Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
As we anticipate the latest Thor movie premiering Nov. 3, some may wonder what “Ragnarok” is in the title. Therein lies a fascinating tale – or tales.
Ragnarök (sometimes Ragnarøkkr) is a Norse myth about the end of the world. Unlike the Greco-Romans, ancient Egyptians and other related Indo-European cultures, the dour Vikings believed that everything would eventually die – even the gods.
Ragnarök is that story, told by a völva (seeress) who sees the future, and found in both the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. These “Eddas” are two collections of Norse myths, legends, poems and folklore written by Snorri Sturluson, an important politician, poet and historian in 11th century Iceland.
Ragnarök is included in both Eddas, but the two versions vary in detail, and sometimes make references we don’t understand. Unfortunately, when Scandinavia converted to Christianity, the new religion did what it could to stamp out the old, and a lot of songs and stories were simply eradicated.
But we get the gist. And that is this: Sometime in the future, various calamities will occur, including the death of Balder (god of light and poetry) and three successive winters without a summer (Fimbulwinter). Yes, just like in Game of Thrones, the Norse gods (called the Aesir) live in fear of the knowledge that “Winter is coming.” And, disturbingly, the Fimbulwinter is a good description of nuclear winter, which Viking-era storytellers couldn’t know about, but imagined just the same.
After the Fimbulwinter, the enemies of Asgard will unite and attack. Gods and Jötun (giants) will battle to mutual annihilation. Odin the All-Father will die in combat with Fenrir, sometimes called the Fenris Wolf, a gigantic animal whose head brushes the moon (which he will eat, along with the sun). Thor will kill Jormungandr, the serpent so large it encircles Midgard (that’s us), but dies from its poison. In some tellings, Heimdall is overwhelmed on the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge uniting the nine worlds of Norse mythology); in others he and Loki kill each other. The honored dead of Valhalla and the dishonored dead of Hel will wipe each other out in a titanic battle, and Freyr –- the powerful god of harvest – will fall to Surtr, the flaming, giant lord of Muspelheim, world of fire.
Surtr will then burn everything, and the oceans will rise to quench the flames. The end.
Or is it? The Norse believed the universe was cyclical, and after Ragnarök a new world would be born. Some of the old gods would unite with new gods to re-create Asgard. Two humans hiding in Yggdrasil, the tree so large it reaches all nine worlds, would emerge to re-populate a Midgard that, burned clean and soaked in water, would be bursting anew with plants and animals.
The word Ragnarök has various meanings, but is generally thought to mean “The Fate of the Gods” or “Twilight of the Gods.” The latter is the more popular, established by Richard Wagner when he translated Ragnarök into German (“Götterdӓmmerung”) when adapting the story as the fourth part of his operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs).
Obviously, the movie won’t be a re-telling of the classical Ragnarök. I mean, Snorri never mentioned the Hulk. But like all myths, Ragnarök is subject to various re-tellings, whose details can vary widely.
As noted, even Sturluson’s Eddas tell the story two different ways. Then there are the various translations of those works, which vary as well.
Copyright Norton & Co.
Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a primer on major stories from the Viking era, including Ragnarök.
Probably the most accessible version is Norse Mythology, by the award-winning Neil Gaiman. He’s the author of such popular fare as the short story How to Talk to Girls at Parties; the novels American Gods, Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust; and DC’s epic graphic novel series Sandman.
Gaiman simplifies the old tales to about a sixth-grade reading level, which can occasionally feel like a primer or a Cliff’s Notes. That’s annoying. On the other hand, in the Poetic Edda the death of Thor reads like this, according to the translation by Carolyne Larrington:
Then comes Hlodyn’s glorious boy:
Odin’s son advances to fight the serpent,
he strikes in wrath Midgard’s protector,
all men must abandon their homesteads,
nine steps Fiorgyn’s child takes,
exhausted, from the serpent which fears no shame.
That’s as opposed to Gaiman, who renders the above thusly:
“Thor smashes the great serpent’s brains in with his hammer. … Thor grunts in pain and then falls lifeless to the earth, poisoned by the creature he slew.”
Yeah, let’s go with Gaiman.
Needless to say, Marvel’s Thor comics have dealt with Ragnarok, and more than once (which seems a little counterintuitive). Other publishers have as well. Here are the best ones:
Thor takes on the Midgard Serpent, here called Jormangand, in one of the re-tellings of Ragnarök at Marvel Comics.
* “Beware! If this Be … Ragnarok!” Odin calls the gods together to listen to the prophecies of a seeress named Volla, who pretty much sums up the story as Sturluson tells it. The gods are pretty bummed. Originally printed in Thor #200 (1972), it is reprinted in Essential Thor Volume 5, Marvel Masterworks: Thor Volume 11 and Marvel Visionaries: John Buscema.
* “At Long Last – Ragnarok?!” Loki has a plan to bring about Ragnarok, and takes Thor out of the equation, replacing him with a mortal named Roger “Red” Norvell, who looks more like the mythological Thunder God than our blond one does. Meanwhile, Odin has a scheme of his own. Thor #272-278 (1978) is reprinted in Thor: Ragnarok.
* “Twilight of the Gods!” In the myths, Odin throws one of his eyes into Mimir’s well for wisdom, and in this story, Thor finds the eye swollen to gigantic size, flying around terrorizing people. (Yes, it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.) The eye tells Thor of the origin of the current gods and the end of the previous ones, loosely adapting Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which is itself an adaptation of various Norse/Teutonic myths. Thor #292-300 (1980) is reprinted in Thor: The Eternals Saga Volume 2.
Ragnarök: Last God Standing is the first volume collecting Walt Simonson’s series at Image Comics, starring an undead Thunder God long after Asgard has fallen.
* "Last God Standing" Walt Simonson, who wrote and drew some of most beloved Thor comics at Marvel, takes on the Thunderer again in the creator-owned Ragnarök at Image Comics. In this ongoing series, the Twilight of the Gods happened long ago, and the dead mostly rule the remaining shattered kingdoms, called The Dusk Lands. But Thor is revived by the apples of Idunn, which gave the gods their immortality – well, after a fashion. He still appears to be quite dead, and doesn’t even have a lower jaw. Presumably now a “draugr” – the walking dead of Norse mythology – zombie Thor now travels the nine worlds on a quest for vengeance against the “Great Enemies” who destroyed Asgard. Explosively rendered, Ragnarök is a relentlessly exciting series, despite its morbid premise. Two trade paperbacks have been released so far, collecting issues #1-12.
* "Kingslayer" In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014-15), a series using the characters from the TV show, writer Mark Waid resurrects a long-forgotten, time-traveling villain called the Scarlet Centurion to kill Odin and make it look like mortals did it. When the Asgardians destroy Earth in retaliation, Phil Coulson and his team – Agents Leo Fitz, Daisy “Quake” Johnson, Melinda May and Jemma Simmons – must travel back in time to prevent deicide. Pertinent issues are the first and twelfth, collected in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Vol. 1: Perfect Bullets and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Vol. 2: The Man Called D.E.A.T.H.
Yes, they are all different versions of the same story. Which is as it should be for a beloved myth.
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SUMMARY: “Thor returns with Captain America and Iron Man to find Asgard decimated and littered with bodies. They find a boy who has survived the carnage. Soon after, Loki and his group attack. The boy tells Cap that trolls cannot abide iron and give him an iron pendant in the shape of Mjolnir. Cap shoves the pendant down Ulik’s throat, felling him. The three Avengers take down Hyrm and run off Loki and Fenris. Using Mjolnir and Ulik’s fist pounders, they destroy Hyrm’s hammer, then come upon Balder’s funeral service. Harokin tells Thor that the “dead from hell” emerged from Naglfar and slew Balder with spears tipped with golden mistletoe. Upon learning of Frigga’s death, Thor tells Cap and Iron Man to guard Earth and sends them back. Recognizing the signs of Ragnarok, Thor rallies his people so that they might face a warrior’s death.”
COMMENTARY: This series draws heavily both on Lee/Kirby “Tales of Asgard” as well as mythology. For example, Harokin was prominently featured in a TOA story dealing with Valhalla. Also, not much has ever been done with Loki’s family in Marvel comics, but in this story Fenris is definitely depicted as Loki’s son.
Fenris is definitely depicted as Loki’s son.
That's the sort of detail I was looking for, Jeff, to determine how closely this Ragnarok hews to the myths. Most of this stuff can be fitted into what Snorri Snurluson recorded, but the manner of Balder's death is a direct contradiction.
Also, Harokin is in Valhalla (isn't he?), not Hel, so would not be on Naglfar. That ship, made from the fingernails of the dead, carries the dishonored dead to Ragnarok.
"...but the manner of Balder's death is a direct contradiction."
This Ragnarok is closer to myth than any other Marvel version I'm familiar with, but the contradictions will be dealt with by series end.
"Also, Harokin is in Valhalla (isn't he?)..."
Yeah, that's what I would have thought, too. Thor greets him simply as someone he hadn't seen in a while.
SUMMARY: “The Warriors Three bring the wounded Sif to the Light Elves for help, but Naglfar attacks, raining arrows down on them. Two months later, Thor finds a diminished Volstagg at the attack site. He tells Thor of Hogan, Fandral and Sif’s grisly deaths. Thor encourages him to fight for his honor and his people with the weapon of a fallen foe: Geirrodur’s hammer. The Asgardians continue to Vanaheim, finding dead brothers and allies along the way. Meanwhile, Horokin and his men defeat and kill the Flame but are mortally wounded themselves. Thor and his army come upon Kurse, killed protecting orphans and Vidar slain with a spear. They find Vanahein under siege by Loki’s legion and join the battle. Valkyrie is blasted from the skies by Durok the Demolisher and killed. Sif, still alive but missing her left arm, uses Dragonfang to stab Durok. Then Thor uses his lightning powers to kill Durok , leaving Fenris, who is struck down by a newly arrived ally: Beta Ray Bill.”
COMMENTARY: Vidar is another son of Odin. A quick internert search reveals that “Vidar is one of the younger generation of gods who survive [emphasis mine] Ragnarok, the cataclysmic end of the Norse mythological cycle.” When Thor finds Vidar’s body he refers to him as his brother and expresses regret that it’s been so long since he last saw him. (I’ll say! Like all of Marvel comics.) Until I read the summary above this morning (“finding brothers and allies along the way”), it never occurred to me that Thor meant it in any way other than literally. I still think he definitely meant it literally, but I suppose the other interpretation is there for anyone who feels it violates “continuity.”
I seem to remember a Tales of Asgard, or maybe a regular Thor story, where Harokin was depicted as being in Valhalla. But I could be thinking of another character.
Yes, it is “Tales of Asgard” and it is Harokin you’re thinking of. I finished re-reading “Tales of Asgard” just prior to re-reading the story currently under discussion. Here’s what I posted to the “What Comic Books Have You Read Today?” discussion last week about the 1984 Tales of Asgard one-shot reprint: “#129-133 dealt with Harokin who had won a seat in Valhalla. #134-136 was about Fafnir the dragon. These stories were no doubt chosen because Walt Simonson had just done (or was about to do) a story in which a Viking follower of Thor assisted him in his battle against Fafnir.”
Incidentally, I also posted: “#127-128 feature a two-part look at Ragnarok presented as a vision of Volla the prophetess. Reportedly, Jack Kirby’s intention was to have these events ractually come to pass, then to introduce a cast of “new gods” to take the place of the Aesir. Issue #128 even uses the term ‘new race of gods.’”
Remember when, at “Cap-Con 1,” you were excited about the storyline in which Spider-Man publicly revealed his identity in a press conference and I was excited about the revelation that Thor was revealed no longer worthy to lift his own hammer? I liked the Thor story and predicted the Spidey reveal would never last, and you liked the Spider-Man story and predicted the Thor reveal would never last. Turns out we were both right… and wrong. To put this Ragnarok story in context, Thor has recently returned from this dystopian future (in which his son Magni was killed) and no longer has the Odinpower.
You've really gone above and beyond on these summaries, Jeff -- I was only curious because I couldn't remember why I didn't include it as one of the better Ragnaroks in my original column. You answered that with the Balder bit, it was at that point that I probably filed this away as unsuitable for the column I was writing. (If, for no other reason, than how much space telling the stories of the two deaths would take.) If I hadn't decided by then, the deaths of Vidar and Magni would have done it, since both survive in the original myths.
But I appreciate the work! I really do! Your summaries are often better than the original stories, in that they tell me what's important without cringe-worthy dialogue and pin-up pages where I can't tell what's going on!
Thank you, but as I mentioned above, I’m merely transcribing the summaries someone else wrote (then tacking on some comments of my own). I’ve been crazy busy this week, so let’s see if I can knock out the remaining three chapters before the details fade from my brain.
SUMMARY: “Bill kills the Fenris Wolf, driving off the last of Loki’s forces. Thor asks Bill to rule in his stead while he seeks wisdom. Before he departs, the body of the boy, slain in battle, is brought to him. Thor journeys to Hildstaft where he encounters the Odinforce in the boy’s form, accompanied by Hugin and Munin. It tells Thor that it previously left him because he had proven himself unworthy, using the power as a cure-all. It takes him to the well of Mirmir, where Thor plucks out his eyes and casts them in, gaining the knowledge that Ragnarok is a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, sometimes different, but always ending the same.”
COMMENTARY: As with Vidar in the previous chapter (“Long had it been since Thor had last laid eyes upon him.”), this issue, too, provides a call-back to the original myths, adding a layer of meaning and leaving it up to the reader to decide how important it is in terms of meshing comic book continuity with mythology. In this case, Thor says to Fenris at one point, “Don’t call me… uncle.” In terms of comic book continuity, after Thor plucked out his eyes (both of them), he “sees” a two-page montage of flashbacks. “Now you journey into mystery,” the Odinforce tells him.
FLASHBACKS: As boys, Thor and Loki listen to Rattatosk’s stories. Ymir the Frost Giant is the first being. Odin and his bothers make the world from Ymir’s body (JIM #97). Odin makes the first man and woman (JIM #103). Thor grows up with Balder and Loki. Thor is given Mjolnir (JIM #102/Ann. #11). Donald Blake finds the walking stick (JIM #83). Thor fights Absorbing Man (JIM #121). The Avengers form (Av #1). Beta Ray Bill defeats Thor (Thor #337). Ragnarok dawns. Odin dies, twice, fighting Surtur (#353 & #40). Balder dies.
SUMMARY: “The Odinforce tells Thor he needs ‘wisdom beyond wisdom,’ the knowledge of the runes. To gain it, Thor hangs himself on Yggdrasil, as Odin did. Thor learns what he must do but refuses, thereby dying and falling into Hel. Using a rune marking, he summons Odin’s Spirit to rescue him and winds up before Those Who Sit Above in Shadow, a higher tier of deities. With his newly gained advanced sight, Thor knows that these elder gods feed off his people’s repeated deaths and rebirths, and the Odin hid him from them by making him experience mortality as Don Blake, thereby making his thoughts impenetrable to them. Thor returns to Hildstaft, finding Loki has eaten and desecrated Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder so they can’t regenerate. Thor promises revenge against the elder gods and journeys to Valhalla. There, he makes short work of Mangog and Loki’s minions and beheads Loki, carrying his still living head on his bely to bear witness as Thor prepares to save his people, ending the eternal cycle by causing a true Ragnarok.”
COMMENTARY: Back in the Roy Thomas era, Odin’s ordeal was presented as “hanging” from the tree with bonds on his arms and legs. I don’t know if that depiction was CCA-mandated or not, but in this version, Thor hangs himself by the neck with a chain.
Led Zeppelin lyricsa are as dialogue used twice in this chapter: “Over the hills where the spirits fly” and “I wonder how tomorrow could ever follow today?” (The joke will be on me if Led Zeppelin was actually quoting Snorri Sturluson from the Elder Edda or something.)
As mentioned in the summary above, this issue also reintroduces “Those Who Sit Above in Shadow,” introduced by Chris Claremont in the X-Men/Alpha Flight two-issue series back in the ‘80s and (to the best of my knowledge) never mentioned since. Thor remarks, “You are a great mystery to my people, a mystery that that was never explained and is rarely even whisper” (which I took as geek-speak for “Chris Claremont pulled you out of his arse and you’ve enjoyed Mopee status until now”).
Also, the beheading of Loki is a call-back to Walt Simonson’s run. Thor ties it to his belt by the hair.
SUMMARY: “Thor journeys to Jotunheim where Surtur forges hammers for each side of a battle between giants and fire-demons. He asks Surtur to restore Mjolnir in return for giving him a direct path to Valhalla and Vanaheim. Surtur agrees. As Surtur leads his legion to battle, Thor saves Bill by teleporting him away, then watches while Fenris swallows the moon, signaling the end of Ragnarok. The Odinforce reminds him the cycle will begin anew. Thor teleports to the Norns. He knows he cannot change what has been woven into their tapesty, but notices that a single thread connects the end of the tapestry to the beginning, allowing the continual rebirth. Loki and the Norns protest and Those Who Sit Above in Shadow appear and offer Thor a seat with them, but he ignores them all, severs the thread and ends the cycle. With Asgard destroyed and all its people gone, Thor settles into a sleep in the sheltering void.”
COMMENTARY: For a long time this story was not reprinted and the back issues commanded high prices. It has since appeared in tpb so I no longer know if that is the case. (I’d buy a hardcover edition if Marvel ever releases one.) It really is quite brilliant the way in which it reveals the method in Odin’s madness all along. For me, this story delineates the end of one era of Thor and the beginning of another as clearly as “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” did for Superman.