I don’t know what to make of Runemarks. On the surface it is a sort of fantasy epic-adventure in a world inhabited by goblins, shape-shifters, and the Saxon gods. But the author is Joanne Harris, so we have to suspect that there’s a lot more at work than simple fantasy or adventure.
A young girl named Maddy Smith, living in a provincial village, begins to learn that she has special powers. Once a year she is visited for a week or two by a traveler who tells her stories and teaches her about the history of the world and the forces at work in it. After seven years, when she is 14, she learns that the traveler is in fact Odin (yes, that Odin) and that a landmark near the village is in fact a gateway to the Underworld. The forces of Order and Chaos are about to collide, and the Saxon gods are in disarray and unable to prevent catastrophe.
The world that Joanne Harris constructs is pure fantasy. The ordinary earth is just one of nine connected worlds bound together by the Tree of the World. Runes have power, the Word can bring down gods, Order and Chaos are actual entities and not mere categories. It is insane - and it is exactly the sort of insanity that is taken for granted in every religion that has ever been.
The cast of deities is familiar: Odin, Thor, Loki the trickster. In other traditions Loki might have been named Dionysus or Coyote, or might have taken the form of a serpent in the garden. It seems that humans first invent a cast of characters, then create a cosmology as necessary to provide a home for their religious inventions. Mt. Olympus, the Underworld, Heaven, Hell - the places always come after, and are tailored to the imagined needs of the pantheon.
In this scheme, processes become personified (order, chaos, and evil are always associated with specific gods and demi-gods or angels) and the artifacts of consciousness become reified - guilt and desire become Sin, memory becomes the Word, fear becomes Hell.
The personification of processes or of events is probably the source of proto-religion. Humans reason by analogy, and primitive people would have had their own social bonds as a model for how order and disorder can arise in the world. The trickster appears as a dangerous and annoying but necessary character to explain the many disasters, large and small, that befall us. A warrior god (Mars, Thor) serves as a model for our own warfare. An elder (Odin, Zeus) serves as a model or exemplar of the tribal chief.
Although religion arises as an explanatory vehicle, it never remains so for long. For one thing, if religion were simply explanatory it would have died out long ago, supplanted by science, evidence, reason. Religion, successful religion, always joins with the state or with the ruling classes to form a kleptocracy in which religion is used to enforce the social (class) order and in exchange is allowed to siphon away some of the wealth that would have otherwise gone directly to the state or to the ruling class. Religion is used as carrot and stick, promising rewards (in the afterlife, of course) for obedience and submission, and promising (and delivering) punishment for transgressions in deed or in thought.
And somewhere in this process people stop seeing the utter silliness and insanity of the beliefs that they are taught to hold. Concepts like Heaven and Hell, the Underworld, an all-seeing God or a cast of gods, are not challenged. Those ideas are not held up for comparison against the real world, actual experience.
Maybe it is this that Harris is getting at in Runemarks: by constructing an utterly silly world, but one that fits with Saxon theology, she illustrates the utter poverty of religious belief.
Anyway, I hope that is what she is doing.