Reviews – Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2017

From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.

I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.

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The Mighty Jane Foster and other Asgardian legends

So I went to see Thor: The Dark World yesterday. I know virtually nil about comics but who doesn’t like a superhero movie and anyway NORSE MYTHOLOGY, THERE IS NORSE MYTHOLOGY ON THE BIG SCREEN. I watched the prologue of the first movie bouncing up and down on my sofa shrieking ‘Frost giants! Frost giants!’ – obviously I expected to enjoy this one. What I did not expect was to find myself writing a post about it the next day. But you see, I went into that cinema and saw an action film that got it right.

Beware: there are spoilers for pretty much everything.

The premise of the film does not include frost giants, sadly, but in their place as villains of the story are the ancient Dark Elves, who predate the current universe and seek to eradicate the taint of light with an almost infinitely powerful force called the Aether. Thwarted by the armies of Asgard, they have waited a long time for their chance. They get it when human scientist Jane Foster falls through a crack in reality to the place where the Aether was hidden so long ago. Knowing only that she is in danger, Thor returns to Earth to find her and gets there in time to see the Aether blast away the policemen who try to arrest her. It’s not just Jane who is in trouble. It’s everybody.

Let’s start with Jane. I love Jane Foster. I love that the woman Thor fell for is a brilliant scientist, that she has a passion completely separate from him and that this is not condemned by the narrative. I love that when she gets to Asgard she’s trying to figure out how everything works, and she guesses right, and that Thor thinks this is wonderful. After he left her in New Mexico, Jane tried to find him with science; it’s implied she only gave up after she heard about his very visible presence in New York and realised he’d been back to Earth without even bothering to make a phone call.

So what does Jane do? She tries dating again. And the guy she picks is actually really nice. Of course, their first date is interrupted by the joint misbehaviour of Jane’s friend Darcy and interdimensional physics, and then her Norse god love interest returns to apologise for his lengthy absence from her life, so a second date was never on the cards. But it could have been. And she’d have been okay.

I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

Also, Darcy! Darcy, Jane’s snarky best friend, who hires interns behind her back and takes other people’s shoes to perform inappropriate scientific experiments! Not only do their conversations mean The Dark World passes the Bechdel test with ease, they are witty and intelligent and establish a friendship that is another thing Jane has entirely independent of Thor. Darcy is not there simply to hold out tissues during an emotional scene or provide romantic conflict. She’s a person in her own right.

In fact, the biggest thing I love about this film is how it treats its female characters. From Frigga’s development into a multifaceted heroine (and frankly a better role model for her sons than Odin), to the eternally capable Sif, to random Asgardian doctors who didn’t HAVE to be female, they just were, there are a range of significant speaking roles for women in The Dark World. Sadly, none of the big parts were given to women of colour (I can’t be sure about minor roles without a rewatch), but having this many women and treating them this well is a big step in the right direction that will hopefully lead to even better things in the future.

Now to the male characters – I’d better start with Thor, as it is his movie. He’s had to cope with an awful lot over the past two years, what with his brother’s multiple betrayals, the destruction and subsequent rebuilding of the Bifrost, joining the Avengers as their honorary god, and dealing with the outbreak of war across the Nine Worlds. None of this leaves any time for visiting Jane, so he gets Heimdall to keep an eye on her from afar. That would be creepy and stalkerish if he didn’t so clearly have her wellbeing at the forefront of his mind. I still don’t know if I’m entirely happy with it, but in general Thor is very respectful of Jane’s boundaries. I think the best word to describe his behaviour is courtly. What’s more, he genuinely thinks she’s wonderful. He doesn’t ever patronise or second guess her. If she says a weird gizmo on a stick will save the world, he will charge forward armed with a gizmo on a stick. There’s a guy worth falling in love with!

One of the things that frustrated me about the original Thor movie was the way Odin’s dodgy actions went largely unchallenged. In the scene where Loki learns his true heritage, he makes one very telling statement: I am the monster parents tell their children about at night. Loki’s later genocide attempt makes a lot more sense when you place that in the context of his upbringing; Odin may preach peace now, but the frost giants have always been the enemy, the ‘monsters’, not really people at all. How can it be a bad thing if you rid the universe of the monsters?

Essentially, Thor copies what his father says, Loki what Odin does, and I think that’s what lies at the heart of Loki’s sense of betrayal. He doesn’t know what he wants to be any more. Thor suffers a similar realisation in The Dark World. He loves his father, but he doesn’t want to be like him.

Loki, meanwhile, is a whole godful of angst. I do not blame Thor in the slightest for being sick of him, but Odin’s solution – rot in a transparent prison cell surrounded by other people I hate and brood on your wrongs forever! – doesn’t really help Loki’s ever precarious mental state. That leaves Frigga as the only member of the family still trying to connect with him, and the only one he doesn’t want to hurt. Seeing him care so much about her, particularly the aftermath of his grief in the cell, brought back that labyrinthine complexity of character from the first movie. He’s so magnificently screwed up! But everything he does makes its own strange kind of sense. I particularly loved how adorably manic he was when freed from his cell, bounding along at Thor’s side playing silly tricks and forgetting they were meant to be sneaky. He even got the chance to do something heroic, though only he would follow that up by taking over Asgard in disguise. It’s kind of sweet – Loki’s version of sweet – that he uses his ill-gotten position to give Thor his blessing. Odin might not have been so understanding.

Who even knows what he’s done to Odin. And what he plans to do with all that power now he’s got it. Watch out, universe.

Visually, this is a gorgeous film, from beautiful costuming to the glorious spectacle of Asgard. (Did a single one of the main female characters wear high heels even once? I think not. Bonus points for sensible shoes!) The plot mostly works, and what doesn’t make sense is held together with good pacing and excellent acting. It’s intelligent. It makes emotional sense. It’s fun. The Ninth Doctor turns into an evil elf! Things blow up! Jane’s team get together after saving the world and eat breakfast cereal!

I want more action movies like this.