The Eggplant – Revising Ragnarok
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.*
Ragnarok is perhaps the most enduring aspect of Norse mythology. The heroic gods of Asgard and their treacherous foes meet in a final battle that spells doom for both. The Einherjar (who died gloriously in battle) and the legions of Hel (who did not) will slaughter each other. Fenris Wolf, the gigantic son of Loki, will slay Odin, the king of the gods, only to fall at the hands of Odin’s son Vidar. Odin’s son Thor, the god of thunder, and Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent and another spawn of Loki, will end each other, as will the trickster god Loki and Heimdall the watchman. Surtur the fire giant will burn the nine realms, but after the destruction new life will spring from the world tree. (For an introduction to these stories, I would highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.)
Early in November, Marvel released Thor: Ragnarok, the third standalone film starring the character based on the Norse god of thunder. Although a movie that was a straight-up retelling of Ragnarok myth could be awesome, this is not that movie (although, as a genuinely funny and consistently entertaining superhero movie, it nonetheless flirts with awesomeness). The relationship between the Thor movies and the mythology that inspired them is tenuous at best: the Marvel characters of Thor, Loki, and Odin are recognizably drawn from their Viking roots, but the plotlines of the movies have little to do with the myths. Ragnarok is most definitely revisionist mythology, appropriating a few elements from the story in service of a radically different plot.
Interestingly, Ragnarok is keenly aware that it is revisionist mythology, and a significant theme in the movie is how we re-imagine our stories for our own ends. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor walks in on a play retelling the conclusion of the previous movie (Thor: The Dark World). The play was apparently written by Loki, who secretly took Odin’s form and position as ruler of Asgard at the end of that movie, and the writing recasts those earlier events so that Loki dies a hero’s death and receives praise from his adoptive father and brother (Odin and Thor). The play’s blatant (and highly amusing) reinterpretation of events that have gone before reminds us that even the treacherous Loki is a hero in his own story, and sets the stage for the movie’s fascinating reinvention of Ragnarok.
The main thrust of Ragnarok entails a wholly new spin on the backstory of Odin and the nine realms. After the events of The Dark World, Odin has been approaching the end of his life exiled in Norway. His death releases the bonds that kept Hela imprisoned, and she appears and quickly proves herself more powerful than Thor or Loki. Instead of being Loki’s daughter and the queen of Hel (the realm of the undistinguished dead), this version of Hela is Odin’s firstborn and served as the leader of Asgard’s armies during the conquest of the nine realms. Afraid of her ambition to expand Asgard’s rule even further and regretting the bloody conquest that had already taken place, Odin had Hela imprisoned and written out of history so effectively that neither Thor (who Odin sired in the hope of handing the throne of Asgard to him instead) nor Loki (who has a tendency to ferret out secrets) had any idea of her existence. When Hela enters the throneroom of Asgard, she tears down the frescoes depicting the nine realms at peace under the benevolent guidance of Odin and Thor, revealing another set of frescoes beneath them showing Odin and Hela as conquerors slaughtering their enemies. Unlike her father, Hela feels no guilt over their past and is proud of her martial exploits and cruelty. Although the film doesn’t draw particular attention to it, this scene serves as a marvelous indictment of the European and American desire to forget the atrocities of the past and pretend that our colonialism was all for the good (because, if our ancestors did it, then we can’t challenge the morality of it).
After an adventure as a gladiator on another planet entirely, Thor returns to Asgard with new allies to fight Hela in the hope of averting Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. As it becomes increasingly apparent that Hela is unbeatable as long as she’s drawing power from Asgard (as is her birthright), Thor concludes that instead of canceling the apocalypse he must instigate it, because destroying Asgard is the only way to prevent Hela from conquering other worlds. Loki commences Ragnarok by manifesting Surtur, and his flames bring an end to both Asgard and Hela. In this complete revision of the myth, a few familiar elements of Ragnarok have been appropriated for a sequence of events that is no longer the end of all things but merely the destruction of one realm and the death of a super-villain (and of course the eradication of hordes of civilians and minions, but who’s counting?).
Having passed Thanksgiving, we are now firmly within secular Christmas season, a time of inescapable holiday music, evergreens and lights decorating everything, and ubiquitous reminders to show our relatives and friends that we love them by buying them things. The most common Christmas stories lack even a tangential relationship to the Biblical Christmas story: a bearded stranger in red sends his minions to spy on children before entering their houses with presents, an oppressive curmudgeon is frightened into acting with basic human decency, a reindeer is bullied because of his physical difference until that difference proves useful to the other reindeer.
Sometimes it even feels like we are revising Christmas in the Gospels to something far less world-shattering, as Ragnarok did with Ragnarok. The birth of Jesus is an ugly thing, at least according to Luke: a boy is born to an unwed mother in the ancient equivalent of a garage, surrounded by animal dung, in a town in which she was an unwelcome stranger. Yet in Christmas pageants, crèches, and sometimes even sermons, the birth is reduced to something cute and “aww”-inspiring, and in those same stories, we tend to forget that this child came into the world to end the world as we know it, to overturn imperial orders based on power and inaugurate a new kingdom rooted in love. In almost direct contrast to our secular revision of Christmas, Jesus’ birth calls us to live in a new world in which my wants as an individual and our wants as a group do not come at the expense of another’s needs. Where our revisions of Christmas seek to overturn nothing more dramatic than a child’s ranking of her favorite toys, the Gospel Christmas story seeks nothing less than the end of the world as presently ordered.
So as we enjoy the music, the lights, the piney smells and minty tastes, the presents, and all the other trappings of our current revision of Christmas, let us not forget that, in the Bible, the Christmas story is the beginning of a radically different plot, one that challenges us to live in love for enemies and strangers as much as relatives and friends. Let us heed the warning of Mary, who knew her son would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry but scatter the proud, send the rich away, and bring down kings. Let us remember that, in resurrection as in Ragnarok, the old world must die so that the new may arise.
The Rev. John Adams