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:

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

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.

Copyright Image Comics Inc.

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.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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I always loved the Norse myths when I was a kid, way more than the Greco-Roman ones, for some reason.

Note also that the JSA was caught up in re-living Ragnarok over and over, for a while, too.

Didn't Kirby's Fourth World emerge from Ragnarok?

The "dead gods" are supposed to include Thor and Odin.

The Baron said:

I always loved the Norse myths when I was a kid, way more than the Greco-Roman ones, for some reason.

Note also that the JSA was caught up in re-living Ragnarok over and over, for a while, too.

I loved the Norse myths more than the Greco-Roman ones, too, Baron. I was going to be tested on the Greco-Roman ones in junior high, but it was the Norse ones I went to the library to read. (I did fine on the test, don't worry.)

But in the process, I was disappointed to find out there were so few Norse myths, and the few I found seemed to regurgitate the same info in various forms. The Christians who converted Scandinavia with fire and sword had done too good a job. They almost wiped out a whole cosmology, and now we just have hints and clues as to what millions of people used to believe.

I share your mis-givings on the sparce remnants of the Norse myths, Captain. I got Neil Gaiman's collection and it didn't really add much that I hadn't read before from various collections of myths I checked out from my elementary school library when I was 10 years old in 1973 and learned that Loki was not really Thor's adopted brother but Odin's chosen "blood-brother", that the mythical Thor had red hair and Sif was blonde and Baldur wasn't particularly reputed as a warrior but was a half-brother of Thor, something Lee completely ignored in his & Kirby's version of Thor.
For me, a big difference between the Greek and the Norse myths was that while the Greeks myths had more epic stories involving the various gods -- the Trojan War, the Odyssey, the quest for the Golden Fleece, etc., there's no grand conclusion, while the Norse myths are full or more short, anecdotal stories and one epic, blood-soaked conclusion with a lullaby-like epilogue in which life starts anew and Baldur, alone of all the gods, returns (sort of like the last two songs on the Beatles' White Album, the chaotic sound montage of Revolution #9 followed by Good Night, so sweetly sung by Ringo and orchestrated with harps. That brutal conclusion to the Norse myths seem to lend them a greater memorability than most of the Greek myths, aside from the Trojan War, but in that tale the Greek gods are relatively incidental and the main players may include heroes who are half or demi-gods but the main focus is on their humanity and the deaths are of demi-gods and the destruction of a city state, not of any full gods or their home realm of Olympus. The Norse gods go out in the flames of battle but the Greek gods just sort of fade away.

I couldn't have articulated as a lad why I loved the Norse myths better, but you're probably on the mark, Fred. There's a sense of urgency and tragedy with the Aesir, because like us, they're going to die.

Even more than that. They knew that Ragnarok was coming and that they could not stop it.

Captain Comics said:

I couldn't have articulated as a lad why I loved the Norse myths better, but you're probably on the mark, Fred. There's a sense of urgency and tragedy with the Aesir, because like us, they're going to die.

My favorite [Marvel] treatment of Ragnarok is the one that closed out the original version of [Marvel’s] Thor (by my reckoning). Ragnarok did happen, and every version version of the Norse gods Marvel has published since have been, AFAIAC, “new gods” (you should excuse the expression). This is my line in the sand. Everything before it is “Thor”; everything after is something “like Thor.”

I’m currently re-reading the Lee/Kirby “Tales of Asgard” series (which also deals with Ragnarok, come to think of it), but this discussion has inspired me to follow it up with this series and the new Walt Simonson version as well.

I'd forgotten that Ragnarok, Jeff. Can you provide a synopsis? 

I don’t necessarily like writing summaries, and this story really needs one because it is so densely packed with characters and plot points. I don’t mind transcribing summaries others have written, though. The ones below come from Official Index to the MARVEL UNIVERSE. I’ll try to tackle at least one a day until I’m finished. The commentaries are, of course, mine.

PART ONE:

SUMMARY: “Hearing of Loki’s quest for the Mijolnir mold, the dwarves carry it to Gunin-Gap, to destroy it. However, the mold’s weight collapses the bridge spanning the Gunin-Gap and they fall to their deaths. Loki learns of this and discovers the mold. One month later, the Asgarians and Dwarves mourn Eitri, Buri and Brok, when Surtur, using the mold, causes the mountain Ymir-Krul to crumble. Thor is stuck down by a bolt that kills Enchantress, coming from the flying deathship Naglfar, occupied by Loki, Ulik, Hyrm and Fenris, each with a hammer-like weapon forged from the mold. Their weapons clash with Thor’s, causing an explosion which leaves Mjolnir shattered. Loki strikes Thor with a hammer blow, causing the sea to fill Ymir-Krul’s crater. Attacked by the Midgard Serpent, Thor teleports to Manhattan seeking the Avengers’ help. “

COMMENTARY: Part one begins with a prologue set “At the beginning of all things,” which I found to be preferable to “one million years ago” or “one billion years ago” or whatever time that recent Marvel comic used as a setting for the retcon that Odin was once in a prehistoric group of “Avengers.” It makes more sense to be a bit vague and let the readers place the story in a time that makes sense. New continuity contradicts this story, but I know which one is canon on Earth-J.

When Thor and the Midgard Serpent appear through the space/time breach, a ton of sea water falls with them. Iron Man and Captain America are already assisting at the scene of a fire in Brooklyn. Man, it was good to seeing the real Captain America in far too long a time. After Thor recovers from his ordeal, he manages, just barely, to speak the words “Avengers Assemble.”

Oeming had previously co-written and drawn the Norse mythology-themed feature Hammer of the Gods.

 

Yes, I neglected to mention that this "Ragnarok" series was written by Michaek von Oeming ("with Daniel Berman") and drawn by Andrea DiVito.

Thanks, Luke.

EDIT: Oh, well I guess it's on the cover I posted last week.

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