Next week, SANDMAN creator Neil Gaiman will debut a new collection of stories simply titled NORSE MYTHOLOGY. As one might imagine, this is a collection of classic stories of Viking lore, retold by Gaiman. It’s not the first time Gaiman has explored myths (his novels AMERICAN GODS and ANANSI BOYS come to mind), but it is the first time he’s devoted himself entirely to the classic stories of a specific culture without modern times as a backdrop. Comic fans, however, have long had their own gateway into Norse Mythology – Marvel’s Thor.

Since 1962, Thor has been one of Marvel’s flagship heroes, and they’ve used the richness of the Thunder God’s Norse background to give an epic history while still leaving room for others to expand upon it. Their relationship with the myths is unique – in some cases, Marvel has kept the myths word for word as part of Thor’s history. In others, they have built upon the established tales or adapted them to fit their own version of the character. At times, they’ve even created their own stories. With so much storytelling over the past fifty years, how much of the myths has survived, and how many newer versions or offshoots have been successful? In honor of Gaiman’s new collection, the time has come to take a look.

Marvel used Thor’s mythological connections liberally at the start of his run, bringing in elements like Asgard and the rainbow bridge Bifrost, as well as many other Norse gods, such as Odin, Heimdall, and Thor’s archenemy Loki. Marvel, however, didn’t start truly digging into the mythology until Thor’s solo book began a new bonus section called TALES OF ASGARD. Specifically designed to shed light on Thor’s early life, these short stories often drew on the tales of the Norse, such as Odin’s battle against Ymir the Frost Giant (which would eventually shape the world as we know it).

In some cases, however, Marvel did adapt the stories with their own comics in mind. For example, TALES OF ASGARD told the tale of the death of Thor’s brother Balder, at first with total accuracy. Odin obtains a promise from all things, that they shall never harm Balder. Loki is unconvinced and learns that Odin forgot the mistletoe since it was only a small weed. Loki fashions the weed into a dart and prepares to use it against Balder. The story then changes the ending as Loki is instead foiled. Given that Balder’s death signified the end of the Norse Gods, it’s a reasonable change for Marvel to make if they wanted to continue the series!

TALES OF ASGARD also made more lasting changes in future episodes, such as telling the story of Loki coming to Asgard. While Loki is still the son of the Frost-Giant Laufey and was found by Odin after a battle, Laufey is actually Loki’s mother in the myths. Marvel’s version has continued into modern times, with comics and movies calling him Loki Laufeyson (a Norse tradition where children take their father’s name as a last name).

Marvel and Myth

Marvel would also make up tales entirely to fit within their own storylines. This included the stories of how Heimdall earned his position as Asgard’s gatekeeper, and how Thor was able to claim Mjolnir (doing good deeds until he could lift the hammer over his head). Sometimes, they used these stories to tell morals, such as when Heimdall suspected something had gotten past his watch, but couldn’t sense it. He nevertheless sent word to Odin, who found that a small pixie had snuck in. Heimdall was ashamed, but Odin praised him for reporting on the event, despite the possible embarrassment of being wrong.

Balder was also used for this purpose in a story prior to the tale of his death. When he paused during battle to return a baby bird to its nest, Odin was angered and ordered him slain, despite the protests of Asgard. Again, Balder cannot be harmed by any weapon, as Odin revealed it was a test to remind his warriors to never lose their compassion. Even Odin himself had a moral story, in which he purposely lost a battle against a foreign nation, as a message to the weak that all things are possible, even defeating the king of the gods. These endings place the stories into something of an Aesop’s’ Fables area of moral storytelling, but then again, most myths are designed to teach a lesson or impart wisdom.

Overall, TALES OF ASGARD is a product of its times, with a focus on moral, 60’s era storytelling. The flowery dialogue, however, fits the gods well, and the more moral tales do echo classic ones, which were often designed to impart lessons. When TALES OF ASGARD did focus on classical myth, it did so quite well, keeping most of the details and giving young readers a chance to explore the old stories. Above all, it showed Marvel’s proficiency at honoring the old myth, adapting them into their stories, and creating new ones.

It was a trait that would continue as Thor endured throughout the decades. This involved further trips to Asgard, as well as bringing in the goddess Sif (Thor’s wife in myth) to act as competition for Thor’s mortal love, Jane Foster. The stories also touched on the Nine Realms of myth by introducing characters from Svartalfheim (Malekith the Accursed) and more obscure gods like Tyr (the Viking god of courage and war) and Hela (goddess of death). Marvel even managed to do an arc on Ragnorak, the Norse end of the world. Though this was revealed as a trick by Odin himself, it showed Marvel’s willingness to embrace their source mythology.

READ: If you like the comic version of Thor, take a look at our reanalysis of the thunder god’s film debut!

As time went on, however, Thor’s focus changed from mythology to space, as did some of his foes. Surtur created an army of demons that traveled through the cosmos, only halted by Thor and Beta-Ray Bill (an alien who proved worthy to share Thor’s power). Asgard also faced threats from Galactus, and in recent times, the Shi’ar. This established Asgard as more of a physical location, but it took away some of the myth surrounding it. Efforts were taken, however, to restore Thor’s mythological roots. During the FEAR ITSELF storyline, where Odin’s brother Cul the Serpent emerged, Thor destroyed him, only to fall after taking nine steps (the exact death predicted for Thor at Ragnarok after battling the Midgard Serpent). Even more precise retellings of the mythology occur in two collected editions.

THE TRIALS OF LOKI is an examination of Loki’s life in Asgard, told heavily in the style of Norse mythology. While it focuses on Thor’s enemy, it’s still a solid collection of Norse myths, with beautiful art illustrating the Nine Realms.

Marvel and Myth

It was also an opportunity to dig into the psychology of the myths, as we see Loki’s version of what happened. He spins the tale of how he cut off Sif’s hair and returned with not only new hair but gifts for the other gods. This included Mjolnir, which Loki coveted because it had a shortened, imperfect handle and reminded him of his own imperfections. Loki’s attempt to swindle the dwarves that made the gifts caused him to lose the hammer, and for his very lips to be sewn shut. Loki states that this was the moment when he began turning against the gods. An interesting side note is how Thor, after hearing this story, doesn’t believe that it occurred, but admits that the gods find it difficult to separate myth from memory.

TRIALS also retells the story of Balder’s death, which happens in full this time. The difference is that Loki’s thought process is on full display. We see him scheming, and enacting his plan, but once it’s done, he wonders if he’s gone too far. For a moment, he even considers comforting Odin, but the All-Father reaches for Thor. It’s at this moment that Loki stops trying to let the gods be his family, and, as he puts it, accepts his role as the destroyer of Asgard.

This is a perfect example of Marvel not only telling the myth, but using it to enhance their own characters and add depth to the story as well. The myths leave gods as static, but we see how these events enhanced the modern day comic book versions of the characters. Marvel’s Loki fulfills his traditional role, but we get to better understand why he did it. Loki is still evil, but we see that the gods weren’t always kind to him, and we learn that without losing the central myth.

Marvel and Myth

Thor himself also gains a more elaborate backstory in AGES OF THUNDER. Detailing different incarnations of the Norse gods (who’ve been reincarnated many times throughout history), this story is far bloodier than the ones previously described, which fits given the story’s goal of showing Thor’s banishment from Asgard (part of the history in the comics and film,) while honoring the less civilized time in which the story takes place. Again, Marvel utilizes and adapts classic mythology to show a younger, more arrogant Thor.

For example, they tell the myth of the builder, who offered to repair Asgard’s walls in record time in exchange for the Enchantress (Freyja in the myth). Loki convinces the gods to take him up on it, and the builder is almost able to keep his word. Loki’s trickery, however, prevents him from finishing, and the builder reveals himself as a Frost Giant. Thor slays the Frost Giant, but then dumps the body and walks away, leaving Loki to clean it up. By doing this, Marvel is again accurately relating the myth of old while adding a psychological depth that enhances the history of their own character.

Thor also shows his arrogance through the tale of the golden apples, when the Enchantress (filling the role of Idunn) is captured and the gods lose their source of power. Thor had stockpiled apples for himself and refuses to share with the other gods. When Loki is able to free the Enchantress, they’re both attacked by Frost Giants, but Thor rescues them. However, the thunder god refuses to take part in the ensuing celebration, saying: “Some of us have been killing Giants and aren’t interested in your tea party.” It’s the first definitive sign of Thor’s arrogance, and it evolves into an original story where the mortals anger Thor and he rages across Midgard. Yet again, the original myths are a basis to add these character traits and make them feel genuine, like a side of the story we hadn’t seen before.

READ: Interested in Thor’s weapon? Take a look at our analysis of his mythical hammer, Mjolnir!

These two books stand as perhaps the best examples of Marvel retelling the myths. While they do change the stories to fit their own characters, they keep the major events intact. That leaves a fascinating area for fans of the mythology to actually see the Norse gods deal with the events of the myth. We see Loki’s feelings of betrayal and his vengeful scheming, and we see Thor become arrogant from winning all his battles. These are perspectives that the myths don’t actually give, as they’re more recaps than anything else. Bringing the characters to life like this has allowed Marvel to imagine the gods as people, and seeing their emotions and personality adds new depth to the mythology.

Marvel has done a tremendous job honoring the Norse myths since the 60’s. While they’ve added their own twists and even created myths of their own, they’ve also retold the myths of old and even deepened them. It’s not hard to imagine readers of THOR researching more about Norse myths to see just how much of it is true in the comics. Thankfully, they will find much that Marvel never completely abandoned the thunder god’s roots. So while Thor might not be as accurate as Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHS will likely be, it’s more than enough to get started on before the new book comes out.

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