‘The Witch’s Heart’ Shows How Heartbreak Guides Us To Recovery

In Genevieve Gornichec’s charming debut, the story of a witch’s life reveals the lead-up to Ragnarok

In Over Coffee, writer, reader, and haphazard reviewer Angela Lashbrook chats with authors about their recent books, and quizzes them on their hot breakfast takes.

When Madeleine Miller’s Circe released to widespread acclaim from audiences and critics alike, it indicated that readers have an unmistakable need for mythology retellings that are rooted not only in the fantasy tradition, but in literary and historical fiction as well. Genevieve Gornichec’s beautiful The Witch’s Heart, about the Norse jötunn Angrboda, is a worthy successor in a genre that will hopefully see more action in the coming years.

When The Witch’s Heart begins, Angrboda, a jötunn (or giant — though it’s worth noting that in Norse mythology, “giants” are not the gigantic beings we’re familiar with today) is recuperating after fleeing Asgard, one of the nine worlds, and the one where the gods, such as Odin, reside. For the transgression of her clairvoyant talents, which she refused to employ to the extent that Odin wished her to, she was burned three times, each time surviving. Only the third time does she manage to escape, and there, on the riverbank of another world called the Ironwood, Angrboda attempts to gather her strength when Loki, the trickster god, finds her, her heart in his hands.

From there, the pair form a friendship and, eventually, a romance that spawns three children, who will go on to play a major part in Ragnarok, the end of the world (for the gods, at least). But the relationship will be rocky, plagued by misunderstandings, cowardice, and betrayal — Loki, after all, is a trickster — and during all that time, Angrboda must come to terms with her early experiences with the gods, which she barely remembers; overcome the trauma that underlines her every waking moment; and attempt to provide a loving, safe environment for her remarkable (some might say monstrous) children.

Yggdrasill: The Mundane Tree. Finnur Magnússon, 1859. Courtesy of Public Domain Review

My own heart ached for Angrboda as she struggled to regain her strength and process her trauma. I found myself, like her, captivated by Loki, then frustrated as their relationship begins to resemble those many of us have endured or, at least, witnessed in our friends. And while adventure and action keep the novel pushing forward to its heart stopping (sorry sorry) conclusion, I found the richest sections of the novel to be in Angrboda’s quiet moments, in which she tends her home, raises her troublesome children, and excavates her past — both the traumatic years and the healthy, happy ones — that led her to the Ironwood.

“I’ve known you for so long, and yet it feels like no time at all. Will the rest of our time pass just as quickly? Will we change again and again as we have before, or are we stuck the way we are now forever, because more people will remember us this way?… What will they think of us a thousand years from now, if our stories are remembered?” he whispered. “Will I be counted the best among the gods, or the worst?”

Below, read my interview with the delightful Genevieve Gornichec about what inspired The Witch’s Heart, why themes of the body crop up again and again in her novel (and in Norse mythology), and her biggest complaint about Viking breakfasts.

What inspired you to write a novel based on Norse mythology, in particular about Angrboda?

I got really obsessed with Norse mythology in college ten years ago; it started with a class on the Old Norse language where we translated a couple of the myths, and just got worse from there. The same professor taught courses on Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas, and her lectures were so much fun that I took them all.

I wrote The Witch’s Heart in three weeks while I was taking the Norse mythology course, and even wrote my term paper on Angrboda. Angrboda seems to have been maligned because of her relationship to Loki and their children — that’s literally all we know about her from the original sources — but I am absolutely a sucker for underdogs, misunderstood villains, and “untold stories,” so I decided I’d write hers.

What I ended up doing was writing Angrboda as a bunch of other giantesses she shared similar associations with in the myths: Hyrrokkin, Hyndla, Gullveig, Heid, and the Seeress. I know these connections are tenuous at best, but I just thought it would be a cool idea to explore. To me, she seemed like the center of all these weird creepy ladies associated with wolves, snakes, death, and fate. So that’s what inspired me!

Odin in the Underworld, Henry Fuseli, 1770–1772. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The novel begins after Angrboda has been burned and cast out of Asgard. Why did you decide to start Angrboda’s story after these cataclysmic events?

That’s such a great question! So, The Witch’s Heart, like the Norse creation myth, begins with an act of violence by the Aesir against a giant. But I guess I wanted Odin’s first appearance later on in the story to pack a punch, too. Angrboda is so worried about him finding her that you kind of start to wonder what makes him so scary, and when he finally shows up, you see why.

With that said, the first real scene I saw in my head was Loki finding Gullveig-now-Angrboda sitting by the river. Since the first half of the book focuses on them, I thought that would be a good starting point. Angrboda sincerely just wants to be left alone, but he shows up to disturb her peace and give her back something she’d lost (but maybe didn’t necessarily want back), and she begrudgingly lets him into her life. In a weird way, it sets the precedent for the rest of their relationship.

Much of the novel deals with our, and others’, relationships with our bodies. From the moment Angrboda leaves her smoldering heart on the pyre when she flees to Ironwood, characters confront how the fact of their bodies, its utility and its limitations, impact how they move through the world, and how the world sees them. Could you talk about how you approached this topic? What inspired you to focus much of the novel around themes of the body?

Honestly, it was less a conscious decision on my part and more a result of how the Norse myths themselves talk about bodies and the self. Several gods in the Norse pantheon have physical differences: Odin has one eye; Tyr has one hand; one source may even suggest that Heimdall the watchman is deaf. But these differences don’t affect what the gods are able to achieve, and it certainly didn’t make them less worthy of respect.

And then you have Loki, a literal shapeshifter whose body holds unlimited possibilities but who is maybe limited in other ways. Similarly, Angrboda is burned alive at least three times, but a lot of the trauma she goes through has nothing to do with her body at all. And Skadi is very strong, and relies on her body for her hunting and her wide travels; she helps Angrboda build her life from the ground up in a tangible way, but is initially limited by how much she can do for the people she loves beyond physically helping them.

So I guess it was less me being inspired by themes of the body and more me drawing on what was already in the myths, and using that as a springboard. As for Angrboda’s out-of-body travel with seiðr, I’m not even really sure that’s a popular interpretation of what seiðr is, because it’s a little difficult to discern its actual meaning. My own limitation is that I’ll never know everything there is to know about this mythology, and there are so many different ways to interpret things. It’s both intimidating and exciting!

Do you intend to write further stories based on myths, folklore, or legends? If so, what are some myths or tales that you find particularly inspiring as future novel fodder?

Absolutely! I feel like I’m too committed at this point to write about anything else. My current historical/legendary obsession is Gunnhild, Mother of Kings. She was a queen of Norway during the Viking Age and got up to some wild stuff, including casting some very creative curses and generally antagonizing people (according to the Icelandic sagas). She’s really interesting, but her origins are a bit hazy, so I really think I could have some fun there.

And with the Norse myths, there’s still so much to unpack and so much more I want to explore. I feel like I learn more about them every day, which seems weird, but there’s a lot going on in the original stories and poems. And the field of Viking Studies is also doing some amazing things when it comes to questioning the ways the myths have been interpreted in the past. This is a subject you could study forever and never get bored, and I’m so here for it.

What would the gods in Asgard have eaten for breakfast? What’s your personal opinion of these breakfast items?

Hmm…their golden apples of immortality, for one. In terms of a traditional Viking Age breakfast, I’d say oats, honey, and maybe boiled eggs? I’ve eaten enough of these types of foods doing Viking reenactment weekends, and I’m a big fan.

(They didn’t have coffee, though. That’s my only gripe.)

Pick up a copy of The Witch’s Heart on Bookshop or your favorite local bookstore.

(PS. I use affiliate links, so when you make a purchase through a link on my blog, I get a small commission that helps fund Over Coffee.)

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store