Posted by: kshayes513 | May 25, 2011

Watching Thor and Rewriting Mythology

Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Image: Mark Fellman/Marvel Studios

Thor is the first of a trio of Marvel superhero movies to hit the screen this summer, and it’s an entertaining start. Though not in the same league as Iron Man, there’s some excellent action, some decent character development, and the script does a capable job making sense of a massive amount of back story on why a Norse god ends up on Earth. It also has the usual shortcomings of big budget comic book movies: hiring extraordinary character actors (Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo) to do little more than stand around and wear costumes; and spending a ridiculous amount of money on overblown sets and visual effects.

The best reason to watch Thor is the immensely appealing Chris Hemsworth, who (as in his 7 minutes as George Kirk in Star Trek), makes us care deeply about him, whether he’s being a headstrong spoiled godling or a broken and powerless orphan. On balance, I found Thor well worth the price of a movie ticket  (though not the price of the reverse engineered 3D, which adds virtually nothing to the experience).

What interests me most, though, is how much Marvel’s Thor mythology, as shown in this movie, alters the original Thor myths(I am assuming the movie is a reasonable translation of current Thor comics mythology to the big screen; Thor comics never came my way back when I was voraciously reading superhero comics).

There are a number of changes large and small in the movie’s mythology, such as making Loki Odin’s adopted son so that Thor and Loki can have a Cain and Abel relationship; portraying the Frost Giants as blue skinned aliens instead of fearsome Scandinavian giants; suggesting that Odin lost his eye in battle, rather than sacrificing it to gain wisdom; giving Thor blond hair instead of the god’s famous red hair and beard (surely the origin of the traditional association of red hair and quick temper!); and blaming Thor’s youth for both the temper and the reckless warrior courage which are the traditional hallmarks of the god’s character.

For me, though, the biggest missing piece in this movie was the idea of gods – an immortal, divinely powerful order of beings who have a relationship with humans that demands mutual responsibilities. In Norse mythology, the gods are true heroes, fighting an endless war to protect Earth and humanity from the Frost Giants, the forces of eternal winter, even though they know that in the end they will lose that war, and endless night will fall.

In Thor, the Asgardians are a mighty race from another plane of existence, who have a long history of war with the Frost Giants. The inhabitants of Asgard have little relationship with humans, and Earth seems to be no more than a convenient place to banish Thor when he gets in trouble. I suppose this is a necessary approach to make Thor into just another superhero (after all, if SHIELD has an actual god fighting for it, there’s no need for all the mere metahumans, is there?). But for me, it’s sacrificing an important element of the relationship between Thor and the humans who, in myth at least, are under his protection.

So here are my questions for my fellow worldbuilders:

If we are going to use myth and legend in our worldbuilding, how important is it that we stay faithful to the original? What can we change, and what should we leave alone to keep the essence of the myth intact? At what point does making changes to a myth stop being an adaptation or update, and turn into hijacking a mythical character’s name and applying it to something completely different?

UPDATE, June 19, 2012: The gods of Asgard return in Marvel’s The Avengers. And Joss Whedon takes up my question about relationships between humans and gods, and makes it a central theme, as Loki (the fascinating Tom Hiddleston, whom I should have mentioned in my original post) tries to make himself the tyrant of Earth. While Thor has grown up a lot thanks to the events of Thor,  he still gets to be as quick-tempered and battle happy as we expect the God of Thunder to be (just look at his fierce smile as he summons his hammer and prepares to take on The Hulk!). Yet he also gets to act like a heroic god, in contrast to Loki, who is everything we don’t want a god to be. The trickster god enslaves the minds of key SHIELD operatives, makes a whole crowd kneel to worship him, and as Fury says, he kills for fun. And that’s before he summons an alien army to level Manhattan. Thor, arriving on Earth to fetch his errant brother, never once demands that the humans treat him as a god. Instead he takes responsibility for protecting Earth from his brother’s violence; accepts SHIELD’s people as worthwhile allies (like the gods of Norse myth, choosing the bravest viking warriors to fight beside them in the final battle); and at one key moment, shows us the god’s compassion when he almost weeps over the destruction Loki has caused, as he gives Loki a last chance to help him end it.

UPDATE, February 13, 2014: I’ve just discovered The Norse Mythology Blog of Dr Karl E. H. Seigfried, a scholar of Norse/Germanic myth. Last fall, he posted this in depth article about the differences between Marvel movie mythology and the original myths. Compared to him, I am a child at play with grownup tools. Highly recommended.

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Responses

  1. I think how you portray mythology depends on whether you are using the particular god/hero, or the archetype they represent. If you are going to use the name and some of the symbols – like his hammer- you should stick to the myth. If you want a thor-like character in modern times make it his great…great grand son or something.

  2. I think it depends a lot on the use you’re making of the material. In a comic fantasy, you can have a lot of fun with “everything people think they know about this mythos is wrong”. In a more dramatic work, though, if you’re going to say … let’s see … “Actually the gods are robots, sent here by an alien force who planned to activate world domination programs in the twentieth century,” you’d better have something pretty satisfying in mind to offset the reader’s sense that you promised them one thing and gave them something else.

    (BTW, the DC Universe, at one time, had rebooted Wonder Woman with a lot of Greek mythology wrapped into her backstory. Lots of fun for Greek mythology fans, not to mention the gorgeous George Perez art. Then there was a big multi-book crossover with lots of robots …)

    In Wagner’s Ring Cycle, btw, Odin gives two different explanations for the loss of his eye in two different operas. Whether he’s spinning the same story differently for different audiences, or simply lying to get his own way, can depend a lot on the actor’s interpretation.

  3. Hm. Campbell and Jung aside, I’d say so long as you’re going to slap a particular label on a myth for use as your own, it should remain recognizable. I mind me, for example, Theodore Sturgeon’s short story, “The Riddle of Ragnarok”, which took the Padraic Colum/Snorri Sturluson-esque version of the Norse myths and explored some old territory to discover a new truth. Changes: added to the myth.

    Or Tom Holt’s excellent comedy of the Wagnerian version of Norse myth, _Expecting Someone Taller_, which modernized the operatic Ring of the Nibelungs (which was already an at-the-time modernized version of the Germanic version of Norse myth) and expanded it to include elements of pastoral British folklore. Changes: many minor, remains recognizably and essentially true.

    Further afield, we can cite L. E. Modessit’s _The Fires of Paratime_, which uses certain elements of Norse myth in a rocking science-fiction tale to tell the story of Loki, and how the echoes of events can lead to the myths we’ve come to know. Changes: many and substantial, but the core mythology remains recognizable.

    Marvel Comics made Thor into a superhero, and altered things to reflect the interaction with the Marvel Universe, the “cosmic” feel of the title, and of course the completely anachronistic Shakespearean language (thee and thou gave it the “old-timey” and grandiose feel that a more accurate “Yoost you wait, Loki, you ban gedda beating you won’t forgetsk!” certainly could not relay to the average American reader). Which is why you heard all that British accent in the movie, by the way. And the cosmic-comic is why you see the Asgardian elements of the movie set in space, though the movie took it rather further than the comics did. Regardless, this version of Norse mythology is quite recognizable. Actually, back in the 70’s or maybe early 80’s, there was a Marvel Thor story that attempted top reconcile the actual Norse myths with the Marvel Norse myths; in essence, they made up something along the lines of the cyclical-universe theory, where after every Ragnarok, the Norse myth was reborn, and each new cycle of the myth was somewhat different from the last. The “real” Norse myths were the last cycle, and were more barbaric; the “modern Marvel” cycle was more cosmic and grandiose. I don’t know if that was ever made canon in the Marvel universe or not.

    Anyways. I’d personally say that a myth can withstand quite a lot of tinkering, but when it becomes so diffuse from it’s source that it could easily fall into any Campbellian myth of the same generic type… it’s time to file off the serial number and give it a new one. God who uses a hammer to fight giants = Thor; god who fights = any god of war plus some. The latter example really shouldn’t be named Thor. Perhaps Bob the Mighty.

  4. …aaand I just realized I answered *around* the question, and didn’t actually address the question. More thinking required, I guess.


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