By Kenneth E. Hall.
While not presuming a knowledge of Norse mythology, for those viewers already more versed in Norse myth the series offers a fresh approach to the corpus surrounding the apocalyptic event known as Ragnarok, employing a mix of magical realist and more traditionally fantastic techniques to unfold its narrative.”
The Norwegian Netflix series Ragnarok (2020- ) presents aspects of Norse mythology in a cleverly designed manner. Set in the present day in the fictional small Norwegian town of Edda (thus, bearing the name of saga material such as The Poetic Edda), the series does not presume a knowledge of Norse mythology beyond the popular level of viewers of Marvel Studios products. For those viewers already more versed in Norse myth, the series offers a fresh approach to the corpus surrounding the apocalyptic event known as Ragnarok, employing a mix of magical realist and more traditionally fantastic techniques to unfold its narrative.
The opening episode of the series presents a small set of characters in the process of relocating to Edda. The three-person family, named Seier (‘victory,’ in Norwegian), consists of a mother and two teenaged sons, Magne (David Stakston) and Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli). As they begin to explore the small, economically depressed town, Magne sees an old man with an eyepatch, accompanied by an old woman. The woman approaches Magne, touches him on the brow, and murmurs a few words. Magne appears to experience a mild electrical shock.
From the outset the series works on two levels of intelligibility to the viewer. For those viewers only casually versed in Norse lore, a mysterious event has occurred, but no “magical” explanation is evident. Viewers more familiar with Norse myth may have begun to understand that one of the operating principles of the series will be the dropping of hints, some more obvious than others, about the identity of various inhabitants of the town. The first hint of the slyness of the script is that the old man wears an eyepatch, his one-eyed physicality signaling the iconography of Odin, who “. . . sacrificed one of his eyes in Mimir’s Well to gain arcane knowledge” (Larrington 32). The name Magne recalls one of the sons of Thor, Magni (see Larrington 38). The pattern in cases such as Magne’s is a species of reincarnation of an old god, or more precisely an inhabiting of the spirit and the power of the old god, within a modern human. Predictions of future events will also be made, especially by the old woman and by the old man, named Wotan in an obvious reference to Odin. Foresight of this type was more frequent in “Old Norse sources” among women but not exclusively so:
The ability to predict the future through the use of magic but without influencing the outcome is best known from the Old Norse sources. This is the activity of the vǫlur, or ‘sibyls,’ who by using the magic known as seiðr were able to predict the forlǫg, or ‘fate’ for individuals and the árferd, ‘the prospect of the season,’ for the community. (Jochens 307)
Magne begins to notice an increase in his physical strength and in the sharpness of his senses. His nearsightedness gradually disappears. He becomes friends with a fellow student named Isolde (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin), a beautiful young woman to whom he feels strongly drawn. Isolde is an ecological activist who investigates, and authors YouTube videos about, violations of environmental regulations by the largest local business, Jutul Industries, a family-owned concern. This large industrial concern is administered by a family whose members are soon revealed to be immortal giants, headed by Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). The giants appear as normal humans, and although their lack of gigantic size may seem unusual, such giants were not unknown in Norse myth, as Carolyne Larrington observes, differentiating them from enormous figures such as the creation giant Ymir: “. . . other giants are closer to human (or divine) scale; some indeed can change their size depending on circumstances” (Larrington 89).
Isolde suspects that the family concern has been polluting the local water supply, and she soon discovers the source of the pollution on the mountain, using her cell phone camera to record her discovery. Vidar sees her on the mountain when he is on a hunting trip—revealing to the viewer his true nature as he kills a reindeer and eats its heart. Back in Edda, where he had come back alone after accompanying Isolde, Magne sees Isolde’s snowboard crash. His powerful emotions result in a citywide electrical surge. In a fit of temper, he throws an ordinary hammer, which flies for more than a kilometer, landing in the windshield of Vidar’s car.
The grief-stricken Magne begins to test his new abilities without understanding their source. As the series progresses, the relationship within Magne’s family, which consists of his mother and his brother Laurits, is elaborated. Soon the conflict between this family, or at least the two brothers, and the family headed by Vidar and his wife Ran (Synnøve Macody Lund) reaches the foreground. This family of giants (jötunn), to adopt one name for “the race of giants” (Motz, “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach” 79), includes a daughter, Saxa (Theresa Frostad Eggesbø), and a son, Fjör (Herman Tømmeraas), both of whom attend the local high school along with Magne and Laurits. In subsequent episodes the viewer learns that the family is composed of immortal giants who essentially remain constant in appearance, although they change roles: the father becomes the son, the daughter becomes the mother, for example. The family is also shown in brief shots in their true form, as frightening hags in the case of the women, as monstrous male creatures for the father and son. Not only do they maintain an artificial youth, but they also create a facade of normal humanity. Shapeshifting to animal form was associated in the sagas with giants (see Motz, “Giants” 73), so the screenwriters may have taken some liberty here. As in Greek myth, the gods are also associated with, and in some cases may appear as, animals: thus “Odin turns himself into an eagle or a serpent” (Motz, “Giants” 76). In the television series, the sorceress Wenche who had first encountered Magne and who tries to protect him from the attacks of the giants is pursued by Rán, who is armed with a special arrow which can kill her. The sorceress transforms into an eagle but is shot down and killed by Rán.
The old woman Wenche fits into the general category of seeress, but she also possesses powers associated with sorcery. She might best be considered a blend of the Norn and the völur. Like the Greek Fates, the Norn were spinners or weavers, predicting and fixing the fate of living beings (Lionarons 282–88). The völur were more properly seeresses and “are not said to shape the future as do the norns” (Lionarons 293). Wenche can change shapes and can effect (or awaken) physical changes in others, as she does with Magne.
Somewhat later than the revelation of the old woman’s nature is the revelation of the nature of the old man, who is named Wotan and lives in a nursing home. His importance increases materially after Rán kills the old woman. When Magne hesitates to assume the role of warrior against the giants, Wotan removes his powers (not unlike the plot element in the first Marvel Thor film, when Odin removes Thor’s powers to teach him humility). During this time, Magne tries to forge the true Mjölnir, failing comically when he asks a local blacksmith to make him a replica and then to heat it in a normal furnace. When the hammer does not function magically, Magne is told that he must forge it (and thereby regain his powers), with the assistance of his allies and the dwarf (“Dark Elf”) Halvor Lange, an attendant in the nursing home, in the traditional, sacred fire, located in the basement of one of the Jutul buildings. According to Christian Blinkenberg, the hammer of Thor is analogous to the supposedly thunder-producing double-axe, about which the belief was that “when placed in the hands of the gods it was necessary that it should have been made by supernatural beings, fire demons, who cast or forged it and endowed it with supernatural power” (Blinkenberg 26–27). Blinkenberg observes that “Similar legends are told of Thor’s mjölnir, forged by the dwarfs, and Indra’s vajra, made by Tvashtar” (27). In line with the narrative methodology of the series, the sacred fire is not placed in the realm of the dwarves but in a building owned by the giants, a move which heightens the suspense about the forging of the hammer, given the hostility already established between the giant “family” and Magne.
Another important god prominently featured in the series is Loki, presented here as Magne’s brother Laurits. Although he is not specifically named as Loki, unlike Magne, who is explicitly linked to Thor, his identity becomes clear through a series of hints which match the traits of the god (or giant) Loki. Laurits is androgynous, even cross-dressing on one occasion. He is highly intelligent and duplicitous, as well as frequently sarcastic and irreverent. The peak of his irreverence and his slyness is his viciously comic speech on Norway Day, when he rhetorically skewers Rán, headmistress of his high school, disparaging the school itself in the process. In Norse mythological tradition, Loki had behaved even worse in an episode involving the gods, in the Lokasenna, where, as Heather O’Donoghue states in her account of the episode, “. . . all the gods are mocked— but the mockery is not funny” (O’Donoghue 41–42).
Thus, “Loki is notable for pathological anti-social destructiveness” (Hume 298). Carolyne Larrington presents Loki as a liminal character: “Occupying a strange and ambivalent position, Loki has mixed parentage which makes his loyalties uncertain” (Larrington 41). His androgyny is important to the Ragnarok myth, because as Else Mundal notes, he engenders two of the creatures, the Midgard Serpent and Fenrir, the wolf, who will play a large role in the final battle of Ragnarok. Mundal comments of this enigmatic being that “Even though Loki lives among the gods, and sometimes is counted as one of the gods, these characteristics [male-female and human-animal, as she notes] place him unambiguously in the world of the giants” (Mundal 7). Unlike Magne, who receives his powers (or has them awakened, as the sorceress intimates) from a god (Wotan) and his ally, Laurits is awakened to his true nature by the giant leader Vidar in a blood-bonding rite. Here the Laurits of the series differs from the Loki of myth, who “is Óðinn’s blood-brother, and the highest god [Odin] has sworn never to drink ale unless Loki is also offered a drink” (Larrington 41).
The Netflix series adheres to the general outlines of the story of Ragnarok, including the names and roles of the mythical participants, but in some instances, like those noted above, the specifics diverge from or blur the generally accepted mythological content; or, perhaps, the screenwriters make assumptions from the existing (admittedly incomplete and sometimes debatable) evidence. Two instances of divergence concern the family of giants, headed in the series by Vidar and Rán. The name Vidar appears to recall Víðarr, usually considered a god, important (according to one source) in the Ragnarok story as one of the newer gods who will succeed Odin, Thor, and other gods who will perish in that battle. He is either thought to be a god, perhaps one of Odin’s sons, or a giant according to the Skáldskaparmál. The case of Rán is rather different, since the available evidence shows her to be a giant. According to Simek, her role is to be inferred from the use of her name “in the sagas” where “drowning is more or less idiomatically equated with ‘falling into Rán’s hands’” so that, as Simek concludes, “. . . Rán is the ruler over the realm of the dead at the bottom of the sea” and “embodies the sinister side of the sea, at least in the eyes of the late Viking Age Icelandic seafarers” (Simek 260). In the series, Rán is certainly sinister, proving to be a greater threat than Vidar to Magne and his allies, but she does not appear to be an analogue to Hades or, for that matter, to Hel, the Norse goddess ruling the realm of the dead.
If Ragnarok borrows liberally from Norse myth but adapts that mythology to its own contemporary context, the famous trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, is also underpinned by Norse myth while differing from the Netflix series in its setting and in its approach. Magne and Laurits are surprised and confused in their reactions to the influx of supernatural elements in their lives, both bewildered at such intrusions into their everyday reality, while the characters of Tolkien’s work may exhibit surprise at the supernatural, but not bewilderment at its existence. In other words, Frodo Baggins and the other inhabitants of the world of Middle-Earth do not doubt the existence of dragons, magic rings, and wizards like Gandalf, but the teenaged characters in the world of Ragnarok are accustomed to the rational approach of modern science and must be convinced of the existence of sorcery, magic hammers, and giants from Norse myth. Unlike the creators of Ragnarok, Tolkien set his tales in a world filled with magical qualities which is not contemporary to the reader. Nevertheless, the world of Middle-Earth does intersect our contemporary reality: “Middle-earth is not, Tolkien insisted, an imaginary world, but rather our world—with its ancient truths and sorrows—set in a remote past” (Loconte 122) (original emphasis). So Ragnarok and the works of Tolkien dovetail in their emphasis on contemporary problems such as ecological destruction and warfare.
The two sets of work differ in their construction of character perspective. Following the scheme proposed by Todorov, one might place Ragnarok in the category of the fantastic because of the doubt, or “uncertainty,” experienced by its characters (see Todorov 25). The Lord of the Rings might more properly be placed in the realm of the “marvelous” as defined by Todorov: “the mere presence of supernatural events, without implicating the reaction they provoke in the characters” (Todorov 47), but a realm infused with the qualities of reality insisted upon by Tolkien. According to Christine Brooke-Rose, after its opening pages, “. . . LR [The Lord of the Rings] is, or slowly becomes, a very different book, weighed down, not only by mechanisms inherent to the marvellous, but also by the mechanisms of the realistic novel” (Brooke-Rose 233). One must bear in mind, however, that despite the differing reactions of the characters in the two works, both Ragnarok and The Lord of the Rings are grounded in a reality which is contemporary (the series) or much like our own world (the Tolkien novels).
The outward reality of Edda, the town in Ragnarok, in which Jutul Industries has polluted the water and the fragile economy depends upon that industry, obscures the true nature of some of the town’s inhabitants. In this regard the contextual setting of the narrative bears an odd resemblance to a very different narrative with similarly obscured realities: the complex espionage series The Americans (2013-18), set in the 1980s, in which Russian “illegals” or sleeper agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) masquerade as a typical American couple who run a travel agency while they carry out KGB operations often in a brutally ruthless fashion. Their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is not similarly “hidden” and is known to the Jennings as an active FBI agent, but the Jennings are so highly skilled in their disguises that he does not discover their true nature (despite his suspicions at times) until very late in the series. In Ragnarok one might consider the giants (the Jutuls) as the hidden agents, since their true nature is not apparent to the local inhabitants, and, unlike the situation in The Americans, the gods remain generally hidden as well. Only the god characters and the giants become fully aware of the nature of their opponents.
The Americans. Created by Joseph Weisberg. With Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, and Lev Gorn. Amblin Television-Dreamworks Television-FX Network, 2013–2018.
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Cohen, Larry, creator. The Invaders. With Roy Thinnes, Kent Smith, and Michael Rennie. Television series. Quinn Martin-ABC, 1967–1968.
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Hume, Kathryn. “Loki and Odin: Old Gods Repurposed by Neil Gaiman, A. S. Byatt, and Klas Östergren.” Studies in the Novel 51.2 (Summer 2019): 297–310.
Jochens, Jenny. “Old Norse Magic and Gender: Þáttr Þorvalds Ens Víðfǫrla.” Scandinavian Studies 63.3 (Summer 1991): 305–17.
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Lindow, John. “Thor’s ‘Hamarr’.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 93.4 (Oct. 1994): 485–503.
Lionarons, Joyce Tally. “Dísir, Valkyries, Völur, and Norns: The Weise Frauen of the Deutsche Mythologie.” The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous. Ed. Tom Shippey. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. 271–97.
Loconte, Joseph. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914–1918. Nashville: Thomas Nelson/Nelson Books, 2015.
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McKinnell, John. “Encounters with Völur.” Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society: The Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference 2–7 July 2000, University of Sydney. Ed. Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross. Sydney: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney, 2000. 239–50.
Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore 93.1 (1982): 70–84.
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Mundal, Else. “Androgyny as an Image of Chaos in Old Norse Mythology.” Maal Og Minne 1 (1998): 1–9.
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The Poetic Edda. Trans. Carolyne Larrington. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.
Ragnarok. Television series. With David Stakston, Jonas Strand Grayli; Theresa Frostad
Eggesbø; Synnøve Macody Lund; and Gísli Örn Garðarsson. SAM Productions-Netflix, 2020-.
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 For such practices among humans, involving the granting of special prophetic powers, see Maraschi.
 For the Old Norse or Icelandic “mythic landscape” according to Icelander Snorri Sturluson, which includes “Jötunheimar (the Giantlands),” see Larrington 63–65.
 For an extended discussion of the völur, see McKinnell.
 For the myths associated with Thor’s hammer, see, e. g., Lindow; Motz, “The Hammer and the Rod: A Discussion of Þórr’s Weapons”; Davidson.
 “Loki’s mother seems to be a goddess and his father a giant” (Larrington 41). This speculative comment by Larrington lines up with the presentation of Loki in the first Marvel Thor film, in which Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the son of Frigga (Rene Russo) and frost giant King Laufey (Colm Feore) (Branagh).
 For Loki’s duality of gender, see Frankki.
 The following information on Víðarr and Rán comes from the entries in Simek, “Víðarr” (359–60) and “Rán” (260).
 For Hel, see Simek 138.
 For Tolkien and Norse myth, see e.g., DuBois and Mellor; Darvell.
 A rather different circumstance exists in the television series The Invaders (1967-68) (Cohen), in which David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) spends much of the series as the sole witness to the true nature of the shape-changing alien invaders, who use technology to alter their true appearance.
Ken Hall (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1986; MA, University of NC-Chapel Hill, 1978) is professor emeritus of Spanish at ETSU, where he had taught since 1999, and a regular contributor to Film International and Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. His publications include Professionals in Western Film and Fiction (McFarland, 2019), John Woo: The Films (McFarland,  2012), John Woo’s The Killer (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Stonewall Jackson and Religious Faith in Military Command (McFarland, 2005) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Cinema (Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1989).