Hello, everyone! I wanted to share my thoughts with you about Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel The Witch’s Heart. I’m a huge fan of novels that retell old stories from a new perspective, and my interest in the novel was immediately piqued by the breathtaking cover art and the promise of a modern take on Norse mythology. While I wasn’t blown away by the novel’s style, I was impressed by Gornichec’s ability to make a complicated part of Norse mythology accessible to modern readers, and her skill at breathing humanity into larger-than-life figures.
Synopsis: The powerful witch Angrboda flees to the Iron Wood after Odin, the All-Father of the Aesir, burns her at the stake and stabs out her heart for refusing to tell him her knowledge of the future. When the trickster god Loki shows up on her doorstep with her literal heart in his hands, she lets him into her life, marrying him and bearing three children, Hel, who is half dead, Fenrir, a wolf, and Jormungand, a snake. Though Angrboda tries her best to live a peaceful life with her children, she is tormented by visions of the future, where her children fight against the gods and bring about Ragnarok, the end of the world. Desperate to save her children, Angrboda tries her best to suppress her prophecies and conceal her existence from the gods, but when Odin discovers the truth, she realizes that she can no longer hide from fate.
My thoughts: If your only exposure to the Norse gods is through the lens of a Marvel movie, then you might be understandably shocked to read Gornichec’s portrayal of fan favorites like Thor, Loki, and Odin. Instead of the lovable band of rogues present in movies like Thor: Ragnarok and the Avengers series, the Aesir in The Witch’s Heart are brutal warlords who preside over the Nine Worlds with iron fists. Rather than telling the story of Ragnarok through their eyes, Gornichec focuses on the perspectives of the people who they’ve hurt: Angrboda, who was tortured and murdered for disobeying their commands, Skadi, a Jotun woman who befriends Angrboda and reluctantly marries into the Aesir as payment after they murder her father, and Loki, Angrboda’s husband who resents the gods for giving him power but always treating him like an outsider. From their point of view, we see Ragnarok as less of a battle between gods and monsters, and more as a tragic consequence of broken oaths, familial infighting, and poisonous prejudices.
Gornichec builds sympathy for the monsters that the reader has been traditionally taught to fear. Rather than portraying the children as innately evil, she shows them to be victims of circumstance; extraordinary beings who are feared by the Aesir through no fault of their own and are ultimately captured and imprisoned to prevent the occurrence of Ragnarok. Depicted as immature and childlike, the three children are traumatized from their violent treatment by the Aesir, and later start Ragnarok as vengeance for their imprisonment. Gornichec shows that Ragnarok is an event brought about by the Aesir’s disloyalty and faulty judgment, and her interpretation of the story supports the idea that the end of worlds was a necessary event to end the rule of corrupt gods.
The Witch’s Heart is ultimately a story of the underdogs of Norse mythology; a chance to give a voice to those overlooked in the original story. The protagonist, Angrboda, gets only a brief mention in the ancient texts, and their description of her is less than kind:
There was a giantess called Angrboda in Giantland. With her Loki had three children. One was Fenrir, the second Iormungand [the Midgard serpent], the third is Hel. And when the gods realized that these three siblings were being brought up in Giantland, and when the gods traced prophecies stating that from these siblings great mischief and disaster would arise for them, then they all felt evil was to be expected from them, to begin with because of their mother’s nature, but still worse because of their father’s.Gylfaginning, 27–34, trans. A. Faulkes, 1987.
Rather than settling for this introduction, Gornichec builds off the sparse details of Angrboda’s life and imbues her with new mythology. Her version of Angrboda is an extraordinarily powerful witch and seer whose knowledge of the future brings her only grief. She lives peacefully in the Iron Wood with Loki and her children, and only after they are brutally taken from her does she travel the world as the Mother Witch, bringing helpful potions to the people of Midgard, and attempting to uncover her true identity. Because there is so little mention of Angrboda in the canon, however, Gornichec is forced to bulk up the narrative by having Angrboda hear about the greatest hits of Norse mythology. Because of this, the first half of the books drags in places, as Angrboda spends most of her time puttering around her cave while Loki drops in every few pages to tell her stories about cutting off Sif’s golden hair or giving birth to Sleipnir the eight-legged-horse. For fans of Norse mythology, none of these stories are new, and the repetitive story-telling from secondary characters starts to feel like a recitation, but for those who are unfamiliar, the stories offer useful cultural context and ground the narrative in a concrete timeline.
Angrboda’s irrelevance to the overarching story of Ragnarok is the novel’s greatest weakness. In order to insert her protagonist into more parts of the story, Gornichec gives her the parts of other players. In one scene, Angrboda becomes Hyrrokkin, the great giantess who pushed Balder’s funeral barge out to sea when no other gods could move it. In another part of the novel, she is revealed to be Mother Witch, the ancient giantess who gave birth to the wolves who chase the sun and the moon. While I appreciated Gornichec’s creativity in finding ways to connect Angrboda to the main story, I also think it demonstrates the difficulty of focusing a narrative on a character who is ultimately a bit player in a much larger narrative. Caught between Angrboda’s tiny role in the original canon, and her wish to portray Angrboda as an influential figure in the events of Ragnarok, Gornichec flounders. She spends too much of the novel having Angrboda bear witness to the events happening around her, so that when she does become an active participant in the story, it seems like too little, too late.
That said, however, the final third of the novel is thrilling. Gornichec brings the world-ending stakes of Ragnarok home by focusing on Angrboda’s desire to save Hel, her only child not named in the prophecy, from destruction. The novel’s overarching themes about motherhood, self-sacrifice, and forgiveness coalesce in the novel’s final pages, as Angrboda meditates on the futility of preventing fate, and reflects on the harm caused by the Aesir’s reaction to her prophecy. The Witch’s Heart doesn’t imply that Ragnarok could have been avoided, but it does ask whether the Aesir’s preventative actions were justified. The Norse gods have always been much more “human” in their fallibility than the Greek gods, and I appreciated that Gornichec honed in on how their decisions, such as breaking eternal vows and betraying their kin, contributed to their own demise. Her telling of the story makes Ragnarok accessible and relatable to the average reader in a way that I think that the original canon fails to do.
Final consensus: The Witch’s Heart is a modern interpretation of Ragnarok and the series of events that lead to it. Gornichec simplifies the motivations of the principal characters to make an ancient story more accessible to modern readers. Additionally, she breathes new life into the tale by telling the story through the perspectives of Angrboda and her children. Though the narrative drags in parts, it’s still an exciting story and a worthwhile introduction to the vast canon of Norse mythology.
If you’re interested in classical Norse mythology, I cover some stories in my series “Let’s Talk Mythology.” Here are a few posts if you’re interested in learning more: