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Captain Comics: The myth that is, 'Ragnarok'

Andrew A. Smith, Tribune News Service on

Published in Comic Books

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.

Ragnarok (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.

Ragnarok is that story, told by a volva (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.

Ragnarok 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 Jotun (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 Ragnarok 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 Ragnarok 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 Ragnarok into German ("Gotterd?mmerung") 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 Ragnarok. I mean, Snorri never mentioned the Hulk. But like all myths, Ragnarok 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.

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:

-- "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" No. 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" No. 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" No. 292-300 (1980) is reprinted in "Thor: The Eternals Saga Volume 2."

-- "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 "Ragnarok" 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, "Ragnarok" is a relentlessly exciting series, despite its morbid premise. Two trade paperbacks have been released so far, collecting issues No. 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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(Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, visit his website: comicsroundtable.com.)

(c)2017 Andrew A. Smith

Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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