By Christopher Carey
Copyright © 1995 by Christopher Carey
I have been surprised at some of the reactions I have received from Doc Savage readers when I asked them what they thought of Philip Jose Farmer's Escape From Loki. While shocked at those who did not care for the novel, I was far more jolted by those who went away from it thinking they had read nothing more than a hard-boiled, fast-action pulp drama. It is just that, a grand adventure to stand rightfully alongside of the original 182 supersagas, but it is also much more.
During my first reading of Loki I noticed a number of curious facets in the story, not the least of which was the title. Lazy as I am, I did not follow them up immediately, but these curiosities lay dormant in my mind like tiny magic beans. On my second and third reading they sprouted, and now after my fifth reading I have a tall, stout stalk.
The title Escape From Loki, while seeming quite simple, does not just refer to Doc and his aides breaking out of a German prison camp. Farmer refers to Camp Loki being "named after the Old Norse evil trickster-god," but does not spoon feed the reader as to what Loki represents mythologically. The Germans in the story obviously named the camp such because it was tricky, escape-proof. Farmer named it such because Loki is the representation of adolescence in Norse mythology. Doc is escaping not just from a prison camp, but from his own immaturity. Farmer's Loki is a classic archetypal story of the transformation of boy into man.
If one looks at the story of the god Loki a little closer, one discovers that a more apt imagery could hardly have been chosen for the Doc Savage mythos. The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology states that Loki "became so troublesome that the gods caught and bound him in a cavern beneath the earth, guarded by a great serpent whose venom fell upon him" (reminiscent of the caves in Camp Loki and the poisonous experimentations by von Hessel). Further, it states, "His agonized struggles caused earthquakes. At the end of the age of the gods, Heimdahl will kill him." Looking deeper into the myth, a description of Heimdahl proves most illuminating:
Heimdahl's hearing was so sensitive that lie could hear grass growing on the earth or wool growing on the backs of sheep. He could also see a distance of one hundred miles by both night or day. He lived in a castle of Himinbiore and always wore shining white armor and carried a flashing sword. He also possessed a magic horn Gjallarhorn, which could be heard throughout all the levels of heaven, earth and the Otherworld. It will summon all the gods to battle when Ragnarok dawns.
Does this sound like a certain bronze man we have all read about, with his super-sensitive hearing and vision, as well as his metallic countenance? Ragnarok is the Norse Apocalypse, and certainly one can see Doc in this analogy sounding the horn to begin the last battle of Armageddon as his fights awaken the thousand and one superheroes that were to join him in the next sixty years of the popular literature of our culture.
While Loki is an archetypal story of adolescence transformed, Doc Savage did not have a typical adolescence. He was raised from the age of fourteen months to be an ubermensch, a superman. It is this factor which amplifies Farmer's novel from personal transformation into the sublime realms of world transformation.
Throughout the novel, Farmer paints a picture (or perhaps better, directs a motion picture) of Doc's ubermensch qualities, contrasting them with various characters. We finally get a glimpse inside his incredible mind. Doc sees things in similes. Thus when he encounters von Hessel smoking a cigar, he thinks "If other cigars were small dirigibles, the one in his mouth was in the zeppelin class." And in viewing the beautiful Countess Idivzhopu, Doc conjures up the image of "a pendulum, succeeded by a vision of a two-stroke-cycle engine." Doc Savage is a man who cogitates in full stereo Technicolor. Could one expect any less of Nietzche's ubermensch, the new world man?
In contrast the reader is given two old world men, the traitorous Duntreath and the evil von Hessel. To illustrate this an interesting dialogue occurs between Doc and Duntreath when Doc returns from the second banquet with the baron:
"I deal in facts, not in fantasizing," Duntreath said. "In truth, you didn't find out much of value, did you?" (Limited view of the "old word man")
Maybe not to you, but certainly much to me, Savage thought. (Deeper understanding of the "new world man")
Doc, as an example of the new phase of human evolution, has gained valuable psychological insight into the Baron, and Duntreath, being of the old order, cannot see it. Doc has gone beyond Duntreath's black and white "facts" into the color of psychology.
The difference between Duntreath and von Hessel is that the baron thinks he is a man of the new world, while Duntreath is not even aware that the world is changing. But von Hessel is no more an ubermensch than the colonel, as Doc learns from his talk with the baron. Von Hessel "fears that he is too much like his father," in other words, that he has inherited the outmoded wordview of the old world.
It has been demonstratcd that Doc thinks in symbols. He also acts symbolically. Farmer states that:
. . .in times of intense danger, he tended to revert to the emotional being in him, the Old Stone Age savage who worshipped malign and benevolent forces, dark enormous things. Part of the unconscious mind took over, and the unconscious was linked to the ancient ancestral memory.
This is illustrated clearly when, shortly after mistakenly killing the innocent Murdstone, Doc bites off the nose of the German train engineer. The reader will recall that in an earlier scene Farmer makes a point to describe Murdstone's very large and cut off proboscis. In fact, Monk refers to him as "Schnozzola." When Doc bites off the engineer's nose, he is taken over by "the Old Stone Age savage" and cannot help physically displaying the guilt he feels over killing the innocent Murdstone.
It is interesting to note that Murdstone is an entomologist. Farmer portrays entomology as an allegory for social infiltration by parasitic or revolutionary agents in his Dayworld series and uses similar symbolism in his Hugo award-winning The Lovers. Perhaps Murdstone wasn't what he seemed to be after all.*
Another of the magic beans that sprouted in my head after the first reading of Loki was the numerous times and the manner in which Farmer uses dogs in the novel. The key to the symbol is in a revealing dialogue between Doc and von Hessel:
"You're very cynical," Clark Savage said.
"In other words, doglike? If so, I'm the leader of the pack. Objective, clearheaded, a seer without blinders" (states von Hessel).
The Baron may be objective, but he lacks Doc's passion. Doc's encounters with dogs in Loki are used as a vehicle to depict Doc's confrontations with a cynical, passionless old world outlook. In fact, the word cynical derives from the Greek kynikos, literally meaning "like a dog." Hence, just before he comes upon De Musard's chateau- a critical scene in which the seed is planted for Doc's personal decision to defeat evil-doers- he is attacked by scavenging dogs. When Doc is caught and sentenced to imprisonment in Camp Loki, it is by Germans using tracking dogs. He thinks:
It was hard to have gone through so many dangers, suffered so many injuries, struggled so much, escaped so many times, be so close to being free of the enemy, so near his goal, and then be caught because of dogs.
Clark had always loved dogs. At this moment, he hated the entire species.
Doc encounters dogs during his first capture, and again when he gets his first look at Camp Loki. Just prior to their escape from the camp, the dogs begin whining and barking as if they "sense something," and during their escape they do the same. In addition, Johnny refers to Scheisstaube "and his progeny of female dogs."
In the twenty-first chapter (21 being the age of maturity in Western society) Doc and his aides do escape from Loki, but as demonstrated Loki was much more than just a physical prison- it was a prison of the soul. Hajji Abdu el-Yezdi, Doc's Persian Sufi tutor,** tells Doc, "Men are like tigers, striped with character traits. You have a very broadstripe of violence. You must narrow that... If you do not, you will become as those you call evil." The "bright lightning streaks in the black clouds" that were observed as the storm rolled in before their final breakout reflect those tendencies in Doc that he has just begun to deal with (and which he conquers years later in his Fortress of Solitude).
I believe there is still much more in Loki than meets the eye. For example, Mount Sinai is mentioned more than once in analogy. Also, I do not believe it coincidence that the events in the book begin on Easter. While I have made a case that the novel is interwoven with Norse mythology and Nietzchean overtones, I do believe it contains Christian symbolism as well. I will leave it up to the reader to piece together that part of the puzzle on his or her own.
Farmer's story of Doc Savage's first adventure is in itself an example of taking an old form and transforming it successfully into a new world. It is the perfect balance between mythos and action, and either way you read it (or both ways) Loki is a supersaga not to be missed.
*As an aside, I have an interesting theory on Murdstone's name. Having read a great deal of Farmer's other works, I am familiar with his fondness for word-play. The prefix murd reminds me of the French exclamation "merde!" and a stone is a tough, hard rock. The name Murdstone might be interpreted as "tough shit!", certainly fitting vociferation from a man who was to die under such erroneous circumstances. (Follow up note: In response to another article which I wrote on Escape from Loki, Farmer has since informed me that the name Murdstone derives from the Murdstones of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. While I was wrong in my claim that the name Murdstone was a clever Farmerism, I still believe that my interpretation is more or less correct. It refers not to Benedict Murdstone's dire fate, but rather to the strict, disciplinarian character of Edward and Jane Murdstone. However, it's a Dickensism, not a Farmerism.)
**Sir Richard Francis Burton (the real-life protagonist of Farmer's Riverworld series) wrote a curious book entitled The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi. At the time the volume was first published, Burton claimed to be merely the translator of the wise Sufi's work. However, the truth finally came out that Burton wrote it. While Haji Abdu El-Yezdi may be. a fictional character in our world, we may only assume that he existed in flesh and blood in Farmer's Wold Newton universe. (Note: There are at least two other characters in Loki who were pulled out of popular fiction, as pointed out by Rick Lai in his book The Bronze Age. Doc's tutor in mountain climbing, yoga, and self-defense, Dekka Lan Shan, is the grandfather of a character from the 1930s pulp series Peter the Brazen. One of the recruits Renny gets to help in the escape is Abraham Cohen from Argosy's Jimmy Cordie series. Doubtless, there are more.)
Burton, Sir Richard Francis (translator). The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi. Willey, 1944.
Farmer, Philip Jose. Dayworld Rebel. Ace/Putnam, 1987.
---------. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Doubleday, 1973.
---------. Escape from Loki. Bantam Falcon, 1991.
---------. Gods of Riverworld. Putnum, 1983.
---------. The Lovers. Ballantine, 1979.
Jung, Carl Gustav, et al. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday, 1969.
Lai, Rick. The Bronze Age: An Alternate Doc Savage Chronology. Fading Shadows, 1992.
Matthews, John and Caitlin. The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology. Aquarian Press, 1988.