Reading guide for Runemarks by Joanne Harris

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Runemarks

by Joanne Harris

Runemarks
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 544 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 544 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

ABOUT THIS BOOK
Runemarks is set in a universe of Nine Worlds, not unlike that of Norse legend. Five hundred years have passed since Ragnarók and the world has rebuilt itself anew. The old gods are no longer revered. Their tales have been banned. Magic has been outlawed, and a new religion, called the Order, has taken its place.

Enter Maddy Smith, a 14-year-old girl with an attitude problem. No one in her village likes her much; she is reputed to be imaginative, she tells stories, talks to goblins, and worse still, she has a ruinmark on her hand, a sign associated with the Bad Old Days. According to One-Eye, the secretive traveler who is Maddy’s only real friend, her ruinmark—or runemark, as he calls it—is a sign of Chaos blood and magical powers. And with a new battle brewing between the forces of Chaos and Order, Maddy needs all the power she can muster. Suddenly the gods, demons, and oracles of legend turn out to be not only real but also family. And the fate of the Worlds balances on the knife edge in Maddy’s hand.

Runemarks is a fast-paced, funny, descent-into-the-underworld tale of secrets, revenge, trust, and destiny. It is about the end of all things and the possibility for new beginnings.


Reader's Guide
  1. Reread the last two paragraphs on page 19 that describe how the Malbry townsfolk regard Maddy. What does it mean that Maddy showed “signs of being clever,” and why would this be “disastrous for a girl”? Do you think this holds true for girls and women in our society? Does this same notion apply to boys and men?

  2. Discuss negative examples of chaos that are affecting the world today (war, environmental degradation, gun proliferation, etc.).

  3. The Whisperer tells Maddy, “The Folk have remarkable minds, you know— rivaling the gods in ambition and pride.” (p. 463) Discuss examples of ambition and pride in the text. Do you think it is positive to be ambitious and proud? How do ambition and pride affect many characters in the story?

  4. The character of Loki fears little, but he greatly fears the fanaticism of the Order. (p. 109) What is fanaticism? What are some examples of it in the text? Why is it so dangerous? What are some examples of 20th century and early 21st century fanaticism?

  5. Discuss the character of Nat Parsons and what he symbolizes. What is he after in the story and how does he go about getting it? What is his tragic flaw? Do you think he deserves his fate and ultimately his redemption in the river Dream? (p. 511)

  6. Discuss the proverb “Not kings but historians rule the world.” (p. 151 and p. 161) What do you think it means? Do you agree with this idea? Throughout Runemarks, the Vanir and Aesir shift from one “Aspect” to another. (p. 166) How is this notion of one’s Aspect related to identity and truth? Although Maddy discovers she is not human, how is her “humanity” revealed throughout the story? What character traits does she possess that make her heroic?

  7. Reread pages 186 and 187 that describe the Word. What does the Word symbolize? What is the significance of the golden key? How can power be an addiction?

  8. Do you think One-Eye was justified in withholding information from Maddy about her life? Why do you think he experiences a feeling of “deep and undeniable relief” after the Examiner says to him, “Your time is over?” (p. 238) Why do you think the author chose to fully blind him at the end? (p. 353)

  9. What error in judgment does Skadi make in forming an alliance with Nat? Why do you think one who has such keen instincts would make such a poor decision? Why does she feel justified in double-crossing the Vanir?

  10. Discuss the character of Ethelberta. What is meant by the following description of Ethelberta’s realization that her “inner voice, once heard, was difficult to ignore”? (p. 321) How are Ethel and Maddy alike?

  11. How do Ethelberta’s values, disregarded by the Folk, serve her in the end? Heimdell looks in awe upon Odin in his true Aspect: “To Heimdell he looked as if he were made of light, and if any of the Folk had dared to look, they would have seen it.” (p. 323) Discuss this observation. How can it apply to your own interactions with people who are different from you in some way?

  12. Place students in small groups to discuss each of the novel’s major themes: power/ambition, deception, intolerance, revenge, acceptance, identity, and destiny. What other threads or themes can students identify in the story?

  13. Loki is known as “the trickster” and symbolizes chaos. The Aesir mistrust Loki, but know that they need him for change to occur. (pp. 34—35) Discuss examples of chaos that have been catalysts for positive change.

  14. The reader learns that Maddy wants to “free all the people in Malbry and beyond, to free them from sleep and into dream.” (p. 526) What does the author mean by freeing people from sleep? Why have—and do—dictatorial regimes use tactics such as book-burning to gain or keep control over people?

  15. On the last page, the author concludes with this thought: “The river Dream, like the World Tree, has many branches, many routes.” Discuss this idea. What branches will you climb or routes will you follow to realize your dreams?

    Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf Children's Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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