Superhero movies

‘Who are you?’
‘Someone like you.’
(Batman Begins)

‘Not all heroes wear masks’ (George Clooney as Batman in Batman and Robin)

Obviously, hundreds of millions of people have seen the superhero movies of the last two decades, bought the related dvds, games, books and merchandise, and many millions of these consumers are also experts and aficionados about every aspect of the films, as well as of the original source superhero comics.

I’ve taken my son to occasional blockbusters at the cinema, but to humour him (and understand half his conversation) I recently watched as many of these superhero films as I could easily get hold of. Originally watching just for pleasure, eventually I found myself making notes and asking questions about the tropes and ideas which recurring in so many of them.

New York

  • All six modern Spiderman movies are set in New York because that’s where the hero, Peter Parker, lives.
  • Matt Murdock /Daredevil is born and bred in New York, the emblematic Chrysler building featuring in many of the film’s set-up shots
  • The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the Baxter Building, is very obviously in New York
  • Batman’s ‘Gotham City’ is a noir version of New York and is the setting of all 11 Batman movies, including Batman Forever, in which the face of the Statue of Liberty is blown up by Two Face’s helicopter
  • Superman’s ‘Metropolis’ is transparently New York, featuring as backdrop to all eight Superman movies, and getting seriously destroyed in 2013’s Man of Steel
  • The X-Men movies travel adventurously all round the world but almost all of them gravitate back to Professor Xavier’s school for the gifted in Westchester, New York State – indeed the climax of the first X-Men movie is set right at the top of the iconic Statue of Liberty
  • Days of Future Past conveys its vision of the earth in a world desolated by war by opening in… which American city, do you think?
  • Iron Man 2 opens with a grand Stark Expo in Flushing, New York, which then becomes the site for a superbattle between Iron Man and a new breed of flying robot warriors
  • Captain Marvel starts in New York because that’s where the captain – real name Steve Rogers – grew up and, coincidentally, it’s the city the evil baddie, Red Skull, is planning to blow up at the film’s climax
  • Avengers Assemble builds to a spectacular climax in the streets and skies of New York as an army of aliens does battle with the six Avenger superheroes

If you watch any number of the films it’s impossible not to end up asking, Why are so many superhero movies obsessively set in New York City?

1. Because Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Julius Schwartz and many of the early and most influential comic-book editors, writers and artists were born and bred in New York City, loved New York and knew it very well. And since their ethos was to create superhero characters who lived in realistic places and had realistic problems, these writers set them in the place they knew best.

2. Both Marvel and DC, publishers of the leading hero comics, were originally based in New York.

3. In terms of population, New York is head and shoulders above all other American cities, with a population of 8+ million more than double its nearest rival, Los Angeles with 3.9m, and then Chicago 2.7m, Houston 2.2m, Philadelphia 1.5m, Phoenix 1.5m, San Antonio 1.4m, San Diego 1.39m, Dallas 1.3m, San Jose 1m. So a threat to New York City is a threat to the biggest population centre in America. New York means big, it means lots.

4. Also, New York is packed with iconic sights and cinematic opportunities:

  • the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Central Park – New York has lots of iconic locations and sights which we’re all familiar with from countless other movies and TV shows
  • it has a huge bay and rivers running either side of Manhattan, which allows for the creation of spectacular water effects, things to crash into causing tsunami waves, or for monsters to emerge from
  • there’s a number of tunnels for car chases to happen in, or for monsters to run along the ceilings of
  • massive bridges whose cables can be snapped or cars be pushed off
  • and, of course, New York is home to a lot of very tall buildings, good for Spider-man to sweep through or planes or missiles or monsters to fly between, or General Zod to turn into enormous toppling packs of cards

Think of the massive wave sweeping through the jammed streets of New York in The Day After Tomorrow. Film makers love destroying New York. Other American cities simply don’t have the population density, let alone the iconic buildings or the variety of natural features. They’re just not nearly as much fun to blow up.

San Francisco

San Francisco with a population of only 880,000 isn’t even in the top ten American cities population-wise, but it is a popular second choice because of the visual recognition and the mayhem potential afforded by the San Francisco bridge.

The apes rampage across the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is lifted and bodily transported by Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. All those cables to run up and down, to snap and whiplash down onto the roadway, slicing cars and trucks in half!

And a bridge also means things can hang or dangle at their peril over the edge of it. Often these are buses. If you think about it, you need something long to dangle over an edge, like the coach at the end of The Italian Job.

A good choice is a fire engine, which is both long in itself and also has extendable ladders which can unravel right to their limit, with someone hanging off the end, yelling for help, as happens twenty minutes into Fantastic Four (2005).

Maximum points if you use a school bus full of screaming children, as at the climax of Superman: The Movie (1978).

(Screaming schoolkids never go out of fashion. Captain America and the other Avengers have to save a bus full of them at the climax of Avengers Assemble, 2012, and young Clark Kent saves a school bus which goes off the edge of a bridge and is sinking in a river, in 2013’s Man of Steel. Listen to those kids in jeopardy scream!)

Skyscrapers smashed up

In these movies an incredible number of high rise buildings get damaged. They’re blown up, smashed up, hit by spaceships, meteors, flown into by jet planes, punctured by superheroes throwing each other through them, devastated by General Zod’s terraforming machine, and so on.

But there is one particularly stylised way of damaging buildings which recurs again and again. This is where the building is raked along one floor, ripped open along the same storey, as if with a tin opener – by flying debris, girders, missiles, superheroes, silver surfers, giant monsters and so on.

This ‘horizontal rip’ allows the viewer to see into the building and gives a more terrifying sense of the vulnerability and terror of the people one minute working in a humdrum office, the next minute clinging to the walls as shattered glass, office furniture and other people come tumbling out and plunge to the ground hundreds of feet below.

Every time I see these sequences I think of 9/11 – tall buildings hit along one floor, debris and people falling into the streets of New York.

The reference is obvious but still repressed when the two jumbo jets which come close to crashing into each other, but ultimately miss, at the climax of Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014). It is out in the open at the end of 2014’s Man of Steel, and even more so at the start of its sequel, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where we are actually with someone inside a skyscraper which is blown up and collapses, spewing that terrible grey cloud of debris over Bruce Wayne running helplessly towards it. It is 9/11 by any other name.

Freud developed the idea of Repetition Compulsion. This is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again, re-enacting the event or putting themselves in situations where the event is likely to happen again, repeating it over and over in an effort to assimilate it.

The obsessiveness with which these superhero movies (as well as the gamut of modern science fiction films) destroy tall buildings, over and over again, and so frequently in New York, seems to me like a compulsive attempt on the part of an entire culture’s collective unconscious to heal the trauma, to repair the wound, of 9/11.

I thought of this all the way through the last half hour of Man of Steel in which the systematic destruction of New York by a Kryptonite ‘world-maker’, and the extraordinarily prolonged fight between Superman and General Zod which destroys countless buildings, vehicles and New York landmarks, has to be seen to be believed.

So many shiny New York skyscrapers, slowly toppling to the ground, so much concrete wreckage and grey ash, so many 9/11s – again and again and again.

Car crashes

In American action movies the narrative expresses its seriousness via car crashes and traffic pile-ups. After the climax of the Blues Brothers back in 1980, with deliberately absurd excess, piled up 100 police cars in the central plaza in Chicago, you’d have thought that car pile-ups would have gotten pretty tired and old, a raddled empty cliché, but no – even though it is a really hoary cliche of these superhero/sci fi movies, they just keep on coming:

  • Superman II (1980) features an extended destruction of cars and buses by the three criminals from Krypton
  • the Penguin-guided Batmobile trashes a load of police cars in the awful Batman Returns (1992)
  • the multi-police car chase in Batman Begins (2005)
  • the Times Square power outage in The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2012) in which scores of police cars, buses and so on crash into each other
  • the multi-car pile-up caused by The Thing in the first Fantastic Four movie
  • the host of police cars which congregate on the White House in X-Men: Days of Future Past only to be shredded and blown up by the superguns of the flying robot Sentinels
  • the impressive slow-mo action car chase at the start of Deadpool with plenty of big black vans (a very popular type of vehicle in blockbuster chases and crashes) cartwheeling and shattering along the freeway
  • the high speed chase after an armoured truck carrying Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
  • the climax of The Incredible Hulk (2008) in which the Hulk and the Abomination fight it out mainly by throwing cars and buses at each other in the streets of Harlem
  • the spectacular blowing up of a car park full of vehicles by flying assassin robots in Iron Man 2
  • there’s a car pile-up in a tunnel in the first half of Avengers Assemble but that’s nothing compared to the amount of cars, buses and police cars blown up in the climactic battle in New York

And so on.

It’s as if American film-makers just can’t conceive of damage, can’t really take the idea of damage seriously, unless it’s expressed through a multi-vehicle pile-up. It’s as if the movies, lacking scale and power from the actors alone, have to call in energy from other sources – from destroying things – and from destroying the thing which is closest to most Americans’ hearts and imaginations – their cars.

Apparently, there are some 270 million vehicles licensed in the USA (trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes), making it top of the world league table for motor vehicles per capita, with 910 vehicles per 1,000 people.

America is the most carred nation in the world.

Put it this way: although there are plenty of scenes of pedestrians fleeing from carnage and explosions, nothing really says TROUBLE like a whole load of New York cars, taxis and buses all piling into each other, whether because of Godzilla, the Sandman, the Silver Surfer, Electro or General Zod.

The impotence of the police and army

The smashing-up of police cars is closely related to another familiar trope – the notion that the police and/or army are completely ineffective.

How many times have we seen the cops turn up in scores of cop cars, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and some dope with a loudhailer thinks they can stop whichever radioactive mutant superbeing is the star of this particular flic, by a) asking him to and then b) firing off their puny handguns.

Sure enough, they then fire hundreds of bullets from pistols and machine guns against the baddie(s) with no effect at all. For example, when scores of cops armed to the teeth are easily beaten by the teenage X-Men in X-Men First Class, or when a small army of New York cops unleash a storm of bullets at Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with zero effect. Or:

  • the 14 police cars and trucks and scores of armed cops which are no use at all against Magneto in the first X-Men film
  • the street full of cop cars and the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the church in Daredevil and – completely fail to capture Daredevil
  • the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the building housing the drug dealers in Batman Begins and completely fail to capture anyone
  • neither the American SWAT team in Chicago nor the Chinese SWAT team in Hong Kong can prevent Batman doing just what he wants in The Dark Knight
  • in The Dark Knight Rises the entire police force and all the SWAT teams of Gotham City are tricked underground and trapped there… for three months!
  • in all three big action sequences in The Incredible Hulk the army – starting with machine guns, then mounted guns, then helicopter gunships, then a secret sonic weapon – completely fail to quell the green beast
  • as soon as you see fighter jets, helicopters and marines going in against the rogue Kryptonians in Man of Steel, you know they are going to be annihilated

SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics team.

In the United States, SWAT teams are equipped with specialized firearms including submachine guns, assault rifles, breaching shotguns, sniper rifles, riot control agents, and stun grenades, plus specialized equipment including heavy body armor, ballistic shields, entry tools, armored vehicles, night vision devices, and motion detectors.

It’s a long way from Dixon of Dock Green, isn’t it? For decades, now, U.S. TV and film makers have been depicting urban America as a war zone.

And yet, in all these superhero movies, whenever you see a whole host of SWAT men in their black uniforms, wearing bullet proof helmets with glaring head-lamps, holding their automatic rifles to their faces, crashing into some building – it is absolutely guaranteed that they are going to be massacred or humiliated by the superhero or supervillain.

In film after film the conventional police, SWAT teams and even the army are shown to be impotent and dumb. They never get their man.

Cumulatively, this begins to have quite an undermining effect on the viewer, and begins to bleed into your perception of the highly armed American police, special forces and SWAT teams you see so often on the news. Are they really this gormless? Really this useless? Nothing we learned about the American presence in Iraq contradicts this impression.

American violence

Which brings us to the whole issue of violence, the central theme of all superhero movies. Fighting.

To the grown-up viewer is liable to notice about these scenes is the extraordinary level of everyday violence in the contemporary American imaginative universe, and how it feeds off the actual violence of everyday American life.

25 years ago I remember then-president Bill Clinton pointing out that America is a far more violent country than most Americans themselves realise. These films depict the way that that everyday violence seems to have fed down into the most basic relationships in society.

Even within the close-knit groups of ‘friends’ or comrades, even within the Fantastic Four or among the X-Men or between Peter Parker and his best friend Harry, there seems to be an endless tendency to argue, arguments which swiftly escalate to bristling standoffs, then fisticuffs, and then the guns.

American rudeness and incivility

Americans, as depicted in these movies, just can’t be civil, polite or restrained to each other.

All the little acts of politeness, the ps and qs, the common courtesies of life, have, in these films, disappeared from American life. Instead, young Americans, in thrall to a debased idea of slangy, ‘cool’, ‘street’ style, seem to operate in a mood of permanent anger, becoming furious at the smallest slight, and then resorting to extreme violence within seconds of being triggered.

Watching the inarticulate violence of many of the young people in these movies, the quickness with which they resort to bullying confrontations – at Peter Parker’s high school, or between the quick-tempered younger generation of mutants in the X-Men films – watching the way the ability to be calm and polite and well-mannered and to turn the other cheek has utterly disappeared from this culture; the way noone is capable of irony and nonchalance but immediately, upon the slightest disagreement, resorts to red-hot anger, to fists or, if they’re available, knives or guns – is terrifying.

Vide the first scene of X-Men: Apocalypse where some high school jock decides to flatten Scott/Cyclops for allegedly winking at his girl. I wonder if American high schools really are this unpleasantly confrontational and violent.

Nobody seems able to say ‘come off it guys, let’s go and play football’, or to make a joke to defuse the confrontation. Instead, square-jawed, buff, young Yanks seem to be constantly squaring up to each other while some skinny model is pulling the bully’s arm, wailing ‘Don’t do it, Brad.’

And rudeness is portrayed as prevalent at every level of American life. When Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises rudely tells the hundreds of upper-crust guests he’s invited to a glamorous ball to shove off, it is, admittedly, for a purpose (to save their lives, since bad guys have infiltrated the party and are threatening to blow it up) – but is done with the core incivility and lack of style which characterises every character in all these movies.

Almost the only person who is genuinely polite or considerate is Clark Kent and he is universally regarded as a harmless bumbling buffoon, whether played by Christoper Reeve in 1978 or  Henry Cavill in 2013.

#everydayrudeness

Screen violence

The scale of the fighting is quite staggering. I started watching these movies with my wife but she gave up along the way because she just couldn’t stomach the non-stop, stomach-churning super-violence.

If you desensitise yourself to the endless physical assaults, then it’s possible to be impressed at the skill and imagination of the fight choreographers for coming up with so any variations on what are, essentially, a small number of tropes.

My favourite is where one character seizes another by the neck and lifts them clean off the ground, generally as an interrogation technique. For example, when one of the Kryptonite baddies lifts Clark Kent’s mom simply with one hand round her throat, in Man of Steel. The camera always pans down the victim’s body to show their feet lifted clear off the ground. Wow! Ain’t he strong!

In the more advanced form, the seizer then throws the seizee right across the room, with the roughneck violence characteristic of all these films. If they’re a superbaddy, they throw the victim clear through the nearest wall.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s hometown of Smallville is more or less obliterated in his epic fight with the bad Kryptonites, and I lost count of the number of walls Superman throws them through or they throw him through, at supersonic speed.

Violence as sick humour

As the past two decades have progressed, the violence of these films has become more cruel and cynical.

When I saw the opening of The Dark Knight in the cinema I was disgusted by the nihilistic cynicism of the opening ‘joke’, namely that the gang of a dozen crooks who break into a bank have instructions to shoot dead each of their colleagues once he’s done his job. Bang bang bang, people are just shot dead at point blank range. In the olden days they’d have been tied up or knocked out. Now American crims just shoot anyone who gets in their way. And the script makes wisecracks about it. Ha ha ha.

Later, the Joker does a magic trick when he’s intimidating a roomful of crime lords. He blu-tacks a pencil to make it sticking upright on a table, and says his magic trick will be to make the pencil disappear. A thuggish goon comes up to threaten him, and the Joker in one swift movement, grabs the man’s head and baps it down into the table, the pencil entering the baddy’s eyeball and into his brain – so that when the Joker lifts the dead goon’s head and pushes his body away to collapse onto the floor, the pencil goes with it. He has made it disapear. Ta-dah! Funny, eh?

The first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies contain, I think, the most sickening violence of all the movies listed below. They don’t just ‘glamorise’ violence, they glamorise a particular type of sick, twisted, black humorous attitude towards violence.

Aware of the climate of sick, amoral, super-violence which these movies promote and revel in, it comes as no surprise to outsiders like us to read about incidents like this:

On July 20, 2012, during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman wearing a gas mask opened fire inside the theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Police responding to the shooting apprehended a suspect later identified as 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes shortly after arriving on the scene. Initial reports stated that Holmes identified himself as ‘the Joker’ at the time of his arrest. (Wikipedia)

Does the continual, full-spectrum broadcasting of sick super-violence influence the epidemic of mass shootings in America which just seems to be getting worse and worse – or does it just accurately reflect a culture awash with guns which has completely lost all moral bearings?

A  few seconds’ searching on the internet quickly tells you that:

  • a 2015 report by The Economist magazine found that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985
  • there’s a Hollywood room at the National Rifle Association museum where guns used by stars like Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone are on display
  • if you’re in the gun-selling business, the best way to make a gun a best-seller is to pay to have it showcased in a big Hollywood movie

Gun crime, gun murder, gun massacres, are a big and pressing problem (for America) but whether there’s any causality between hyper-violent, super-cynical, mass murder in movies and in ‘real life’, or it’s just a coincidental correlation, as defenders of the films claim – either way, it’s not a healthy culture, is it?

Kill all opposition

Admittedly, a small handful of characters preach what you could call ‘humanistic’ or even Christian values – like listening to each other, talking over problems, jaw-jaw is better than war-war or even, in wild moments, the notion of forgiving each other and moving on.

But these are momentary blips in a great ocean of violence. Instant anger between anyone who disagrees about anything quickly escalates to standoffs, insults, then punches, then knives, guns and – these days – Uzi machine guns. The extended ten-minute Uzi shootout with Yakuza mobsters in The Wolverine can stand as emblematic of a world of super-armed hyper-violence.

But the extraordinary level of armed violence is just a symptom, or surface symbol, of the deep structure of all these films, namely:

There is a good guy. There are one or more bad guys. The good guy can try to talk to the bad guy for a while, or have sarcastic wisecracking dialogue with him. There will be encounters of growing menace and threat. But sooner or later all this chat and phoney politeness can lead to only one thing – an intense fight, which itself can only end with the death and eradication of the antagonist.

Ultimately, you cannot talk to the enemy – all talk proves to be pointless – ultimately, all you can do is exterminate the enemy.

‘There’s only one way this ends, Cal – either you die or I do.’ (General Zod in Man of Steel)

From school corridors to outer space, these multi-million dollar blockbuster movies promote the same lesson again and again and again – that talking is a waste of time, reasoned argument is waste of breath, that the only solution to even a mild conflict of opinion, is obliterating your enemy. Shoot them. Kill them all.

American high school

In these movies American high schools all look the same and appear to be populated by either stunning models or tough-guy bullies.

The rudeness, roughness, the bullying and intimidation, the lateness and sloppiness and disrespect for the teachers which is universal in these films paint a dismal picture of America’s education system.

The bullying of nerdy outsider Peter Parker goes a long way to conveying to the detached viewer a culture of bullying and outsiderness which appears to be the seedbed for all the high school shootings that have become such a regular feature of American schools.

The movies depict a teen culture which is completely homogenous, in which everyone is a jock or a babe, drives cars, hangs out, strives to be ‘cool’ – and strongly convey that not to be part of this stiflingly conformist culture is to be lost.

The films convey such a stiflingly conformist ‘cool’ culture of jocks and babes, it comes as no surprise to learn that the real-life high school shootings are almost always carried out by the loners, the outsiders, the stiffs who are rejected and mocked by the bullying, laughing world of ‘insiders’, the good looking handsome jocks and babes.

They may also just be deranged, with a history of mental problems, like Nikolas Cruz:

But whatever the causation, you’d have thought a culture which produces billion-dollar entertainments glamorising epic violence and psychotic mass killers might pause and reflect on the fact that its products are produced and consumed in a culture characterised – like no other culture in the world – by mass killings by psychotic killers.

Schools

In fact schools feature heavily in many of these films. The X-Men plots rotate around Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted (i.e. mutants). All six Spider-Man movies rotate around the tiresome high school which Peter Parker attends.

As settings, schools have the advantage that:

  1. They relate directly to the films’ target audience – teens or those mentally in their teens
  2. They’re an excuse for lots of characters to live, work and face jeopardy in the same space
  3. There’s no need for the workaday world of jobs, work, parenting or any of the responsibilities that tie down real people and would get in the way of a lot of plot- all accommodation and food is taken care of, there’s no commuting, no babies crying etc, just teenagers running round screaming ‘We have to save him’ or ‘We have to find them’

Scenes of supernatural fighting in these schools inevitably bring to mind the eight Harry Potter movies (2001 to 2011) which take advantage of many of the same features:

  • a teen audience
  • a confined space with lots of dramatic potential
  • no adult responsibilities

Adults pretending to be young and models pretending to be ordinary people

On the subject of depicting school children –

I found the two Amazing Spiderman movies insufferable because of Andrew Garfield’s stuttering, inarticulate portrayal of the central character. When he has dinner at his girlfriend’s house, he picks a fight with the parents; when he argues with his aunt in Amazing Spider-Man 2 I think it’s intended to be funny but his character comes over as inarticulate, rude and ill-mannered. He comes over as a graceless dick.

But I found a more profound problem with the films was the glaring discrepancy between the ages of the actors and the ages of the characters they’re meant to be playing.

In both Amazing Spiderman movies Parker has the same love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by actress Emma Stone. In AS1 both Parker and Stacy are meant to be 17 years old. In fact, the actress who played her, Emma Stone, was 23 and Garfield was 28. In AS2 they are both meant to be graduating from high school aged just 18, but were in fact 25 and 30, respectively.

It’s not just implausible but… a touch creepy, watching grown adults play children.

The same problem afflicts Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). In this version Peter Parker is meant to be even younger (15) but the actor playing him was 20. Worse, Parker’s love interest, Liz, is played by Laura Harrier, who was 27.

27 playing 15?

Not only that, but Harrier is a model who has done a fair share of ‘glamour’ modeling i.e. wearing only her underwear or less. She has the lean, muscular body of a young woman, not a girl of 15. Maybe I’m being way too serious, too much the middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter myself, but I find it creepy that a woman who’s nearly 30 years old and has modeled half-nude, is cast as a 15-year-old in a wildly popular teen movie.

Do 15 year-old girls need to feel under any more pressure than they already do to conform to soft-porn, adult fantasies of what women should look like – impossibly skinny, half-dressed, thrusting boobs, pouting towards the male viewer? Is this helping or making things worse?

You have to trust me

In almost every movie there comes a moment where one character asks another to trust them. In the audience we’re all screaming ‘Just tell him what goddamm happened,’ but that’s not the point. They never explain. They’re always in too much of a hurry, the cops are coming, the bad guys are only seconds away. ‘You have to trust me.’

As a trope it maximises tension. Instead of non-stop chasing, it creates a kind of crux or tipping point, it creates a mini-climax. And in terms of character ‘development’, often it’s two characters who haven’t got on very well, now being forced to bond.

If movies are designed to serve up thrills and spills, this is a classic moment of tension and suspense. That said, I can’t think of a single occasion when the character didn’t trust the one asking.

  • The Gambler to Wolverine: ‘You need to trust me. We have to go.’ (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 1:34:20)
  • Quicksilver to Wolverine: ‘How do I know I can trust you?’ (X-Men: The Days of Future Past, 0:38:40)
  • Magneto to his wife: ‘I trusted you then. I need you to trust me now.’ (X-Men: Apocalypse 0:29:50)
  • Tony Stark to James Rhodes: ‘You got to trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.’ (Iron Man 2 0:44:00)

‘Trust’ or lack of, is the central issue coming between George Clooney’s Batman and his new sidekick Robin, in 1997’s Batman and Robin, repeated in almost all the dialogue between them.

Rogue government agencies

In how many of these kinds of movies does it turn out that there’s a secret government agency carrying out illegal experiments or a top secret scientific programme, generally to build the ultimate weapon?

The X-Files TV series was based on the idea that the government was concealing its knowledge of alien activity and – and this is the point – was prepared to go to any lengths – which meant murdering anyone – to keep it secret.

The premise of the Jason Bourne movies was that Bourne had volunteered to be turned into the supreme killing machine, a perfect assassination machine, by a top secret government programme, but had then been badly wounded and lost his memory. The entire suite of movies is dominated by the homicidal determination of the agency doing this research (Operation Treadstone) to murder anyone who stands in its way.

The backstory of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a classic example of the trope: Wolverine (original name Logan) was experimented on to create a super-human killing machine. In that movie this program progressed to develop an even more violent super-killer, X11, which becomes known as Deadpool.

Rogue corporations

‘Sir, we have a situation.’
(Line used by a flunky to the evil CEO in both Daredevil and Batman Begins)

And if it’s not a rogue government department, it’s a rogue corporation. How many of these are there?

  • Cyberdyne Systems is the private corporation which devises the technology for the Terminator robots
  • Oscorp Industries is the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation which develops the technology responsible for Spider-Man and his enemy the Green Goblin
  • It’s Von Doom Industries headed by the bullish Victor von Doom which transports four scientists to its space station to observe a mysterious power source passing close to earth and which instead gives the Fantastic Four their superpowers, while also mutating von Doom into the imaginatively named Dr Doom.
  • William Stryker appears in several of the X-Men movies running rogue programmes – In X-Men Origins: Wolverine he runs the ‘Weapon X’ project which embeds Wolverine’s body with the indestructible metal, adamantine, before going on to create an even more lethal human weapon, Weapon XI, who will go on to become known as Deadpool.
  • In Deadpool the movie, the plot is changed to that the ‘hero’ acquires his superpowers after being subjected to horrific treatments at a private facility run by ‘Ajax’.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past is centred on a rogue programme being run by scientist Bolivar Trask at his Trask Corporation to create anti-mutant robots, or ‘sentinels’.
  • In Logan the Transigen Corporation has bred a cohort of test tube children made from captured mutant DNA with a view to breeding them as weaponised soldiers, supervised by creepy ‘doctor’ Zander Rice.

Corporate-level science is depicted throughout these movies as hi-tech, evil and sadistic.

This trope is taken to a new level when the rogue corporation in question happens to be owned by the very hero of the story.

  • In Iron Man Stark Industries is taken over behind Tony Stark’s back by evil Jeff Bridges who creates a super-evil robot man.
  • In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne’s own corporation (the imaginatively titled Wayne Enterprises) is not only taken away from him by the scheming CEO but used to fund his enemies

Broadly speaking, anybody functioning above a high-school romance level of existence – whether they be lawyers, doctors, scientists or businessmen – is portrayed as wicked and corrupt. This makes sense when you reflect that the comics were always targeted at nerdy teenagers.

Heterosexual

These movies are crashingly heterosexual, in a number of ways.

1. Romances They involve lots of romances, good, clean, heterosexual romances. Half the narrative of the Spider-Man movies is made up of Peter Parker’s endlessly on-again off-again romance with Mary Jane Watson (in the Toby Maguire trilogy) or Gwen Stacy (in the couple of Amazing Spider-Man films) or Liz (in the MCU reboot). The Wolverine character falls in love with a Canadian teacher in X-Men: Origins but this can’t eclipse the strength of his love for Jean Grey, played by the unreally beautiful Famke Janssen. It is disappointing that Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Tony Stark’s secretary in the Iron Man trilogy, inevitably falls in love with him.

These movies teach that all people are heterosexual and randy, so that any man and woman working closely together will end up ‘falling in love’, or be compelled to notice each other as potential partners / sex objects. Not a good attitude, is it?

2. Marriage The Fantastic Four movies (2004, 2007) are among my favourites because they grasp from the get-go that these films have to be funny to survive (a comedic tone successfully copied in the Iron Man series). Thus the Silver Surfer movie is punctuated by the comedic attempts of the stunningly good-looking Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd to get married, the ceremony continually being interrupted by threats of the end of the world which only they can avert – and we all know how distracting that can be.

3. Models A dismaying number of modern American ‘actors’ – male and female – started their careers as models. I.e. despite all the feminism and political correctness to the contrary, looks looks looks are what count in Hollywood. ‘Acting ability’, second. As a selection from the movies I’ve watched recently.

  • Jennifer Connelly – model then actress (Hulk)
  • Nick Nolte – model then actor (Hulk)
  • Chris O’Donnell – model then actor (Batman Forever)
  • James Marsden – Versace model then actor (The X-Men)
  • Kirsten Dunst – model then actress (Spider-Man)
  • Tom Welling – model then actor (Smallville)

4. Buff The men in these movies are impossibly buff and toned. As the X-Men films progress, Logan – played by Hugh Jackman – goes from being fit and hunky to superhumanly muscular and ripped. Any other male character who gets his top off similarly displays an awesomely defined set of musculature (e.g. Christ Evans who spends half the Fantastic Four films topless in order to showcase his awesome six pack). Even supposedly 15-year-old Peter Parker in Spider-Man: The Homecoming pulls his shirt off to reveal an impressively ripped, toned, hyper-muscled, super-athlete body. Henry Cavill gets to be topless early in Man of Steel, revealing a quite awesomely ripped torso.

And then there’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor:

Bloody hell.

5. Hot The women in these movies are impossibly ‘glamorous’, meaning – young, thin and buxom. A dismaying number of them started their careers as models and many still do modeling gigs i.e. looks looks looks is what counts – the ability to be able to walk and speak at the same time, a lot less important.

Thin, slender women with model good looks and ample busts

Cat-eyed models

There’s a noticeable sub-type of ‘buff’ or ‘hot’, a distinctive ‘look’ which is unusually common in these films. The actors are slightly cat-looking, with eyes far apart and cat-like.

Possibly, it’s more noticeable in the men:

It’s a look pioneered by David Keith, who came to fame in 1982’s An Officer and A Gentleman – a square face with a strong jawline and wide apart, narrow, slit-like eyes.

Of course, not all the actors in all the movies look like this – but enough of them do for it to be a noticeable trend.

And it’s even more obvious in the TV spin-offs. In the same shops where I bought second-hand superhero movies I kept seeing covers of the TV vampire series Angel (1999-2004) which starred the hunky, square-faced, lynx-eyed David Boreanaz.

Or box sets of the popular show Smallville which features model-turned-actor, moody and magnificent Tom Welling.

You don’t have to have model good looks to be a Hollywood star – but it certainly helps.

Feminism and superheroes

In this respect it’s amazing that feminists appear to support and encourage this preposterously unreal world of skinny, busty, youthful models posing as actors. I genuinely don’t understand why this image on the London Underground sparked such a storm of protest:

for being a degrading, objectifying, sexist and sexualised way of portraying women, which adds to the oppressive culture of body perfection and body shaming which afflicts so many young women (my daughter included)… and yet pretty much the same impossibly thin and airbrushed-to-perfection, sexy body shape as demonstrated by model-turned-actress, former Miss Israel 2004, Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman in 2017 –

was praised by feminists as ’empowering’.

Slender model in figure-hugging skimpy clothes is a) degrading b) empowering. Which?

And it’s a little mind-boggling that, in 2018, the Wikipedia articles for all of these superhero movies consistently describe the lead women in them as the ‘love interest’ of the men.

In the deep conception of these films, in their stories and characters, the men are always the focus of the narratives, the centres of strength, integrity and endurance, the only ones with characters worth undergoing crises and development.

The ‘love interests’ only exist as bolt-on extras.

It’s almost surprising that the ‘love interests’ even bother to have names, since their role is mostly to pout and be skinny enough to attract the hero – after a bit of resistance, to give in and kiss him – then to get captured and placed in jeopardy by the super-baddie – and then to be rescued by the hero leading up to the cheesy Happy Ending.

I’ve just watched Thor in which the creators probably thought they were ’empowering’ Natalie Portman’s character by making her a clever scientist who understands long words – but her actual behaviour is a rehash of any 1950s brainless dolly bird.

First, she’s portrayed as a comically useless woman driver who keeps running the hapless Thor over in her camper van. She thinks he’s weird until she catches sight of him topless, flexing his awesome musculature, at which point she is abruptly smitten like a hormonal schoolgirl.

Then, when Thor kisses her hand like a perfect gent, she realises she is in lurv with him, like a bimbo out of Clueless.

And then, when this enormous, tall, ripped gentleman turns out to be a superhero capable of battling a giant fire-shooting metal monster – she succumbs to full-on, helpless hero worship.

Thor was released in 2008. Surely, from a feminist point of view, in its characterisation of the breathless man-worship of the central female character, it might as well have been 1958?

The changing American accent

The American accent seems to have changed during my lifetime i.e. the past 50 years, in terms of sound and speed.

1. More gutteral The sound has become more gutteral and strangulated, making it often difficult to understand what characters are saying. Compare and contrast the full articulation of a British actor like James McAvoy, with the strangulated articulation of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, in the second trilogy of X-Men films. Younger Americans seem to create consonant sounds right at the back of the throat as if they’re swallowing them rather than projecting them outwards. It’s related to a speaking style which was identified as ‘Valley Speak’ back in the 1990s and seems to have spread, at least throughout films.

In this clip listen to the way actress Anne Hathaway moves between fully articulated voice and strangled voice at points like 2:20 (‘Don’t condescend Mr Wayne, you don’t know [and here she begins to strangle the words] a thing about me’) and 2:46 (‘Once you’ve done what you had to [switching to strangled] they’ll never let you do what you want to’).

Is it just the way movie actors and young Americans speak now? To my ear it denotes an attitude of cynicism or nihilism. She strangles her words in order to convey a don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Along with a strong, exaggerated emphasis on the ‘r’ sound, this strangulated style of speaking conveys a ‘who gives a shit’ mindset, perfectly in tune with the prevailing violence and wanton destruction of the films.

2. Fast The other element of American English’s ongoing evolution, is the speed with which young Americans speak. I found it difficult to understand much of what Jennifer Lawrence (27) was saying in the X-Men films, but almost impossible to understand what Jacob Batalon (20) was saying in Spiderman The Homecoming, because he just speaks so fast.

Here are three ‘young’ actors from Spider-Man: The Homecoming trying to express themselves. My point is not about them and the interviewer coming over as idiots – which they do – and more about their manner of speaking: the speed and strangulated articulation seem to be turning American English into a new language in front of our ears.

Surely there are academic studies about the ways young American English is mutating away from its British source.

Money

Movies make a lot of money. In 2017 Hollywood’s domestic turnover was $11.1 billion, with global revenues of $39.9 billion – giving a neat total of $51 billion.

Below is a list of the most high profile superhero movies of the past twenty years, along with budget each one cost to make, and each one’s gross revenue.

Maybe fashion, in its widest sense, taking in every element of popular style, as well as hair styles and cosmetics, is the most far-reaching cultural influence on the world.

But arguably nothing has the same high-profile impact on global culture as American films. And, among films in general, these high-profile ‘blockbuster’ movies surely have the biggest reach of any films, in terms of marketing, hype, merchandising and viewers.

And they teach two fundamental lessons:

  • worship of an unattainable Body Perfection, for both men and women
  • worship of the most confrontational hyper-masculinity imaginable, again and again promoting the idea that the only kind of dialogue which men with even slightly differing views can have must consist of hard-ass confrontations swiftly leading to super-violence

Superhero movies mentioned in this review

1978 Superman: The Movie ($300 million gross on a $55 million budget)

1980 Superman II ($190 million gross on a $54 million budget)
1983 Superman III ($80 million gross on a $39 million budget)
1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($37 million gross / $17 million budget)

1989 Batman ($411 million gross / $35 million budget)
1992 Batman Returns ($267 million / $80 million)

1995 Batman Forever ($336 million / $100 million)
1997 Batman & Robin ($238 / $125 million)
1998 Blade ($131 million / $45 million budget)
1999 The Matrix ($464 million / $63 million)

2000 X-Men ($296 million / $75 million)
2002 Blade II ($155 million / $54 million)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million / $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million / $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million / $125 million)
2003 Hulk ($245 million / $147 million)

2003 The Matrix Reloaded ($742 million / $150 million)
2003 The Matrix Revolutions ($427 million / $110 million)

2004 Blade Trinity  ($129 million / $65 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million / $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million / $200 million)
2004 Hellboy ($99 million / $66 million)

2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2011 Green Lantern ($219 million / $200 million)

2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers Assemble ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)

2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Avengers: Infinity War

The Poetic Edda – the mythological poems

If the previous post was a factual review of the background to the Elder Edda, this one is a more detailed consideration of the individual poems which make up the first part of the Codex Regius, called the Mythological poems because they deal exclusively with stories about the Norse gods.

Icelandic poetry, like Old English poetry, is characterised by beats not rhymes. The poems come in a number of metres. By far the most common is the so-called Fornyrthislag (“Old Verse”), generally four lines each with four beats, handily remembered as four-four measure. Each short line is divided by a cæsura into two half-lines. Each half-line has two accented syllables and two (sometimes three) unaccented ones. The first and second emphasised syllables in the first half of the line alliterate with the first of the two emphasised syllables in the second half. In this example of a Fornyrthislag stanza the accented syllables are underlined:

VreiÞr vas VingÞórr, | es vaknaÞi
ok síns hamars | of saknaÞi;
skegg nam hrista, | skor nam dýja,
Þ JarÞar burr | umb at Þreifask.

It isn’t always possible to replicate this in English and various translators try (and succeed) to varying degrees. Often the stanza doesn’t have four lines and often it’s hard to identify three clearly alliterating elements, and the translations I’ve read rarely stick rigidly to this schema. In fact finding four English lines each containing four beats, three of them alliterating, is the exception rather than the rule.

The poems have many stanzas, the longest over 160, the average being around 50.

The poems rarely include narrative. They don’t often tell you what happens. Rather as in Greek drama, what happens generally happens offstage and is reported in prose prefaces or prose sentences or paragraphs inserted throughout a poem. This frees the poems to concentrate on what they do well – dialogue: dialogues about the Universe (on the origins and destiny of the world); dialogues about Wisdom (proverbial advice); speeches of praise; and the trading of vituperative insults (in medieval English poetry referred to as flyting (it is striking that the Wikipedia entry on flyting takes as examples two poems from the Poetic Edda, the Hárbarðsljóð where Thor and Odin exchange insults, and the Lokasenna where Loki abuse all the other gods)).

Carolyne Larrington is the author of a very useful paper, Translating the Poetic Edda into English. This lists an impressive sequence of translators: Icelandic Poetry by Amos Cottle (1797), Select Icelandic Poetry by William Herbert (1804, 1806, and 1842), The Edda of Sæmund the Learned by Benjamin Thorpe (1866), The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with certain songs from the Elder Edda by Eiríkr Magnússon and William Morris (1870), Corpus Poeticum Boreale by Vigfusson and York Powell (1883), The Elder or Poetic Edda by Olive Bray illustrated with black-and-white drawings by W. G. Collingwood (1908), The Poetic Edda by Henry Adams Bellows (1926), The Poetic Edda by Lee M. Hollander (1928), Poems of the Vikings by Patricia Terry (1969), Elder Edda: A Selection by WH Auden, Taylor, and Salus (1969), The Poetic Edda by Carolyne Larrington (1996), Norse Poems (the expanded Auden and Taylor) (1981), and Poetic Edda by Ursula Dronke (1969, 1997), The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore by Andy Orchard (2011).

In an ideal world one would a) have access to them all b) have time to carefully compare and contrast the versions. Ideally one would understand medieval Icelandic in the first place and be able to compare all the translations with the originals. In this life, however, I don’t understand medieval Icelandic and I can’t access most of the 20th century versions. The best I can do is compare & contrast the versions I can access, and try to nail down, to identify, the poetry in these poems. Are they worth reading? Why? What pleasures do they give?

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Tree of Yggdrasil, title page of The Elder or Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray. By WG Collingwood (source: Wikimedia Commons)

þ is pronounced as th as in thing. ð is pronounced as d.

1. The Eleven (or is it Ten?) Mythological Poems

Völuspá (66 stanzas long) – The Volva or seer or prophetess tells what she knows about the Creation of the World, and then about Ragnarok, the famous twilight of the gods when Valhalla will go down in flames and most of the gods will be killed. The wolf Fenrir will swallow Odin. Thor will kill the serpent Jörmungandr but then collapse, dead from its venom.

Henry Adams Bellows translation (1923):

44. Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

45. Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.

Andy Orchard (2011)

44. Garm howls loud before Looming-cave
The bond will break, and the ravenous one run;
much lore she knows, I see further ahead,
of the powers’ fate, implacable, of the victory-gods.

45. Brothers will struggle and slaughter each other,
and sisters’ sons spoil kinship’s bonds.
It’s hard on earth: great whoredom;
axe-age, blade-age, shields are split;
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world crumbles:
no one shall spare another.

Hávamál (165 stanzas long) – a long rambling collection of proverbs and wisdom sayings with the tale of Odin and the mead interpolated. The length, complexity and – ultimately – thin content of this one makes it my least favourite. If in doubt, skip it.

Vafþrúðnismál (55 stanzas long) – a wisdom poem, Odin visits the giant Vafthruthnir and they immediately engage in a series of questions about the origin of the world and the workings of the universe.

Othin spake:

36. “Ninth answer me well, | if wise thou art called
If thou knowest it, Vafthruthnir, now:
Whence comes the wind | that fares o’er the waves
Yet never itself is seen?”

Vafthruthnir spake:

37. “In an eagle’s guise | at the end of heaven
Hræsvelg sits, they say;
And from his wings | does the wind come forth
To move o’er the world of men.”

Grímnismál (54 stanzas) – naming himself Grimnir Odin visits king Geirröth who ties him between two fires as a torture. On the eighth day as the fire is burning his cloak Odin/Grimnir speaks a long encyclopedia text, describing the halls in heaven, the geography of the earth with its rivers, the wolves that chase the sun and moon across the heavens, with a resounding peroration enumerating all his names, before the terror-stricken king rises to his feet, stumbles over his sword and (in a fitting punishment for his hubris) impales himself.

46. Grim is my name, | Gangleri am I,
Herjan and Hjalmberi,
Thekk and Thrithi, | Thuth and Uth,
Helblindi and Hor;

47. Sath and Svipal | and Sanngetal,
Herteit and Hnikar,
Bileyg, Baleyg, | Bolverk, Fjolnir,
Grim and Grimnir, | Glapsvith, Fjolsvith.

48. Sithhott, Sithskegg, | Sigfather, Hnikuth,
Allfather, Valfather, | Atrith, Farmatyr:
A single name | have I never had
Since first among men I fared.

Skírnismál (43 stanzas) – Frey spies the giantess Gerd and falls in love with her. He sends Skirnir with his sword to woo her. When Gerd refuses polite offers of apples and gold Skirnir turns very nasty and declaims a long curse: Gerd will live in misery among the giants who rape her and feed her filth. Abruptly, Gerd realises she was in love with Frey all along!

29. “Rage and longing, | fetters and wrath,
Tears and torment are thine;
Where thou sittest down | my doom is on thee
Of heavy heart and double dole.

30. “In the giants’ home | shall vile things harm thee
Each day with evil deeds;
Grief shalt thou get | instead of gladness,
And sorrow to suffer with tears.

Hárbarðsljóð (60 stanzas) – Thor, returning from another giant-killing expedition to the east, comes to a sound and shouts across at the ferryman to bring his boat. The ferryman refuses and they hurl insults at each other, more precisely asking each other what they’ve achieved and belittling each other’s claims. The ferryman is Odin in disguise. It is noticeable that while Thor boasts of fighting giants, Harbard/Odin boasts of sleeping with women.

Harbarth spake:
18. “Lively women we had, | if they wise for us were;
Wise were the women we had, | if they kind for us were;
For ropes of sand | they would seek to wind,
And the bottom to dig | from the deepest dale.
Wiser than all | in counsel I was,
And there I slept | by the sisters seven,
And joy full great | did I get from each.
What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:
19. “Thjazi I felled, | the giant fierce,
And I hurled the eyes | of Alvaldi’s son
To the heavens hot above;
Of my deeds the mightiest | marks are these,
That all men since can see.

Hymiskviða (40 stanzas) – Thor visits the giant Hymir with a view to borrowing his cauldron so Ægir can brew mead for the gods. He persuades Hymir to go fishing but whereas Hymir catches two whales Thor pulls up the world-serpent Jörmungandr. This poem is notable for its unusually high density of kennings or allusive references, poetic riddles.

23. The warder of men, | the worm’s destroyer,
Fixed on his hook | the head of the ox;
There gaped at the bait | the foe of the gods,
The girdler of all | the earth beneath.

24. The venomous serpent | swiftly up
To the boat did Thor, | the bold one, pull;
With his hammer the loathly | hill of the hair
Of the brother of Fenrir | he smote from above.

25. The monsters roared, | and the rocks resounded,
And all the earth | so old was shaken;
Then sank the fish | in the sea forthwith.

Lokasenna (65 stanzas) – Loki gatecrashes a party of the gods and insults each one in turn, with detailed knowledge of their misdeeds and vices. None go uninsulted.

Loki spake to Tyr:
40. “Be silent, Tyr! | for a son with me
Thy wife once chanced to win;
Not a penny, methinks, | wast thou paid for the wrong,
Nor wast righted an inch, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Freyr:
42. “The daughter of Gymir | with gold didst thou buy,
And sold thy sword to boot;
But when Muspell’s sons | through Myrkwood ride,
Thou shalt weaponless wait, poor wretch.”

Loki spake to Byggvir:
46. “Be silent, Byggvir! | thou never couldst set
Their shares of the meat for men;
Hid in straw on the floor, | they found thee not
When heroes were fain to fight.”

Þrymskviða (33 stanzas) – Thor wakes up to find his hammer is missing. Loki flies as a bird to the house of the giant Thrym who confirms he has it and will only return it if he can marry the goddess Freya. Loki concocts a plan to dress Thor as a woman and journey to Thrym’s court. Here they fool hrym right up until the giant foolishyl returns his hammer to Thor whereupon the god brains him and all his followers. Composed around 900, short and punchy, with no gaps or interpolations, it has been called one of the best ballads in the world.

18. Then bound they on Thor | the bridal veil,
And next the mighty | Brisings’ necklace.

19. Keys around him | let they rattle,
And down to his knees | hung woman’s dress;
With gems full broad | upon his breast,
And a pretty cap | to crown his head.

20. Then Loki spake, | the son of Laufey:
“As thy maid-servant thither | I go with thee;
We two shall haste | to the giants’ home.”

Völundarkviða (43 stanzas) – As Andy Orchard points out, this poem is in the wrong place. It’s a poem about the legendary crippled blacksmith, Völund, his trials and revenge on King Nithuth for hamstringing him (Völund kills the king’s young sons, presents their skulls adorned in silver as drinking cups and their eyes as gems to the queen, and seduces and impregnates the king’s daughter Bothvild). It should be in part two, the section on mortal heroes. That’s where Henry Adams Bellows moves it to.

37. “Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair | from their eyes I fashioned,
To Nithuth’s wife | so wise I gave them.

38. “And from the teeth | of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child | does Bothvild go,
The only daughter | ye two had ever.”

Alvíssmál (35 stanzas) – Thor keeps the dwarf, Alvis, who has come to collect Thor’s daughter in marriage, in conversation with a series of questions about the correct names of parts of the universe (sky, sea, stars etc) until day breaks and the dwarf is turned to stone by sunlight.

Thor spake:
29. “Answer me, Alvis! | thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the night, | the daughter of Nor,
In each and every world?”

Alvis spake:
30. “‘Night’ men call it, | ‘Darkness’ gods name it,
‘The Hood’ the holy ones high;
The giants ‘The Lightless,’ | the elves ‘Sleep’s joy”
The dwarfs ‘The Weaver of Dreams.”‘

Only ten poems, but reading them all is to go on a long journey across time and space, from the creation of the universe to the end of the world, via a whole series of mini-dramas and ballads laced with heartlessness, humour and horror. These poems and their harsh unforgiving worldview are addictive.

The Poetic Edda

1. SUBJECTIVE – The difficulty of medieval Icelandic literature

This is extremely scholarly stuff. Although they say you should just dive in and start reading the poems as poems, this is in reality impossible. You have to know the background facts about the poems (as I summarise them below) – you have to be a bit prepared for the non-rhyming, alliterative form of the poems – and then the poems themselves are generally obscure, sometimes sinking to complete unintelligibility if it weren’t for the extensive notes. Both the new penguin edition (The Elder Edda translated by Andy Orchard, 2011) which I started off reading – and the online version of the Poetic Edda translated by Henry Adams Bellows (1936) which I ended up consulting – pepper the poems with notes on every stanza, every line, every name. And then you discover that the scholars themselves are in confusion about multiple aspects of the poems. They don’t know who many of the characters referred to are, entire lines are missing from the manuscript so editors guess what should be there, guess at the meaning of obscure words, cut and move around lines and sometimes entire stanzas to fit theories which are still contested. Some editors make these decisions; some editors make others. So different editions vary a lot the order of words, lines, stanzas and even the poems they include.

In other words, at every level – from the titles, the names of characters, the order of stanzas, even the very existence of stanzas and lines, to the meaning of individual words and phrases – there is obscurity piled on obscurity. And that’s before you arrive at the “final” ie largely invented-by-editors, version of the poems – to discover that the poems themselves take delight in a clipped, allusive style which only deepens the obscurity. Almost all the poems are in tight, short, four-line stanzas, structured by alliteration, not rhyme (as in the Anglo-Saxon poetry from the same time) which, when translated, sound like  this (Bellows translation):

Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings)

Alvis spake:
1. “Now shall the bride | my benches adorn,
And homeward haste forthwith;
Eager for wedlock | to all shall I seem,
Nor at home shall they rob me of rest.”

Thor spake:
2. “What, pray, art thou? | Why so pale round the nose?
By the dead hast thou lain of late?
To a giant like | dost thou look, methinks;
Thou wast not born for the bride.”

To understand this, you have to look in the notes to discover that, Alvis is a dwarf; apparently (ie the editor is guessing as much as we are) he has been promised a bride among the goddesses (by whom? why? – nobody knows), specifically (editors assume, from the context) Thor’s daughter, Thrudr – and has arrived to collect her. Thor is unhappy about this and spends eight stanzas contesting Alvis’s right, before settling in to a regular (and – quel relief! – easy-to-understand) series of questions and answers: if the dwarf can answer them, he will win his bride.

This pattern of Thor’s question and Alvis’s response goes on for 34 stanzas and is a rare sequence where the reader perfectly understands what is going on, until abruptly:

Thor spake:
35 “In a single breast | I never have seen
More wealth of wisdom old;
But with treacherous wiles | must I now betray thee:
The day has caught thee, dwarf!
(Now the sun shines here in the hall.)”

Which I didn’t understand at all until I read in the notes that dwarves (like giants) mustn’t be exposed to sunlight; that they, in fact, turn to stone in sunlight. And so Thor (usually portrayed as pretty thick here and in the Prose Edda) has outwitted the dwarf by making him answer so many riddles that the sun has come up and killed him.

This extract captures a) the obscurity of the poems b) the necessity for a lot of explanation and notes c) their laconic and allusive style, hard to follow even once you do know the story, and d) the harsh Northern worldview: it is cold; solemn promises are broken; dwarfs and giants are mocked and killed; children are killed and cooked and served to their parents; warriors slaughter each other in battle; Odin seduces or rapes young women; Thor kills everyone; an enormous amount of time is spent explaining the genealogy of characters who appear for one line never to be seen again…

This Edwardian illustration of the scene by WG Collingwood, in my opinion ludicrously humanises and sanitises this poem, converting it a) visually into the cartoon world of Noggin the Nog b) introducing a note of late Victorian/Edwardian chivalry (the stricken maiden clutching her father’s waist) which is totally absent from the text of the poem (the daughter doesn’t appear or speak) and from the worldview of the poems as a whole (which is harsh and brutal, with no chivalry or romance or honour: it is a kill-and-be-killed world).

Thor protecting his daughter Thrudr, from the dwarf Alvis (Image: W.G. Collingwood. 1908/public domain)

Thor protecting his daughter Thrudr, from the dwarf Alvis (Image: W.G. Collingwood. 1908/public domain)

2. OBJECTIVE – Background

Almost everything we know about Norse mythology and legend comes from two medieval manuscripts, the Poetic Edda and the The Prose Edda. I reviewed the Prose Edda a few weeks ago. It’s a handbook for Icelandic poets, explaining to the would-be poet the traditional poetic forms and – crucially for us – giving brisk summaries of the key Norse myths and legends which the young poet needs to know. It’s ascribed to the Icelandic chieftain and lawmaker Snorri Sturluson. Throughout his prose text he quotes from older poems as examples of style or to illustrate points from the stories. Therefore, for centuries scholars speculated that there must exist a body of older poems which Snorri so regularly refers to.

So imagine the delight of scholars when, in 1643, an Icelandic bishop, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, revealed that he had discovered just such a manuscript of ancient Icelandic poems in his library. He sent it as a present to the king of Norway, and as a result it is now known as the Codex Regius.

Modern scholars have established that the manuscript was written in the 13th century, but nothing is known of its author. The bishop fancifully ascribed it to Sæmundr the Learned, a larger-than-life 12th century Icelandic priest – partly to counterbalance Snorri’s authorship of the Prose Edda. This is rejected by modern scholars but it has led to the situation where each of the books can be known by any of three titles:

The Prose Edda / Snorri’s Edda / the Younger Edda

The Poetic Edda / Sæmundr’s Edda / the Elder Edda.

Allitrative

The Eddic poems are composed in alliterative verse where the aim is to get alliterative consonants to fall on the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, and one of the two stressed syllables in the second half. Thus the Alvíssmál quoted above, begins:

Bekki breiða,
nú skal brúðr með mér
heim í sinni snúask,
hratat of mægi
mun hverjum þykkja,
heima skal-at hvílð nema.”

(Source: The New Northvegr Center)

Andy Orchard in the 2011 Penguin translation gives this as:

“Now must a bride spread the benches for me,
and be taken home in a trice;
it’ll seem a rushed match to everyone here:
but at home no one will rob us of rest.”

The language of the poems is usually clear and unadorned ie there is little or no metaphor or simile, little imagery of any kind. This absence of colour is probably the single factor which makes them seem to bare and archaic and brutal. It contrasts with the other main Norse tradition, of skaldic poetry, composed by named poets (or skalds) who often write about their feelings, and do so in verse packed with clever riddles and allusions.

Oral tradition and Timescale

Like most early poetry the Eddic poems were passed orally from poet to poet for centuries. None of the poems are attributed to a named author though some of them show strong individual characteristics and are likely to have been the work of individual poets. Scholars sometimes speculate on hypothetical authors but there is – typically – no agreement. Andy Orchard’s notes confidently point out one poem as being the oldest in the collection, maybe from the 800s, others as probably being written about the time the Codex was written down ie the 1200s.  What strikes the casual reader is the tremendously long timescale this implies: that poets were working in the same style with the same stories for four or five hundred years!

In fact, the single most striking thing for me about the entire Edda is the fact that a key player in the sequence of poems at the end (the ones about the legendary hero Sigurd which take up a third of the text) is Atli (who marries and then is murdered by the ill-fated Gudrun), and that all scholars agree this refers to Attila the Hun! who died in 453! That his name is still being invoked in poems being composed and written down in the 1200s, 800 years after is death, says something very deep about the culture of the Dark Ages, about the way legends spread right across Europe (Attila’s campaigns took him from Constantinople to Rome – his legend is being written about in Iceland!), and about Time in the Dark Ages – these stories endured for nearly a thousand years, providing fictional types and figures to shape the imaginations of scores of generations.

By reading it now, in 2013, I feel I am tapping into something very deep, very archaic, into dark and brutal truths about our culture and our history…

Translations

There is a range of translations into English to explore:

The Poems

1, The mythological poems

The Codex Regius is divided into two parts: part one contains the eleven mythological (ie concerned with gods) poems. Mythological Poems in Codex Regius:

  1. Völuspá (Wise-woman’s prophecy, The Prophecy of the Seeress, The Seeress’s Prophecy)
  2. Hávamál (The Ballad of the High One, The Sayings of Hár, Sayings of the High One)
  3. Vafþrúðnismál (The Ballad of Vafthrúdnir, The Lay of Vafthrúdnir, Vafthrúdnir’s Sayings)
  4. Grímnismál (The Ballad of Grímnir, The Lay of Grímnir, Grímnir’s Sayings)
  5. Skírnismál (The Ballad of Skírnir, The Lay of Skírnir, Skírnir’s Journey
  6. Hárbarðsljóð (The Poem of Hárbard, The Lay of Hárbard, Hárbard’s Song
  7. Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir, Hymir’s Poem)
  8. Lokasenna (Loki’s Wrangling, The Flyting of Loki, Loki’s Quarrel)
  9. Þrymskviða (The Lay of Thrym, Thrym’s Poem)
  10. Völundarkviða (The Lay of Völund)
  11. Alvíssmál (The Ballad of Alvís, The Lay of Alvís, All-Wise’s Sayings

Part two is a collection of heroic lays about mortal heroes. These consist of three layers:

  • the story of Helgi Hundingsbani
  • the story of the Nibelungs
  • the story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin. As far as historicity can be ascertained, Attila, Jörmunrekkr and Brynhildr actually existed.

  1. Helgakviða Hundingsbana I or Völsungakviða (The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani
  2. Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard, The Lay of Helgi Hjörvardsson, The Poem of Helgi Hjörvardsson)
  3. Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or Völsungakviða in forna (The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer, A Second Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani)

The Niflung Cycle

  1. Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Of Sinfjötli’s Death, Sinfjötli’s Death, The Death of Sinfjötli) (A short prose text)
  2. Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy, The Prophecy of Grípir)
  3. Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin, The Lay of Regin)
  4. Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir, The Lay of Fáfnir)
  5. Sigrdrífumál (The Ballad of The Victory-Bringer, The Lay of Sigrdrífa)
  6. Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Sigurd Lay, Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd)
  7. Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún)
  8. Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd, A Short Poem about Sigurd)
  9. Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride, Brynhild’s Ride to Hel, Brynhild’s Ride to Hell)
  10. Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs, The Fall of the Niflungs, The Death of the Niflungs)
  11. Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún or Guðrúnarkviða hin forna The Old Lay of Gudrún)
  12. Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún)
  13. Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún, The Plaint of Oddrún, Oddrún’s Lament)
  14. Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli). The full manuscript title is Atlakviða hin grœnlenzka, that is, The Greenland Lay of Atli, but editors and translators generally omit the Greenland reference as a probable error from confusion with the following poem.
  15. Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli, The Greenlandish Lay of Atli, The Greenlandic Poem of Atli)

The Jörmunrekkr Lays

  1. Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting, Gudrún’s Lament, The Whetting of Gudrún.)
  2. Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir, The Lay of Hamdir)
Heithrun, the she-goat who lives on the twigs of the tree Lærath (presumably Yggdrasil), and daily gives mead for the heroes in Valhall

Heithrun, the she-goat who lives on the twigs of the tree Lærath (presumably Yggdrasil), and daily gives mead for the heroes in Valhalla

Other “eddaic” poems

Because “eddaic” poems are so distinctive in style, it is easy to identify eddaic poems which occur in other collections and manuscripts. A selection of these is often included in editions of the Poetic Edda. Which ones depends on the editor. Those not in Codex Regius are sometimes called Eddica minora from their appearance in an edition with that title edited by Andreas Heusler and Wilhelm Ranisch in 1903.

For example Andy Orchard’s edition includes the following non-Codex Regius poems:

  • Baldrs draumar (Baldr’s Dreams)
  • Gróttasöngr (The Mill’s Song, The Song of Grotti)
  • Rígsþula (The Song of Ríg, The Lay of Ríg, The List of Ríg)
  • Hyndluljóð (The Poem of Hyndla, The Lay of Hyndla, The Song of Hyndla)

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (13th century)

Most of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes from two sources, the ‘Prose Edda’ and the ‘Poetic Edda’, both compiled from older texts during the 12th century, in Iceland. It is striking that nobody really knows what ‘edda’ means. Wikipedia explains the main theories of the meaning of ‘edda’. This uncertainty about the very name of the central sources of this culture epitomises the hundreds of other ambiguities and uncertainties one comes across in Norse mythology. There is so little material and what there is is often impenetrably obscure or confusingly ambiguous.

The ‘Prose Edda’ is traditionally associated with the real-life Icelandic scholar and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). He is explicitly stated as having written the fourth section and is, by extension, often credited with the entire compilation so that it is sometimes referred to as ‘Snorri’s Edda’.

The ‘Prose Edda’ is a textbook or training manual for trainee Icelandic poets. It sets out to explain the key tenets of Norse mythology; to tell the key legends and myths; then it patiently lists all the ways a poet should refer to all the key protagonists of the culture, not just the gods and heroes but the earth, the sea, the sky etc; it explains key poetic techniques such as kennings and heiti; and it concludes with a long section of practical criticism, showing the metre and diction of Norse poetry in practice.

All this in a surprisingly short space. The recent Penguin translation by Jesse Bycock (2005), including a handy introduction, family trees, a useful glossary and rather thin notes, runs to just 180 pages, with the core of the text, the Gylfaginning a mere 70 pages long.

The ‘Prose Edda’ is made of four parts. The general assumption is these were once separate texts which were stitched together in the 1200s, hence Snorri’s credit as compiler.

1. The Prologue A short pseudo-historical account of the origin of Norse gods as purely human beings. Strikingly this pictures them as migrants from Asia, specifically from the legendary city of Troy, who wander north and west into Europe and do heroic deeds. Long genealogies then connect these emigrants with the later royal houses of Denmark and Sweden. Scholarly opinion is that this is a pretty clumsy late addition designed to attach the myths and stories to the new and highly prestigious classical knowledge and stories which were only recently arriving in Iceland.

2. Gylfaginning These 70 pages form the core of the book and the single most comprehensive source for our knowledge of the Norse gods. Like so much to do with Norse legend and literature it is odd. The word means “the tricking of Gylfi” (the 1879 translation calls it “the fooling of Gylfe”): King Gylfi travels to Asgard where he is introduced to three figures, the High, the Just-as-High and the Third (all avatars of Odin) who answer Gylfi’s questions about the origins of the world and the nature of things. This dialogue form turns out to be a quick and practical way to convey a lot of information. (Who is the highest of the gods? How did things begin? Where do people come from? What is the holy place of the gods?”). It’s notable that this prose account extensively quotes old poetry, including poems collected in the Poetic Edda, as if the poems are proof of the stories. Rather like a New Testament story will go “As it is said in…” and quote a text from the Old Testament, as if this textual reference is proof; here the text tells a legend about Thor or Odin and then says, “as is said in the ‘Lay of Grimnir’ or ‘The Sibyl’s Prophecy’, or whoever. Appendix 3 usefully lists the poems quoted in the text which are in the Poetic Edda.

And this explains why the Prose Edda has a ‘secondary’ feel about it; hence the Poetic Edda is sometimes referred to as the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda as the Younger Edda.

3. Skáldskaparmál (Old Icelandic for “the language of poetry”) is a dialogue between kenning, heiti, , a god associated with the sea, and Bragi, the god of poetry, in two parts 1. Ægir naively asks about mythology allowing Bragi to tell him facts and stories about the gods. 2. Bragi explains the structure and purpose and diction of Norse poetry, explaining among other things the nature of kennings. These are poetic metaphors which always take the form of a noun and a possessive noun eg icicle of blood = sword, horse of the sea = ship, moon of the forehead = eye.

I have come across a rather wonderful online Lexicon of Kennings which continues the spirit of the Prose Edda in being practical and functional.

(It is notable that the 1879 translation just goes for it and divides Skáldskaparmál into two distinct sections, Brage’s Talk, which essentially continues the storytelling of Gylfaginning, and The Poetical Diction.)

4. Háttatal (Old Icelandic “list of verse-forms”). This is the one part which was definitely composed by the Icelandic poet, politician and historian Snorri Sturluson. It uses Snorri’s own compositions to demonstrate the types of verse forms used in Old Norse poetry.

“Háttatal is an ambitious, somewhat pedantic work, whose 102 stanzas demonstrate often small differences in poetic metre and obscure usages of poetic devices. Prose commentary offering technical explanations is interspersed among the verse of this long poem. The poem is a treasure for  those with a knowledge of Old Icelandic and interested in the intricacies of Norse poetry. Because of the technical and obscure nature of Háttatal, it is not included in this nor in most translations.”

Quite ironic that the only section of this classic text which we know for a certainty to have been written by the famous Snorri, is routinely excluded from all translations. I can’t find an English translation of it online. There is a beautifully thorough scholarly edition of Háttatal in Icelandic from the Viking Society.

Title page of an 18th century manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology (Wikimedia Commons)

Title page of an 18th century manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology (Wikimedia Commons)

Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green (1960)

First of all, what a fabulous name! Where does the Lancelyn come from? His name is redolent of all the Puffin paperbacks, about Troy and King Arthur especially, which I read as a child, curled up in a snug corner and transported to faraway lands.

Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87) was an Oxford scholar, a younger member of the Inklings group of Oxford English scholars which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He is well-known for his series of books for children telling the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the myths of ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt and, as here, of the Norsemen.

To an extent I wouldn’t have appreciated as a child, he uses the same limited, fragmented, scholarly sources as everyone else (in the preface he credits the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda and the Volsunga Saga) and cheerfully admits the challenge of making one coherent narrative from them:

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us. (Author’s Note)

He does a great job, a really great job, of splicing all the scattered material into one coherent and thrilling narrative. One can take a diachronic or a synchronic approach to myths ie narrate the Creation story and how the pantheon grew from its primal origins; or accept the mythic landscape and tell the stories which occur within it. RLG combines the two: swiftly retelling the Norse creation myth before moving on to tell the main stories, but skilfully weaving in asides about the origins or relevant features of the supernatural protagonists of each adventure to fill out their personalities and divine attributes. Thus:

Chapter 1 – Yggdrasill the World Tree The creation story, Ymir the frost giant, Yggdrassil the Worldtree, Audumhil the World Cow, Odin the AllFather, Asgard the abode of the gods, Gladsheim the gods’ palace, Valhalla Odin’s hall of heroes (the Einheriar) and the Valkyries, Midgard the earth of humans, Bifrost bridge from Asgard to Midgard. — Heimdall the bright roams through Midgard disguised as Rig the Walker, breeding the three human classes of thrall, craftsman and lord.

Chapter 2 – Odin in search of Wisdom Realising he needs wisdom and knowledge to prepare for the coming war with the giants, Odin roams the universe. He gives one eye to Mimir to be allowed to drink from the well of Wisdom at the root of the WorldTree. He hangs himself on Yggdrasil for nine days in order to understand death. Gullveig the beautiful giantess provokes war with the Vanir, the gods of the air, until peace is made with their leader, Niord, lord of Vanaheim, who settles in Asgard and fathers the fertility gods, Frey and Freya. Mimir and Honir, Odin’s brother, go to live among the Vanir as hostages. Mimir is beheaded. Odin keeps his living head by him to speak wisdom. — The long story of Kvasir the wise, murdered and his blood turned into kvas, the Mead of Inspiration, by dwarves, which is then stolen by the giant Suttung. Odin in disguise tricks the giant Baugi into helping him enter the dungeon where the Mead is guarded by the beautiful giantess Gunnlod whom Odin seduces, swallowing all the Mead and turning into an eagle to fly with it back to Asgard.

Black and white illustration of dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Dwarves killing Kvasir and draining his blood to make the Mead of Inspiration (Image: Franz Stassen, 1920. Public domain)

Chapter 3 – The apples of Iduna The arrival at Asgard of the minstrel and harpist Bragi, son of Odin and Gunnlod who obviously became very familiar in the cave of Kvasi (see above). Accompanied by beautiful Iduna who keeps the gods supplied with the golden apples of eternal youth. Wandering through the world Odin and Honir encounter Loki, part giant and all trickster. Carried off by the Storm Giant Thiassi Loki promises to deliver him Iduna, who he leads into a wood where Thiassi, as an eagle captures her and carries off to his castle in Thrymheim, Kingdom of the Winds. Loki promises the Aesir to rescue her and flies to Thiassi’s castle as a falcon and carries Iduna back in the shape of a nut. Thiassi as an eagle, chasing, is burned by the fire at the threshold of Asgard. His daughter Skadi demands vengeance and is married to an Aesir she chooses by his feet from behind a curtain. It is Niord of the Vanir, and of their union are born Frey, Lord of peace and fruitfulness, and Freya, Lady of Love and Beauty.

Painting of “Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

“Idun and the Apples” by James Doyle Penrose (1890. Public domain)

Chapter 4 – Loki and the Giants From the start Loki’s ambiguous status in Asgard, Odin has made blood brothers with him but Loki is quite prepared to betray the Aesir if it suits him. Along with Odin and Honir he helps the peasant save his son Rogner from the giant Skrymsir who has vowed to eat him, by hiding him in an ear of corn, a swan’s feathers, a flatfish roe. — A man appears who promises to build a wall which will keep out the Rime Giants and Hill Giants in three years. He demands Freya and the moon and the Sun. Loki advises they contract to give him Freya if he can do it in one year since that’s obviously impossible. The gods agree but the man proceeds to almost build it with help from his supernatural horse, Svadilfari. Loki transforms into a beautiful white mare and steals Svadilfari away. The man turns into a monstrous giant who threatens Asgard until Odin casts down the sheild Svarin which was hiding the sun which turns the giant to stone. Loki returns some months later with Svadilfari and a foal, the eight-legged superhorse Sleipnir who will become Odin’s magic steed.

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Loki as a mare distracting the stallion Svadilfari (Image: Dorothy Hardy, 1909. Public domain)

Chapter 5 Loki makes Mischief Loki copulates with the giantess Angurboda three monsters: Odin sends Hela down to the underworld of Nifelheim, protected by the bloody dog Garm; and he flings the monster serpent Jormungand out into the sea where he grows until he stretched right round the world and bit his own tail; the giant wolf Fenris grows larger, the gods try to bind him in two chains which break; then Frey commissions a magic chain from the Black Dwarfs of Svartalfheim, Gleipnir and the gods trick Fenris into trying it on, but only if one of them places his hand in the wolf’s mouth. The war god Tyr does so, Fenris is bound until Ragnarok, and Tyr loses his hand. — Secretly angered, Loki cuts off the hair of beautiful Sif, wife to Thor, who goes berserk. As recompense Loki commissions Dvalin, chief of the Black Dwarfs, to make the spear Gungnir for Odin, the ship Skidbladnir for Frey, and new golden hair for Sif. But rivalry breaks out among the dwarfs and Loki bets his head that another dwarf, Sindri can’t do better. Sindri proceeds to make Gullinbursti, a golden boar, for Frey, Draupnir the magic ring to Odin, and Mjolnir the hammer to Thor. a) Loki, as a gadfly, distracts Brok while he’s pumping the bellows, so Mjolnir’s handle is a trifle short; b) the gods deem Sindri’s gifts best and prepare for Loki to be beheaded until Loki says Brok can have his head – but not his neck! Angered, the dwarf sows Loki’s lips shut.

'Loki loses his bet' by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

‘Loki loses his bet’ by Lorenz Frølich (1885. Public domain)

Chapter 6 Freya the Bride  Freya is happily married to Odur and lives in Folkvanger. She goes walking in Midgard and sees the Brisingamen, the Brising necklace, being forged by Black Dwarfs. She is bewitched; they will only give it if she spends one night with each four of them; and she does. Shamefully she returns to Asgard and hides the necklace. but Loki steals it form around her neck and shows it to Odur who wanders off distraught. Freya goes searching for him through Midgard dropping golden tears of sorrow. — Frey sits in Odin’s chair Hlidskjalf and sees a beautiful giantess, Gerda; he sends his companion Skirnir to woo her (which involves threatening her with the sword of sharpness). She says yes. Marriage feast in the wood Barri, where Freya reappears reconciled to Odur.— In the night someone steals Thor’s hammer. Loki flies to Thrymheim for it has been stolen by Thrym the Giant of Noise and buried 8 miles deep in the earth unless he can marry Freya. Thor is dressed as a woman and accompanied by Loki goes to Thrymheim where he plays the part until the hammer is brought out whereupon he kills Thrym, his sister and all their kin.

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Frey riding the golden boar Gullinbursti, Freya driving her chariot pulled by cats (Image: Donn Crane. Public domain)

Chapter 7 – Thor’s visit to Utgard The giants sue for peace and invite Thor to Utgard, in the heart of Jotunheim, to stay with Utgardhaloki. En route they sleep in a vast hall which turns out to be Skrymir’s gloves. As he sleeps Thor three times tries to kill him with Mjolnar, each time the giant complains it tickles. Arriving at the giant’s castle they are challenged to an eating contest, a running contest, then Thor is invited to drink from a horn, to lift a cat off the ground then wrestle with an old lady. As the gods leave Utgardhaloki reveals he was Skrymir and Thor’s three hammer blows knocked valleys in a mountain range. The foot race was against Thought. The eating contest was against Fire. The other end of the drinking horn was in the Ocean and Thor drank a lot of it, creating the first tides. The cat he lifted off the floor was the world snake Jormungand, and the old lady was Age.

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

The Giant Skrymir and Thor (Image: Louis Huard/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 8 – Odin goes wandering The tale of the brothers Agnar and Gerrad, how they stay with Odin and Frigga pretending to be kindly humans; how they sail back to their kingdom but Gerrad pushes Agnar and his boat out to sea, inherits the kingdom, but Agnar returns to be a poor servant in his brother’s court; and how upon visiting Odin in disguise is ill-treated and tied between two fires for 8 days, until he sings a song about the creation of the heavens and Gerrad in his hurry to release him trips over his own sword and impales himself. — Odin wins a knowledge competition with the giant Valfthrudnir. — Odin challenges the giant Rungnir to a horserace between Sleipnir and Golden Mane. Odin wins and invited Rungnir into Asgard where he gets drunk and insults everyone. Thor challenges him to a fight at Giottunagard. Rungnir’s hone smashes into Thor’s hammer in midair. The hone is shattered scattering all the flint we find in the earth. Mjolnir kills the giant, but a) a fragment of flint enters Thor’s head b) the giant’s leg pins Thor to the ground until his three year old son comes to free him. The sorceress Groa recites spells to loosen the fragment and Thor tells her how much the gods love her husband Aurvandill.

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad's castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Odin tied between fires in King Gerrad’s castle (Image: Emil Doepler. Public domain)

Chapter 9 – Geirrodur the Troll King Loki is trapped by Geirrodur into inviting Thor to his palace without his armour or hammer. En route Thor is entertained by the friendly giantess Grid who gives him a girdle of power and a magic staff. When he sits in a chair in Geirrodur’s castle it rises to crush him against the ceiling but he uses the magic staff and Geirrodur’s two daughters beneath the chair break their backs. As Thor approaches the giant he suddenly seizes a rod of white hot metal from the fire and throws it at Thor who catches it and throws it straight back; it passes through a stone column, through Geirrodur’s body, through the castle wall and outside into the earth. Thor leaves the crippled family and returns to Asgard. — The adventures of Thorkill the traveller who comes to Geirrodur’s kingdom some time later, surviving various hazards and witnessing the carnage of Thor’s visit.

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Gerrod watches Thorkill by Alan Lee

Chapter 10 – The Curse of Andvari’s Ring Wandering through Midgard with Odin and Honir, Loki sees an otter eating a salmon and kills both with one stone. They arrive at the castle of Hreidmarr who recognises his dead son Otr and calls  his brothers Fafnir and Reginn. They keep Odin and Honir hostage while Loki gets a net off Ran the goddess of shipwrecks and captures the dwarf Andvari in the shape of a pike. Andvari hands over all his gold but curses the ring. Loki returns and stuffs and covers the dead otter with gold. The cursed ring is the last piece, covering the last hair. The gods depart but Hreidmarr’s sons kill him over the gold hoard and then Fafnir takes it off to Gnita Heath and turns into a dragon. Reginn goes to find employment as a smith with Hialprek, King of the Danes.

Here arrives the wife of the dead King Sigmund, once blessed by Odin, as a boy the only one able to pull the magic sword placed by Odin in the tree in his father King Volsung’s hall, but when his fate decreed, met by Odin in battle and his sword shattered. Reginn raises Sigmund’s son Sigurd filling him with tales of glory and especially about the gold hoard on Gnita Heath. The young hero asks Reginn to make a sword: twice he makes inferior ones which Sigurd smashes against the anvil; for the third one he asks Queen Hjordis for the fragments of Sigmund’s sword and forges the sword of power, Gram. On the advice of a strange old man with a broad brimmed hat and one eye, Sigurd builds trenches where Fafnir comes to drink. Lying in wait he thrusts up into the dragon’s body: there is a death colloquy. Reginn asks Sigurd to burn the dragon’s heart and as he cooks it Sigurd touches it, burns his finger and sucks it, tasting the dragon’s blood. Instantly he understand the conversation of the birds who are warning that Reginn plans to kill him. Without hesitation Sigurd decapitates Reginn.

He hears the birds singing of a maiden in Hindfell, surrounded by fire. He rides his horse through the fire and wakes the maiden from her sleep. It is Brynhild, a Valkyrie who disobeyed Odin and was pricked by a sleeping thorn. She serves him mead. They plight their troths. She encourages him to deeds of prowess so he rides out of the flames to the court of King Guiki. Sigurd wins fame with Guiki’s sons Gunnar and Hogni but their mother witch Queen Grimhild magics his drink to that he forgets Brynhild and falls in love and marries Gudrun. Then one day Gunnar decides to go try his hand at the maiden who lives behind fire, but he can’t ride through, not even when Sigurd lends him his horse, Grani. Only when they exchange shapes, so that it is Sigurd in the shape of Gunnar riding Grani can he cross the flames. Now he wins the surprised Brynhild who marries Gunnar and comes to live at King Guiki’s.

One day at the river Gudrun reveals the deception to Brynhild. Gunnar never rode through the flames. Brynhild is distraught. She confronts Sigurd who knows the truth but has kept silent to honour his blood brotherhood to Gunnar. Distraught Brynhild tells Gunnar that Sigurd lay with her and Gunnar and Hogni commission their thick brother Gutthorn to murder Sigurd in his bed. Brynhild kills herself. they are both burned on a pyre.

The widowed Gudrun is married by King Guiki to King Atli (Attila the Hun). He invited the brothers Gunnar and Hogni but captures and tortures them to reveal the location of Fafnir’s hoard. Atli cuts out Hogni’s heart. He binds Gunnar and throws him into a pit of snakes. Gudrun sends her brother a harp which he plays with his toes to charm the snakes, all except one which bites and kills him. In revenge Gudrun conspires with a thrall to murder Atli in  his bed then burn down his stronghold, killing everyone in it. She throws herself into the sea and the curse of Andvari’s ring is finally quenched. (Source: The Volsunga Saga)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Sigurd/Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir (Arthur Rackham/Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 11 Ægir’s brewing kettle Ægir is the Ocean Giant, husband of Ran whose net Loki used to catch Andvari. Ægir holds feasts on an island in the Kattigut for the souls of drowned sailors, waited on by his nine Wave-Daughters. He invites the Æsir to a feast but only if they can provide a kettle big enough. Tyr says his grandfather the giant Hymir has such a kettle so he and Thor journey to Hymir’s castle. Hymir invites them fishing, and while Hymir catches two whales Thor hooks the serpent of Midgard, Jormungand, until Hymir cuts the line at which Thor smacks him in the head. Back on dry land they feast on the whales. Then Thor must win the kettle by shattering a beaker. His mother tells him the secret; it can only break against Hymir’s thick skull. Having broken the beaker Thor picks up the mighty kettle and wears it like a helmet. — Back at the river Elivagar which divides Midgard from Jotunheim Thor has a long flyting with the one-eyed ferryman. It is, of course, Odin ho ho ho. (Sources: Hymiskviða, the Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda)

Chapter 12 The Death of Baldur In Breidablik on the island of Ida dwelt Baldur the beautiful and his fair wife, Nanna, and his blind, gloomy brother Hodur. He foretells his death. Odin rides on Sleipnir to the river Gioll, the border of Nifelheim with Hel where the dead who don’t die in battle go. The skeleton maid Modgul guarding the bridge lets Odin pass to ride through the Iron Wood to confront the hellhound Garm and turn aside to raise the dead prophetess Volva to predict Baldur’s death. — Arriving back at Asgard Odin finds Frigga has made everything in the universe promise not to harm Baldur; the gods are amusing themselves throwing spears and arrows and axes at the indestructible Baldur. But Loki changes into an old crone and questions Frigga who concedes she didn’t extract the promise from one thing, the mistletoe which grows on an oak east of Asgard. Loki fetches the mistletoe, sharpens and stiffens it using magic and then guides blind Hodur’s hand to kill his beloved brother. — Baldur is set on his longboat Ringhorn and as she bends to kiss him Nanna falls dead. Only a giant can push the flaming boat out to sea and a great cry goes up from heaven and earth (the same cry as greeted the death of Osiris and the agony of Christ). — Hermodur the messenger of the gods rides down to Helheim, past Modgul and Garm to confront Hela and ask for Baldur back. Only if every living thing weeps for him says Hela so Hermodur returns to incite the whole universe to weep over Baldur and it does except for Thokk the wicked giantess. And so Baldur remains in Helheim and Odin knows Thokk is none other than Loki.

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

The Death of Baldur by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816. Public domain)

Chapter 13 Vali the Avenger Odin tasks Hermodur with riding Sleipnir to the far north to bind Rossthiof the wizard in his castle of green ice and force him to foresee who the avenger will be. Rossthiof says Odin must woo Rinda. — So Odin travels across Midgard to the kingdom of King Billing; he gains control of the king’s armies and leads them to victory, but Rinda rejects him. He returns disguised as Rosstheow the goldsmith and offers Rinda a priceless bracelet and rings, but she rejects him. A third time Odin appears as an ardent young lover and Rinda asks him to come to her bower secretly but her dog barks and wakes the whole palace who come running. Odin touches her and makes Rinda mad. Days later he reappears as the crone Vecha and promises King Billing to cure his daughter if left with her for a day and a night. This is what it takes to woo and impregnate her. Some time later a little boy with a bow and arrow walks up Bifrost Bridge to confront Heimdall the watchman. It is Vali. He grows in size even as the gods watch, takes his bow and arrow to the woods where blind Hodur is walking and despite  his magic shield and spear shoots him dead. Vali rejoices. Hodur’s spirit goes down into Hel to meet his dead brother Baldur. (Source: book III of the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus)

Chapter 14 The Punishment of Loki Loki goes and hides at the Frananger falls. Odin sees him from his chair Hlidskjalf.  The gods find a hlaf-finished net and finish it and trawl the river for Loki in the shape of a salmon. As he leaps out of the water Odin clasps him tight which is why salmon’s tails are so slender to this day. They bind him with magic sinews to three enormous rocks in a cave under Midgard and suspend over him a venomous snake which drops agonising poison onto him.

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

The punishment of Loki (Image: Louis Huard / Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 15 – Ragnarok Odin visits the prophetess Haid who foretells Ragnarok. The Fimbal Winter will come covering the earth for 3 years. Depravity and greed will ruin man. The Wolf Skull will swallow the moon and the sun. Fenris Wolf breaks free. Jormungand swims ashore flooding Midgard. The ship Naglfar made of dead men’s fingernails approaches. The sky splits open and the Surtur leads the sons of Muspel over Bifrost bridge which breaks beneath them. Loki is set free and comes with Hymir leading the frost Giants and the hellhound Garm. Surtur kills Frey who gave his sword to Skirnir to win the giantess. Garm and Tyr kill each other. Thor kills Jormungand but staggers 9 paces away and dies from its venom. Loki and Heimdall fight to the death. Odin is swallowed by Fenris who is killed by Odin’s son Vidar. Triumphant Surtur spreads fire over the entire universe which is consumed in flames.

And yet a new world will arise from the flames, pure and clean and beautiful and new gods will govern it wisely and a new race of men will be born, fair and good.

“The sagas of Midgard, whether the heroes be Gunnar or Grettir, or Sigurd himself, all end in tragedy – in the picture of the brave man struggling in vain  against the powers of fate – ‘And how can man die better than facing fearful odds?’ – This was the Norseman’s view of life – and the deeds and fate of the heroes of saga must have been but the earthly counterpart of the deeds of the Gods of Asgard in their struggle against the Giant forces of Nature so apparent to the men of the North, and of the doom, the Ragnarok, which was to overtake them.”

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