facing all become representations of this kind of narrative, and it is very clearly a hero’s narrative. It takes on a symbolic structure which is meant to transform and redeem. Sylvie is a critical part of this structure, and what she symbolizes for Loki becomes the crux of the whole character and the key to his transformation. So, let us explore this together and journey into mystery along with our favorite God of Mischief!
"Look at him! Look at him! He has begun a story without a beginning, and it will never have any end. He! he! he! Look at him!" | Phantastes (pg. 24)
Loki’s story has been a rocky and tragic one since the beginning. Cast off and unwanted by even his own kind, Odin finds the tiny Frost Giant baby who was left to die in the fields of battle and adopts him as his own. Yet instead of telling Loki the truth of his origin and that there were plans set in motion to unite both Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim one day in peace through him, Loki is instead left to inadvertently discover in a freak accident his true origins. He was not the son of Odin and Frigga, but of Laufey, their kingdom's mortal enemy. This sends Loki down a spiral of self-destruction, as this truth only seems to solidify in his mind his “otherness”, as he never truly felt loved and favored by Odin as Thor so clearly was.
Essentially, Loki’s journey into darkness stems not only from his desperation to gain favor from his father, but to ultimately destroy what he despises about himself. Loki’s desire for power and the throne becomes the extension of this brokenness inside of him, but were never the foremost part of his goals. This internalized sense of his own “wrongness” which has been woven into Loki’s soul since the beginning is due, unfortunately, to Odin’s failure to be the kind of father Loki needed. He did not give him that stability within his own identity and a foundational sense of being loved and worthy – something only a father is capable of instilling within his children. Instead, Loki is lied to and made to grow up within a culture that views Frost Giants as their historical enemy. So, Loki’s fall from grace comes from the grandest and most spectacular display of self-hatred that there could ever be, as Loki not only succeeds in killing his own biological father, but very narrowly almost succeeds in the complete annihilation and genocide of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim and their entire planet. “I could have done it, father!” Loki cries in anguish as he hangs over the void at the climax of the first Thor film, “For you! For all of us!” Odin, looking into his son’s pleading and desolate eyes, merely answers, “No.” and with that, Loki willingly and willfully chooses to fall, the spiritual severing becoming quite literal as he disappears into the void of space.
Out of that crucible of darkness, is Loki’s ego stroked into a blazing fire of terrible vainglory that will inevitably wreak chaos wherever he goes. It is clear that even before Loki’s fall that he was an unruly and lawless spirit, he is the God of Mischief after all, with a notorious reputation for troublemaking, deception, and backstabbing. The ramifications of his actions very little concerned him, he would even revel in them like a spoiled child. Growing up in privilege and ease as a Prince of Asgard didn’t help his bloated self-image either, his arrogance often making him cold and cruel, where his natural disposition was usually tender and sensitive. The field was already fertile for Loki’s ascension to villainhood.
Yet Loki’s corruption into narcissism must always be understood in relationship to his self-loathing. Loki, through self-made glory, is ultimately trying to fill that vacuum within his soul where love and self-worth should have been. When, in the Avengers film, Loki shouts in desperate rage, “KNEEL!” to the citizens of New York City, what Loki is truly screaming for is love and acceptance. In his sick and twisted way, he is trying to make for himself a world where he will be adored and admired, the throne of rule becoming the embodiment of this aching internal need. To this end is Loki driven, even if it means the destruction of everything around him, including and most especially himself, because ultimately the volatile mixture of narcissism and self-loathing, like water and oil, do not mix. “You weren't born to be king, Loki. You were born to cause pain and suffering and death,” declares Mobius in the first episode of the show, as Loki up until this point, stiff-necked and with chest puffed, declares to every world he seeks to dominate, “I am a god!” all the while inside of him exists a wide, corroding chasm filled with self-hatred as large as the universe. This is the tragedy of Loki Laufeyson, that he is stuck within this self-made destructive cycle with no hope of ever escaping.
"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" | Romans 7:24
“Loving-kindness beamed from every line of his face. It seemed as if he would repay himself for the late arduous combat, by indulging in all the gentleness of a womanly heart. But when the talk ceased for a moment, he seemed to fall into a reverie. Then the exquisite curves of the upper lip vanished. The lip was lengthened and compressed at the same moment. You could have told that, within the lips, the teeth were firmly closed. The whole face grew stern and determined, all but fierce; only the eyes burned on like a holy sacrifice, uplift on a granite rock.” | Phantastes (pg. 171-170)
Like Alice through the looking glass, Loki, after escaping the Avengers’ custody, is swept up into another world, where everything he believed he knew is up-ended and where nothing is as it seems. This is the world of the Time Variance Authority. Declared by Hunter B-15 to be under arrest by the TVA for crimes against the ‘Sacred Timeline,’ Loki is thrust into a processing system of a bureaucratic nightmare where he is treated like refuse, destined to be ‘pruned’ from reality – a reality that has been religiously maintained by this complex system of checks and balances. As we are told, there was once long ago a terrible Multiversal war where unique timelines battled for supremacy nearly destroying all realities everywhere, but it was through the actions of three supreme beings, the Time-Keepers as they are called, who set up one Sacred Timeline which they have zealously maintained by the TVA in order to keep the peace and stability throughout the Multiverse. Whenever any person or being deviates from this set order of things, which is called a “Nexus Event,” they and their new reality are pruned from existence and their timeline reset to its proper and predetermined flow.
Loki, standing before the merciless Judge Renslayer, now stripped of any and all power, stares death once more in the face, as his very existence is threatened to extinction. “You ridiculous bureaucrats will not dictate how my story ends! You have no idea what I'm capable of!” screams Loki in desperation. When all hope seems lost for our beloved trickster, a gentle voice speaks out clearly, “I think I might. Have an idea of what he's capable of.” Enter Mobius M. Mobius, top agent and analyst of the TVA, and now Loki’s only advocate and savior who bargains for his life and takes him into his own custody and responsibility.
Mobius is a man who is both unassuming and compassionate, and Loki is immediately taken off his guard by his sincerity and kindness. With instincts sharpened towards survival and finding an advantage, Loki finds every single one of his attempts at gaining the upper hand rebuffed by the soft, but confident answers from this man with slightly unkempt hair and a humble brown suit, reminiscent of a Columbo-type detective than a top agent of some omniscient time institution. Yet, miraculously, unlike most people in Loki’s life, Mobius treats him with gentle patience and care. He neither fears him nor desires his destruction, but Mobius actually sees Loki. He not only sees through the illusions, lies, and projections that Loki has built around himself, but he genuinely admires him too. “Honestly, I'm actually a fan,” declares Mobius earnestly as Loki, with veiled eyes, arms folded, glares back at him from across the interrogation table. Mobius values Loki as a person, his keen intelligence, his ability to strategize the game within the game, and his tendency to talk in grand metaphors. Mobius values Loki’s abilities, personality, and what he can bring to the table. Yet even more than this, Mobius sees great potential in him too.
“I guess I'm wondering why does someone with so much range just wanna rule?” comes the earnest question from Mobius, and so begins the unraveling of Loki’s soul, as little by little, Mobius’ piercing and sagacious questions and brutally honest observations remove every layer of Loki’s bravado to get to the fear, loneliness, and trauma responses that lie underneath. Loki’s encounter with Mobius completely decimates his ego, revealing to him the delusion of his vanity – even to the discovering that the power which he so desperately coveted and nearly devastated Earth with (the tesseract/infinity stone) was nothing more than a paperweight in a TVA corporate lackey’s desk. The world that Loki had built for himself was just a lie and his life a mere drop in the sea of the Multiverse, and even worse – he had done horrific things in the name of that lie.
Yet at the same time Mobius also builds up Loki’s sense of self-worth. Where the “Sacred Timeline” declares him a villain, his story meant only to make others their better selves, Mobius declares, “That's not how I see it.” Seeing something more in him, Mobius pushes Loki to reach for a better self. This comes through the offer to become a part of something bigger, to aid them in the capture of a particularly dangerous and illusive Variant who has been killing the TVA Minuteman and causing havoc for their institution’s goals. Mobius offers Loki a new “glorious purpose,” and gathers him into the fold.
“Squire and knight should be friends,” said he: “can you take my hand?” And he held out the great gauntleted right hand. I grasped it willingly and strongly. | Phantastes (pg. 169)
What is so critical about this is that Mobius gives Loki identity. Lying at the heart of Loki’s soul was that gnawing emptiness that was eating away at itself, and Mobius spoke and poured into that void. He stabilizes him, grounds him, bringing into focus all of Loki’s attributes and complexes that were vying and contradicting within him, leading to those destructive choices. He gives him a new way of thinking and a new way of being. I absolutely love how this is made manifest in even the clothes that Loki is given to wear. We are used to seeing our mischievous prince in resplendent Asgardian garb, but by joining Mobius and the TVA, he is given simple office slacks, t-shirt, and a jacket. This intentionally ascetic choice shapes the ensemble with elegant but simple contours. This is a direct reflection of Mobius’ own clothing, as his beautifully designed brown suit, with cleverly reversed lapels, reflects Mobius’ serenity and self-discipline. This is what he is giving to Loki. He is giving him foundation and truth for his soul. The clothing becomes monastic in how it is being portrayed for this story, as it strips all external glory to focus on internal spiritual contemplation. For the first time in his life, Loki is really looking inward to understand, and symbolically this is Loki putting on Mobius’ attributes. This ends up shaping Loki’s identity profoundly from this point onward.
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” | Ephesians 6:11
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” | Galatians 3:27
“Now if you will join us, we will soon teach you to make your armour, and we will fight together, and work together, and love each other . . .” | Phantastes (pg. 150)
Essentially, Mobius becomes a spiritual father to Loki, speaking into that broken father wound within him. As it is with our Heavenly Father, Mobius stabilizes Loki through both love and discipline, and this is what gives him the authority to shape Loki’s identity. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” Where Loki has found himself far from his family and home, both figuratively and literally, perhaps never being able to return to his own world again, it is Mobius who adopts him and legitimizes him in this new way of life, and he does this through that discipline - something that Loki has clearly been lacking in all of his life. And this discipline is the truest sign of Mobius’ love for him, a love which becomes appropriately the first catalyst for Loki’s transformation and the foundation for his character moving forward. “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
“A dark curtain of cloud was lifted up, and a pale blue rent shone between its foot and the edge of the sea, out from which rushed an icy storm of frozen wind, that tore the waters into spray as it passed, and flung the billows in raving heaps upon the desolate shore. I could bear it no longer. “I will not be tortured to death,” I cried, “I will meet it half-way. The life within me is yet enough to bear me up to the face of Death, then I die unconquered.” | Phantastes (pg. 125)
Still the road to humility and redemption is a difficult one, and Loki’s spirit proves to be especially defiant, for even as it is revealed that the dangerous Variant they are to hunt down is actually a Variant of himself, Loki’s immediate inclination is to distinguish himself as the “Superior Loki.” Falling into old habits instead of taking to heart what Mobius has been teaching him this whole time, Loki tries to – once again – build delusions around himself. He desperately fashions a new persona with which to project. “It is adorable that you think you could possibly manipulate me,” purrs Loki to Mobius with an intimidating grin, “I'm ten steps ahead of you. I've been playing a game of my own all along.” Yet what is clear is that Loki, for the first time in his life, is the one who knows the least of what is going on within this narrative. This becomes startlingly evident when, after he cleverly helped pursue his Variant which ends in altercation with him, Loki discovers that this rabbit hole goes much deeper than he could have imagined: his Variant is a woman.
Intent on her own mysterious quest which involves “bombing” the Sacred Timeline in order to cause a myriad of branching realities, this Variant finds Loki to be a mere pest in the way of her own glorious purpose. Yet Loki, transfixed, ends up deciding to follow her further into “Wonderland”, betraying his word to Mobius and escaping the custody of the TVA. They prove to be equally as tenacious and stubborn, though, which ends up getting them both stranded on the planet Lamentis-1, right in the middle of its world-wide apocalypse. With the sky literally falling on them, Loki and his Variant, who calls herself Sylvie, find themselves becoming entwined in spite of themselves as they end up needing to join forces in order to survive.
What follows is both an unexpected love affair and Loki’s reckoning. It is intentional that the backdrop to Loki and Sylvie’s remarkable exchange is this desolate, forsaken planet right in the middle of a cataclysmic event, as this reflects Loki’s inner state of being. Up until this point, Loki has been putting on a good show, acting as if he could threaten and take down the TVA, presenting ad hoc reasoning for his motivations at any given moment as he clutches at every opportunity to maintain control. The truth is, he is completely out of his depth, and it is here on this planet with this painful realization staring at him in the face that his demons begin rearing their ugly heads.
For Loki, at every point of their trying to escape the planet, makes a horrible mess of things. He goofs around, playing with his magic, behaving like a teenage boy trying to impress his crush when their chances of getting off the planet becomes slimmer and slimmer each passing moment. He gets drunk, sings a drinking song with train passengers, obtusely confesses feelings through flowery metaphors, and draws attention to both of them which ends up getting them kicked off their only mode of transportation. Then finally, due to gross negligence on his part, ends up breaking their TemPad into pieces, their last chance of getting off the planet alive. Sylvie, who had asked for none of this, screams in frustration at being beset with such a fool.
“I have already seen one who will, I think, be the very man for your fellowship, but it will be some time before he comes to me. He is wandering now without an aim. I will show you to him in a glass, and, when he comes, you will know him at once. If he will share your endeavors, you must teach him all you know, and he will repay you well, in present song, and in future deeds.” | Phantastes (pg. 149)
It is almost intentional the way Loki sabotages each chance of their escape, and in a way, it actually is. As narcissism and self-loathing do not mix, Loki cannot admit to himself that he is not in control. He isn’t even remotely close to being “top dog” in this scenario, especially in the light of a reality where the TVA exists – who seem impervious, all powerful, and absolute. Yet at the same time, his lack in belief in himself and his abilities, and his placing no worth in himself, makes him nihilistic in his attitude, recklessly so. “Uh, that planet is about to crash into us,” Loki remarks glibly in a drunken stupor to Sylvie, who is frustrated at his complete lack of seriousness at their ordeal. Loki does understand what he is doing, fully aware that he is falling apart, but he is also unable to prevent it. It is like he is both accelerating and jamming on the breaks simultaneously, which tears him apart inside.
On top of this, Loki is beginning to experience feelings for this beautiful, almost feral woman whom he has joined forces with, feelings that he has never before experienced in his life. He sees within her a reflection of his own loneliness and brokenness as they exchange life stories, comparing and contrasting how they grew up and what their lives were like. In her he finds an unexpected connection, sharing similar pleasures and similar sorrows. This meeting of minds leaves Loki especially vulnerable and sensitive, a state of being that he has been unfamiliar with until now. Essentially, there is nowhere left for Loki to run, no more illusions and projections that he can conjure in self-protection, he has come to the literal end of worlds. Yet instead of allowing himself to be humbled and changed by this incredible experience, even with his and Sylvie’s lives hanging in the balance, he instead decides to self-destruct.
“It is only your shadow that has found you,” she replied. “Everybody’s shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you, as every person’s is almost certain to do. . .” | Phantastes (pg. 57)
“I am a god!” Loki brags hollowly to Sylvie even after shattering their last chance of escaping. “You’re a clown!” Sylvie shoots back venomously. At this point in the narrative, Loki has wandered the farthest than he has ever done in his entire life. He is truly and utterly lost, bereft and desolate, dangerously flirting with the point of no return even worse than any brush with death that he has had up until this point. This is because it is the death of his soul that he is willfully choosing. He is choosing it even after being shown a new reality and purpose through Mobius’ friendship, and he is choosing it even after his falling in love for the first time. It is self-sabotage, even if that selfishly means taking Sylvie down with him. The “first test” for our hero on his symbolic journey, and Loki fails it completely. Even though he has been equipped, there is still something dark and twisted that lies at the heart of him that prevents him from making the better choice. Perhaps, though, not all is as lost as it seems. Next week let us continue discussing the narrative and follow our melancholy hero of mischief on his journey of the soul, and what he discovers therein.
In storm-black mountains, I wander alone
Over the glacier I make my way
In the apple garden stands the maiden fair
and sings, “When will you come home?”
But trees dance and waterfalls stop
When she sings, she sings, “Come home.”
But trees dance and waterfalls stop
When she sings, she sings, “Come home.”
When she sings, she sings, “Come home.”
Very Full (Jeg saler min ganger) | Loki’s drinking song