Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thor in Comics, Myth, and Film; and the Christianization of Myth

I spent some time recently mulling over this interview on the Norse Mythology Blog (which is a fantastic resource for anyone studying or interested in Norse Myth, by the way), and it finally allowed my thoughts on the topic of the Thor movies and Marvel and Myth to come together in a way that's been eluding me for some time. While I highly recommend you read the post on that blog first, discussing the Thor movies and how they relate to the myths and culture of the Norse people, you can probably get away with reading this post without it, as well.

Most mythic traditions are not static (those that descend from Oral traditions even less so) -- we see that in the discussion of the myths from the perspective of the three different sources mentioned in this interview (Adam of Bremen, Snorri, and Tacitus). We see it, also, comparatively, in the Greek and Roman myths, where a lot more sources and therefore a lot more contradictions have survived. Myth and religion before Christianity was often HIGHLY localized, and it makes sense that this same localization could exist temporally as well -- time and culture warping and changing the myths, excising the old and introducing the new, to make it relevant to the modern values of that period and culture as those values and cultures shift. This is why there isn't a lot of argument about the fact that comics are a continuation of these ancient mythologies, generally speaking.

I can completely understand the frustration of Christian values being cast backward onto myths which predate them* but we can't deny that Christianity has transformed culture and civilization in the western world (in some cases to the good, in others horrifyingly the opposite.) It's only natural that this coloring and transformation would continue to occur as we retell these pre-Christian myths and bring them into the modern era, and I would argue that perhaps this is just another form of localization, not meant to invalidate or erase, but to co-exist peaceably alongside all the other interpretations and perspectives, much like we tolerate, study, and treat inclusively the differences and contradictions between Euripides and Plutarch. Or, to stay within the same fold of faith, the Swedish traditions discussed by Adam of Bremen and the Icelandic tradition as preserved by Snorri.

I think it's obvious from the Prose Edda's introduction, that Snorri grinds up the cultural artifact of Norse Myth just as determinedly as the entertainment industry -- and arguably, for the same reasons, to make it easily graspable by the widest possible demographic, in order to preserve the poetic forms of that period -- but we accept him as a legitimate and valuable source for Norse Myth, all the same, in spite of the fact that he was Christian, and living in a time when the majority of the worship of these gods had been stamped out by the Church. So is he really so different from Marvel? Or Hollywood in general?

I'm not saying we shouldn't point at the Thor movies and the Thor comics and deconstruct them, discussing what is consistent with the previous mythology and what isn't -- I think it's absolutely important and critical that we do so! But I think, perhaps, we should also be discussing and acknowledging and accepting that myth evolves while we engage in this study, rather than using the deconstruction as a way to invalidate the new interpretations. We should examine where these "new" or "transformative" elements have come from, just as we examine Snorri's Edda, or Homer's Iliad, but that doesn't mean once they've been identified, they should be rejected out of hand.

Hollywood and Marvel aren't my personal first choice for a vehicle of preservation and continuation of myth (I wouldn't write books of my own, otherwise), but I think we can safely say that they make it that much harder to forget that Thor exists. And they get maybe the absolute most important element right when it comes to Thor's character and duties -- as the interview also discusses, he is more than anything else a protector. Perhaps the way in which he chooses to protect Jane and the world in the first Thor film is not quite what the old Norse people would have imagined,** but since this is a different time, practically a different world, it only makes sense that Thor's approach to the problem (still very direct, mind you, which *is* in line with the older sources) might shift as well.

Personally, I think we've been very fortunate with Marvel's Thor. After seeing Trash Clash of the Titans, and Immortals That Movie We Do Not Speak Of, and reading plot synopses for TWO*** forthcoming "Hercules" retellings which seem to not be related to any myths surrounding Hercules at all in the slightest, Marvel's Thor is all the more impressive as an adaptation and modern reinterpretation, certainly he's treated with far more respect as to his essential character.

And honestly? Sometimes I think, when it comes to mythology as it is reinterpreted into modern religion, we do ourselves a disservice by clinging too much to the past. And if these gods are so powerful, so incredible, that they merely choose to allow us to see them in one form or another, I have a hard time believing they don't adapt along with us as the world turns on -- or at least that they've been around long enough that these changes in how we view them and their roles aren't anything they haven't seen before. Or at least, I'd like to give them at least that much benefit of the doubt.

*I shake my fist at the sky about this A LOT, and no tradition, imho, has suffered more from this kind of imposition than the Jewish tradition, which was 100% co-opted. And there is definitely no excuse for doing this if you're creating something that is meant to be historical. Fantasy is different, and something set in the modern day -- well, that's what this blogpost is about ultimately.

**I think there is definitely an argument to be made for the second film following a more mythic-Thor manner of problem solving: go to your opponent's home field, and then just THROW DOWN as hard as possible until they are crushed by Mjolnir. Generally in the myths this works out pretty well for Thor. One time he slays an entire hall of Giants, women and children included.

***seriously guys what the eff is this movie? Hercules has SO MANY AWESOME MYTHS I just CANNOT UNDERSTAND why hollywood doesn't just USE one instead of making him something totally else that has nothing to do with anything even remotely related? Even for Roman Hercules this does not make any sense, and it states openly in the summary that it's set in the bronze age -- which makes it 100% wrong already. Sorry Hollywood, there were no Gladiators in 1200BC. (It would make me a lot less angry if they would stop putting dates on these films that are not even remotely historically accurate at all in the slightest.)


  1. That's an interesting way to consider all this - you've said way, way too much for me to cover and still get to bed at a reasonable hour, so I'll just touch on a key point. ^_^

    Superhero stories are often referred to as modern myths. So it makes absolute perfect sense that some of those superheroes would be new versions of gods that we humans have been telling stories about for centuries. Something about those stories, those characters, resonates with us on a primal level, so those are the stories we tell over and over. And I'm really, really glad that the Marvel stories - in whatever form - are keeping tales of Thor alive.

    1. Absolutely! And I will say that there are some retellings of myths which I absolutely reject -- kind of a "they're doing it wrong" feeling in my gut. I mean, I think Disney's Hercules is absolutely 100% in the same category as Marvel's Thor, in that it recreates his myth in a meaningful and relevant way for the modern age, even while it gets a lot wrong, but at the same time I will point the finger at the Clash of the Titans remake and say "No! BAD HOLLYWOOD! STOP THAT!"

      But I agree, I'm glad that Marvel is keeping Thor alive, and in a way that stays true to the core of what and who he is/was.

      thanks for the comment!


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