Tuesday 15 October 2013

Thor: Myth and Marvel

by Marie-Louise Jensen

In my family, we are looking forward to seeing it; Thor: The Dark World. In cinemas in just 15 days' time. It could be anything from fabulous to trashy Hollywood. The first film had elements of both. I thought the intelligent direction by Kenneth Branagh definitely shone through and gave the production some moments of real quality in among the superhero stuff. And who could play the powerful god better than Chris Hemsworth with that wonderful (almost certainly studio-enhanced) divine voice?
Thor - The Dark World poster.jpg

What is fascinating to me above all is tracing the similarities and differences between the Norse mythology I grew up reading and the Americanized Marvel superhero.
In mythology, Thor is the strongest of the gods. To aid his divine power, he owns Mjölnir, the mighty hammer, the belt of power, Megingjörð and the iron gauntlets, Járngreipr ('iron grippers'). These three possessions work together. The belt is said to double Thor's already prodigious strength, the hammer is a mighty weapon and he needs the gauntlets to wield it.
In the first Marvel film, Thor, the story has been simplified and only the hammer remains, plus some rather fancy and fashionable armour to aid the god-like screen image. Perhaps divine armour was made of plate metal in Asgard, who is to say? In Midgard, the armour of the Vikings was usually leather as iron was difficult to smelt and extremely valuable - too valuable to wear when it was the fates (the Norns) who decided your fate in battle. If it was your day to die, you would die and no amount of protection would help you. So while the amour is not in keeping with the mythology, as Natalie Portman (AKA Jane Foster) so rightly says: 'It's a good look'.
Then there's Jane Foster herself. Thor's wife in Norse mythology was fair Sif the golden-haired. In the Marvel film, Sif is recast as a fellow warrior and friend. Well, a wife would be highly inconvenient to the on-screen romance with the giggling scientist... Let it not be forgotten that the Norse gods frequently took human lovers (as did the Greek and Roman gods). But Hollywood prefers its superhero lovers to be faithful.
Asgard, the realm of the gods, is set on another planet and the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge between Asgard and Midgard, has been made, science-fiction like, into an interplanetary high-tech teleport between planets. But I rather like all that. Somehow it is in keeping with the mystical original tales.
I was also amused by Heimdal, the 'white god', being played by a black actor (Idris Elba) - he is completely splendid as the lonely watcher.
There is so much that is utterly wrong in the Marvel version, such as Thor being heir to the Kingdom. The idea that Odin will die and leave him to be King is mortal, not divine and unchanging. On the other hand, there are so many charming nods to the real mythology. Thor is reckless, delighting in danger and battle, careless of consequences.
Thor was not a sophisticated god; scholars and Kings might have looked to Odin, but Thor was the favourite god of the working man. Simple, straightforward and not always the brightest, he was worshipped by farmers, fishermen and other men who lived by labour. This is often captured in the Marvel character, even in among the formulaic 'lesson to be learned' script writing. He is still a god who overturns an entire banqueting table in temper, who relishes a good fight, who flings his Starbucks coffee cup on the floor to smash, calling for another. As you can tell; I had a good time watching the first film. Several times...
And what of Thor's mighty chariot, drawn by two goats, whom Thor regularly kills, roasts and eats and then resurrects the next morning? All these elements are entirely missing from the Marvel Thor. One can quite see why. It might sound good in a story, but the very thought of transferring it to the screen is like the bunny sled in The Hobbit - too horrible to contemplate.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I missed that film, but if you say it was good, despite the cartooning, I may try it. I, personally, have a lot of affection for Thor. He was the subject of the sillier, funnier stories. Odin, frankly, terrifies me.

Norse myth in general makes good fiction. There was even a story by Ursula K. Leguin which took the story of Freya's necklace to space. Freya was, however, not a sex goddess but a young woman who wants to retrieve a family heirloom necklace as her dowry; the "dwarves" are there to get her to space, as it's on another planet in a museum.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

That sounds good - I haven't read that one, but will look out for it. There's no cartooning in Thor - that was Beowulf. But it has it's formula movie-moments.

Susan Price said...

But, but Sue - the Romans took one glance at Woden and equated him with Hermes - both had the job of leading the dead to the other world. Woden/Odin was the God who shared poetry with mankind, and Hermes was the god 'of all those who earn their living by words.' Which makes Odin our patron god! He's certainly my favourite - though I'm quite fond of Red-Beard. But give me craft and cunning over a lot of noisy hammering any day.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

He is a bit noisy, isn't he? His life is not exactly spent in pursuit of wisdom like Odin's.
I've just seen there IS a cartoon version of Thor out, but that isn't the film I'm talking about here - it's the productions starring Chris Hemsworth. Can't vouch for the others!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for this - I hadn't heard about it and am intrigued.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I guess I'm thinking of Odin in terms of death. Hermes took you there, but he wasn't really a god of death in himself. He was a patron of travellers and thieves, among other things. Odin's horse might have been a symbol of a bier with four pallbearers, he was the Lord of the Gallows and his sacrifices were hanged and the stories about him tend to be about him making bets involving losing a head. He may have been the god who owned the mead of poetry, but let's face it, he's no Apollo and the Valkyries are no Muses! I would feel safer in Thor's company. There's that story about how Thor got his two servants. The boy had done the wrong thing, eating the marrow from Thor's goat against his specific orders. Thor was upset, but he calmed down and took the boy and his sister as servants instead of throwing a lightning bolt. Can you imagine what Odin would have done?

When I said "cartooning" I wasn't being literal. Perhaps I should have said it sounds like a comic book movie. Nothing wrong with that as long as you don't expect accurate mythology. :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

PS The Ursula LeGuin story is in her anthology The Wind's Twelve Quarters, if you're interested.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...