The latest installment in the Thor trilogy was just released in American theaters, and the reviews are already stunning. At this point, critical and box office success is nothing new for a Marvel outing, so perhaps it's time instead to sit down with the Avengers' most legendary member and separate the man from the myths — literally! Presented here are the most iconic references in Thor: Ragnarok and their Norse mythology counterparts.
Warning: Spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok ahead.
A quick entry here on the titling of the film, just to get it out of the way: as much as you think you know about Ragnarok, there's probably plenty still to take in. #Marvel execs likely took the name because of the colloquial understanding of "massive destruction and end of the world," and its pairing with the goddess, Hela (who we'll get to shortly), but there's actually a lot of misconception here.
As Carolyne Larrington mentions in her translation of The Poetic Edda (one of the core sources on Norse mythology), many climactic events "portend the destruction of the gods at Ragnarok (literally: the Doom of the Gods, though the word rök 'doom' is sometimes confused with rokkr 'twilight'...)" which is where we get the most popular reading, "Twilight of the Gods." Sure, it's more poetic, but it misses the primary point.
The latest film actually does a great job of riding between the two readings, using the popular translation, but keeping its intended purpose. The Ragnarok we witness Thor and the crew struggle against is localized to the world of Asgard, itself: no one but the gods are doomed by Hela and Surtur's wrath.
What Marvel gets right about Thor: the cape, the hammer and the early impetuous nature. Other than that? Well, that's a lot of ground to cover, so we'll just hit the highlights. First of all, Thor isn't really the hero of Norse mythology — sure, he's featured in many stories, including many parts of the Prose Edda and Thrym's Poem, but he's really no more the focus than other Asgardians. One could argue that Baldr is a more key figure than this guy.
So what do we know of him? Well, according to the Prose Edda, among the Æsir, "Thor is foremost of them... he is the strongest of gods and men." He's mentioned in many verses as being vain and wrathful, yet when we read Thrym's Poem, we see the mighty god brought low, if only for a moment. In this story, he had to dress in a bridal gown and pretend to be the goddess Freya in a ploy to reclaim his hammer, Mjölnir, from the giant's grasp!
Still, Thor does go through some change of heart: seeing his brother, Baldr, killed by the schemes of Loki and the foreboding tides of Ragnarok approaching, the thunder god is fated to die in the battle. The Prose Edda reads: "Thor shall put to death the Midgard Serpent, and shall stride away nine paces from that spot; then shall he fall dead to the earth, because of the venom which the Snake has blown at him." At least we know Hemsworth's character doesn't meet a similar fate!
Loki is also a widely-misunderstood character in Norse mythology, but luckily with much more writing. Loki appears and stars in a variety of poems and sections of surviving tales, most notably one which bares his name: Loki's Quarrel. Here the trickster god goes around the assembled Æsir and tells each of them off for the flaws he perceives in their character. Not only is this a delightfully witty read, but it also serves to flesh out his personality — Loki is not inherently evil, he merely sees himself as beyond the reproach of his brethren, despite the fact that he is half-giant.
It's also crucial to note that this idea of vileness is repudiated elsewhere in Norse text: in Thrym's Poem, it is Loki who relays the whereabouts of his half-brother's missing hammer and comes up with the ploy to ensure its safe return. In fact, if not for Loki, Thor would never have had Mjölnir made in the first place.
This is actually one of the facets Marvel has best adapted into their characters: Loki has been shown to be both ally and aggressor. In the same way that his actions herald the coming of Ragnarok in the old Norse tales, we've seen him be the spearhead for villainy in Thor and The Avengers, yet he's also been shown to have a more helpful side in The Dark World and Ragnarok. Good on you, Marvel!
4. Hel (Hela)
Hel (or Hela, as Cate Blanchett's character is called) is an interesting character in the mythos — and one where Marvel will shy away from the finer details. You see, this goddess of the underworld has a very troubled parentage. As attested to in The Prose Edda:
Loki had yet more children. A giantess in Jotunheim... With her he begat three children. The first was the Fenris − wolf; the second, Jormungand, that is, the Midgard − serpent, and the third, Hel.
Yep, Loki got around a bit, and some of these pairings didn't turn out so great. Hel is the least monstrous and evil of these three children — sure, she rules over the dead, but this is more of a care-taking role, not one where she bears any ill will against the living. We see this in The Prose Edda, when the gods bargain for the life of their fallen brother, Baldr; an offer she meets thusly: "If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Æsir."
However, many of these features are seemingly missing from Blanchett's portrayal of Hel. Thor: Ragnarok changes the rules on her family history, shifting the goddess from Loki's daughter to being his sister — a simplifying, yet somewhat understandable choice. The film also eschews parts of her design, including the fact that she is half-alive and half-dead. In many of the classical depictions of the deity, she is shown split down the middle, half of her body in decay, the half radiant with youthful beauty, representing the duality of death and resurrection.
Unfortunately, the greatest alteration from Hel to Hela is the adaptation of her motivations. By making her Odin's warmongering eldest daughter, Marvel may make a more pertinent social commentary, but they strip away her complexity. It's hard to imagine Blanchett's character bargaining with the other Æsir for the souls of the departed or showing any subtlety, for that matter.
Much like Ragnarok, the concept of "valkyries" has permeated the pop culture psyche for some time. Luckily, unlike our previous entries, most of what we take for granted about these "Choosers of the Slain" actually does translate fairly accurately from old Norse texts — aside from some of the ridiculous garb given to them by opera composers.
Valkyries (also translated as "Valkyr") are attested to throughout The Prose Edda, sometimes in reference to the goddess Freyja, who is also noted as a war deity who raises fallen fighters and brings them to the halls of Valhalla. However, some of our most detailed accounts of the valkyries come from selections of The Poetic Edda, such as The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani, where their approach is described:
Then a light shone from Logafell,
and from that light came lightning-bolts;
wearing helmets at Himinvangi [came the valkyries],
Their byrnies were drenched in blood;
and beams blazed from their spears.
We see from this poem, as with the other two Helgi selections in The Poetic Edda, that the valkyrie are depicted as equally fearsome beings, as much as we may believe them to be heralds of care and fortune. Of course, eventually in this tale, they come to Helgi Hundingsbani's aid, helping him defeat a she-troll as "Helmeted valkyries came down from the sky/ the noise of spears grew loud," and the hero is rewarded for his bravery with a valkyrie for a bride.
It's hard to really say much about what Marvel has planned for the valkyrie, as Tessa Thompson's character is made out to be the only surviving member of the once-illustrious band of women-warriors. From what little backstory is given to us in Ragnarok, their role as battlefield saviors appears to have been severely diminished, and Thor even plays up their might and skill in the fight, as he mentions that he wanted to join their ranks in their youth (before realizing it was a ladies-only club). The #MCU seems to want their valkyries to be the symbol of female strength and empowerment, which is great, and Thompson's portrayal fits this to a T. Here's hoping our Valkyrie gets to refill her ranks in a follow-up flick!
Finally, just to top things off: let's talk about that imposing firebeast from the trailers, the giant-lord of destruction himself — Surtur!
Like many of the primordial giants, Surtur (or Surt, Surtr — bringing the name from Old Norse to English makes for some fun adaptations) is a being shrouded in mystery. What little he does show up for in the Eddas, however, leaves a real impression. In the Seeress's Prophecy, a poem wherein a mystic portends the future to Odin, the fire giant only appears for a few scant stanzas, where it is said that "Surt comes from the south with branches-ruin/the slaughter-gods' sun glances from his sword." The Prose Edda goes one step further, however, saying:
He who sits there at the land's-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire
So clearly a great choice for the highlight reel in a one-on-one with Thor! Not only this, but despite being seemingly offed by the thunder-god in the first scene, it's his rebirth by Loki's hand at the film's climax that defeats Hela and earns the title of Ragnarok. Marvel, you definitely scored a home-run here!
And that's just a few of the real-world references you might not have known behind the scenes of Thor: Ragnarok! Did you learn anything new? Is there a character whose Norse history you'd like to investigate more? Tell me in the comments, and maybe I'll come back for a Part II! Thanks as always for reading!
(Source: The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, 1916, and The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington, 2014)