Ragnarök: Norse Mythology for the Twenty-First Century

Since I started researching Viking culture, I’ve become wary of pop culture rebrands of Norse mythology. This is not because I think the comics and movies and whatnot are bad or that I have any interest in telling people what they’re allowed to like. What bothers me is the way that some modern takes on the mythology latch on to superficial details while oversimplifying or straight-up misrepresenting the core tenets of the cultural and religious system they belong to.

The Marvel version of the Norse gods is definitely not my cup of tea as it sits in the most awkward crevice of Uncanny Valley. The characters get close to the original mythological figures for a while and then do something that just wouldn’t make any sense in the original context. The Marvel Odin, for example, is much too kindly to resemble the morally flexible Machiavellian chieftain of the Vikings, and the Marvel Loki is more concerned with gaining power than mocking it.

There are, of course, modern takes on the mythology that hit all the right notes for me. Mr. Wednesday of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, for example, perfectly balances Odin’s precarious mix of worldly wisdom and ruthless wickedness. And as I have discovered, the Netflix series Ragnarök achieves this sort of balance in its own unique way.

What’s in a Name?

The show is set in the fictional town of Edda (filmed in the real-life town of Odda), undoubtedly named for two of the most comprehensive medieval Icelandic writings on Viking mythology: the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda.

The characters’ names, too, are often drawn from the myths. As I understand, many Old Norse names and variants are still common in Scandinavia and Iceland, so they would not stand out in local populations. And to be honest, the characters’ roles in the show don’t necessarily accord with those of their mythological namesakes, but there are some very significant relationships. The following is based on my knowledge of the myths and a half-assed internet search of modern Scandinavian names.

The most obvious and important reference is the main character Magne, named for Thor’s son Magni. In the myths, Magni and his brother Módi, who are among the few survivors of Ragnarok, inherit Thor’s hammer Mjollnir, implying they will carry on their father’s legacy to become guardians of the new world.

Naturally, there is an Odin figure named Wotan, an elderly man who wears an eyepatch and roams around on a motorized scooter. His wife is Wenche (VEHN-keh), whose name appears to be derived from the German word for “friend.” Wenche, like Odin’s wife Frigg, has the power of foresight, although in this case her words are rarely understood or welcomed.

There is a group of four Jötnar who present themselves as a wealthy human family, although it’s not entirely clear to me how they are actually related. They use the common surname Jutul, and their mansion (which resembles a medieval stave church) is at one point referred to as “Jutulheim,” a clear reference to Jötunheim (“home of the Jötnar”).

A large building with the appearance of a Norse stave church overlooks a small town in the valley.
The Jutuls literally look down on Edda.

Three of the Jutuls are clearly named for mythological figures: Vidar (Odin’s son by Gríd), Ran (a sea goddess), and Saxa (likely chosen as a reference to Jarnsaxa, the mother of Thor’s sons). Even the dog — Trym — appears to be named for the Jötun Thrym, who was killed by Thor at his own “wedding.” Then there’s Fjor, the “son” of the Jutul family. I couldn’t easily identify either a modern version of the name or a clear mythological reference, although it might be short for Fjorgyn, which was the name of Frigg’s father. However, I suspect I’m missing something, as I have trouble believing that his name was just picked out of the ether when even the dog’s name has a clear mythological reference.

Turid is the single mother of Magne and his younger brother, Laurits (the Loki figure in the story — more on him later). Her name means “beautiful” and may have been chosen as a reference human fragility, given Ran’s comments about Turid not being as attractive as she once was. Getting old is for humans.

Modern Themes for Ancient Beings

The most common interpretation of conflict in Norse mythology is that the  gods (the Aesir) represent society and order, while the Jötnar represent chaos and destruction. In most of the myths, the Jötnar’s attempts to steal from or destroy the Aesir are fruitless, while the Aesir succeed in taking what they want from the Jötnar. Even the walls around Asgard were built by a Jötun who demanded a high price for his work. He was thwarted by Loki, however, and the Aesir got their wall while the builder got a one-time introduction to Thor’s hammer. Of course, the Jötnar eventually succeed in taking everything away from the Aesir at Ragnarök.

In the show, the Jötnar remain a destructive force, but this time as captains of industry, operating a factory that employs many of the townspeople. Turid, who left Edda after the tragic death of her husband when her boys were young, moves her family back to Edda to take a job at Jutul Industries. She characterizes Vidar as a good and generous man and is clearly thankful for the job, but the economic disparity between the two families is stunning. The Jutuls live in a grand mansion overlooking the town, while Turid’s family lives in the poorest neighbourhood, their shabby house surrounded by trailers. Based on what we see of the town, it’s clear most of the residents live in modest homes while the Jutuls enjoy considerable luxury. This stark economic divide is tied inextricably with the show’s overarching theme concerning environmental damage caused by industrial activity.

The opening scenes of the first episode show Magne’s family driving towards Edda, the natural surroundings showcased in a montage of majestic mountains, crystal clear waters, and soaring hawks. When they reach the town, however, the first thing they see is billowing smoke from the Jutul’s monstrous factory.  Otherwise, Edda is a pretty village nestled between majestic mountains and kissed by the water’s edge. It’s a bleeding shame to see its beauty marred by this industrial eyesore.

Nonetheless, the townspeople of Edda turn a blind eye to the environmental damage caused by local industrial activity and defend the company on which they are economically dependent. Only Isolde, a student at the local high school, publicly criticizes the company and takes samples of contaminated water and soil as evidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she meets a tragic end.

Magne, Isolde’s only friend at school, doesn’t buy the it-was-just-an-accident spiel. As he investigates her death, he begins to discover his own extraordinary abilities, and both activities bring him to the attention of the Jutuls.

The Jutuls keep a close eye on Magne, which isn’t hard to do considering that Ran is the principal of the high school that he attends with Saxa and Fjor. Additionally, Vidar shows Turid photos of the sledgehammer sticking out of the smashed windshield, its handle marked with the sōwilō rune that Magne’s grandfather made on all his tools. Naturally,  Turid begins keeping a much closer eye on her son. And all the while, the Jutuls continue downplaying the environmental damage caused by their company and deny that they had anything to do with Isolde’s death, knowing full well that both are baldfaced lies.

As the story unfolds, the twin themes of power and environmental stewardship become more closely entwined. Magne grows into his role — Thor’s role — as the protector of Earth and its human inhabitants, and his already tense relationship with Vidar becomes increasingly confrontational. Of course, Magne is largely alone in his efforts to expose both the environmental damage caused by Jutul Industries and the true cause of Isolde’s death. Meanwhile, Vidar wants to eliminate Magne, but his hostilities are constrained by his family’s concerns and his own need to keep up appearances.

Magne_Vidar2
What’s a little dead meat between old enemies?

Despite ferocious pushback from the other residents of Edda, Magne’s heroic efforts to seek truth and justice begin to erode the Jutul’s psychological grip on the town while the family itself begins crumbling from within. When the Jutuls take drastic action to protect their precarious position, Magne is forced to act against them, resulting in a final showdown. In revealing his true nature to Magne, Vidar recounts the events of Ragnarök, when the sun will fall from the sky and the Earth will sink into the sea, when the worlds are destroyed by the Jötnar.

And as she watches from the sidelines, Wenche reminds us that Ragnarök was not the end but the beginning.

Old Trickster, New Tricks

(FYI — we’re diving deep into spoiler waters now.)

You know damned well that I’m dying to talk about Laurits, but that’s really hard to do without discussing some critical plot points, so you might want to watch the show before reading too much further. You should watch the show anyway, but … yeah. Spoilers ahead.

Brother Dearest

Right from the beginning, Laurits is set up as a foil to Magne. As the family drives through town for the first time, Wotan’s scooter stalls right in front of their car. Magne immediately hops out to help, while Laurits rolls his eyes. Turid gently scolds her youngest, saying “Magne is like that.” Additionally, the two boys are in the same high school class, even though Laurits is several years younger. When their homeroom teacher asks them to introduce themselves, Magne seems rather lost for words, but Laurits says that he skipped a few years and that Magne is “good at other things.” Hence, the show immediately establishes that Magne is the brawny helper/guardian type, while his brother is clever but rather self-centred.

The Wicked Wit of the West

Laurits’ sharp tongue gets plenty of use, sometimes for teasing in a playful if obnoxious way, sometimes cutting to the bone.

In the first couple of episodes, Laurits takes a few cheap shots at his brother that not only help develop his character but also provide subtle opportunities to distance the mythology from its gross misappropriation by white supremacists. In the first episode, Laurits shows up while Magne is going through their grandfather’s tools and asks “What’s up with the Nazi symbol?” Magne looks down at the marks carved into the handle of a saw and, unfazed, points out that it’s their grandfather’s signature rune.

That night while they’re cleaning up after dinner, Magne asks his brother to read over a paper he’s written for a class project on individuality and authority. Laurits agrees as long as Magne finishes cleaning up. Laurits doesn’t give him the paper back until the next day, at which point Magne discovers that Laurits actually rewrote it to argue that democracy doesn’t work and that Norway needs a strong leader. Laurits smirks at Magne as their classmate reads the essay.

In a later scene, Laurits takes the gag too far. Magne is describing his dinner with Isolde and her father, noting that they listen to classical music and that Isolde was named after one of Wagner’s operas. Laurits replies that Hitler liked Wagner, too; Magne glares at him and walks away. Laurits drops his gaze, not terribly pleased with himself for making that connection, and the “joke” ends there.

A Mind for Mischief

(Turn back now, all ye who’ve not watched the series. Ye’ve been warned.)

Unfortunately, Laurits’ mischief soon results in serious, irreparable harm, albeit unintentionally, in a tragic event that mirrors certain mythological stories (such as those of Thjazi, Geirröd, and Otter), in which Loki’s foolish or hasty action have dire consequences for others.

In the first episode, Magne accompanies Isolde to the local shop for groceries, where Wenche runs the cash. As the teenagers check out, Wenche rather cryptically states that the mountain is dangerous. “You might be needed, Magne,” she says. The teens brush off the advice and go on about their day; later in the episode, they hike up the mountain together. However, they only get so far before Magne receives an alarming but vague message from Laurits that something has happened to their mother. Unable to reach his brother, Magne hies it for home, where he learns that the “emergency” is their mother’s redecorating spree.

That night, Isolde’s body is recovered after a “paragliding accident.” At school the next morning, the other students ask Magne what happened, but of course he doesn’t know. When someone asks why he left Isolde by herself, a grim-faced Laurits gently urges his brother forward. It’s clear he feels guilty about the prank call that caused Magne to rush home and likely wants to keep his role in the incident under wraps. His action is simultaneously compassionate and self-serving.

A Keen Eye for Detail …

Like Loki, Laurits’ powers of observation may make him a help or a hindrance, depending on his mood. In the first episode, his mother asks him to pick up some dessert, and he comes home with three boxes of ice cream. While the boys are cleaning up, Magne says it was too much and that their mother can’t handle it, but Laurits says she deserves a treat. (He’s such a nice boy.)

However, in the sixth episode, Laurits sticks his nose into an argument between his mother and brother after Magne is expelled from school. Turid’s handling of this stressful situation seems unnaturally positive, almost cheerful, indicating that she’s not really coping very well. She says that Magne has to go to a psychiatrist and may spend time in juvenile detention, but they’ll deal with it. (Oh yeah — this is fine.) When she says they may just have to move one more time, Laurits stops drinking from the milk carton long enough to say he won’t move again. Turid angrily plays the “I’m your mother and you’ll do what I say” card, and Laurits ups the ante, accusing her of being irresponsible and demanding that she try to be a good mother. He finishes by pointing out that they’re out of milk. (The little shit.) Turid goes on a junk-food bender, gorging herself mindlessly in front of the television, and when Magne comes home, Laurits casually remarks “Well done, bro. She’s down again.” Never mind that it was Laurits’ cruel (although not entirely unjustified) rebuke that sent her over the edge.

… And Fashion

Gender bending is another key feature of Laurits’ character, although unlike Loki, this seems to earn him admiration rather than scorn. At the high school dance in episode two, Laurits makes his grand entrance sporting heavy black eyeliner and a retro fringed shirt that belonged to his mother in her younger days. It-girl Saxa voices her approval.

Going with the Flow

Of course, Laurits’ fluidity is more than gender deep, as there are indications that he’s not exactly your standard-issue heterosexual male. Early on in the dance scene, Laurits and Magne talk briefly while Fjor and Gry (a female classmate Magne has been admiring) are chatting across the room. Laurits jabs his brother by saying this means Gry is taken. Magne (who, like Thor, has the odd moment of lightning wit) strikes back by saying this means that Fjor is also taken. At first this looks like mere retaliation, but later when Fjor is watching Gry dance, Laurits asks him if he’s “only into dull blond girls.” Fjor responds “To each their own fantasies.” Laurits smiles enigmatically and replies “I’ve got the wildest fantasies,” then gazes intently at Fjor, leaving his comment to hang suggestively in the air between them.

As the evening warms up, principal Ran takes off for a private party with a couple of senior boys while Laurits takes over DJ duty. Soon, Fjor gets up on stage and suggests something new. They hook up his smartphone to the sound system, and as the music begins, Fjor pats Laurits on the back and hops down, leaving Laurits to gaze dreamily after him. As everyone looks on, Fjor and Saxa begin a dance that seems more like a ritual battle with sexual undertones. Fascinated by the spectacle, Laurits briefly circles them until he finds a point to engage in this ritual, resulting in an orgiastic dance triangle. This move signals both Laurits’ bisexual/pansexual leanings as well as his social affinity with the Jötnar more generally.

(Remember that, by birth, Loki was a Jötun, although he socialized with both the Aesir and other Jotnar. Also, Fjor and Saxa are supposed to be brother and sister, so ewwww. I suspect this represents the lawlessness of the Jötnar, as incest was taboo in Viking societies, just as it is in modern Western societies. It also makes me question whether they really are siblings — after all, the rest of their existence is a lie.)

He’ll See Your Hipocrisy and Raise You a Devastating Public Humiliation

(HERE BE SPOILERS. THIS IS YER FINAL WARNING.)

But above all, Laurits’ greatest strength lies in his social manoeuverability. Like his mythological counterpart, he is highly social and yet socially atomic, as his complex nature allows him to ingratiate himself with various social groups without ever really belonging to any of them.

Frankly, when Laurits is in a casual group setting, he often hangs back and engages in minimal interaction. He does play gadfly from time to time, although he rarely bites his friends as hard as he bites his family members. Generally, though, he doesn’t actively seek out attention. He’s just kind of there. For example, when Fjor hosts a boys’ night at the Jutul mansion, Laurits sits alone at the bar, smoking and drinking, while his classmates throw axes at a target. (Yes, in the living room.) When Saxa busts up the party, Laurits snatches a few bottles of beer and slips out unnoticed while Saxa literally kicks everyone else out the door.

At first glance, this invisibility may seem antithetical to Laurits’ character, but in fact it is precisely what makes his other skills so wickedly effective. His seeming neutrality gives him access to critical information that he soaks up for later use. And oh, what use he makes of it.

After the dance, Saxa and Fjor begin spending more time with Laurits as a way to learn more about Magne. Fjor isn’t particularly comfortable with some of Laurits’ more probing questions, but the super siblings dismiss him as a harmless weirdo — he is the little brother of Magne the Awkward, after all. They don’t seem to realize that he’s absorbing at least as much information about them as they are about Magne.

A little later, Laurits is spending time with Edda’s “it” crowd when one of their friends rushes up with juicy gossip about some teenagers who claim they slept with Ran. Of course, the audience knows this rumour is true, but Saxa vehemently denies it. In the meantime, the other students grill Gry about her romantic history (or lack thereof) until she leaves. Laurits asks Saxa “What happened? I thought you two were BFFs,” knowing perfectly well that Saxa shared Gry’s secrets behind her back. Amid all this discord, you know that Laurits smells blood.

In the final episode, as Gry walks out of her oral exam towards the group waiting outside, you can just hear Laurits (off camera) asking who will be giving the Constitution Day speech, a subtle hint that he is quietly cooking up some trouble after observing all the goings-on around town. The conversation immediately changes as Gry approaches. They ask her how she did, and she said she failed. She had told the examiners that her paper on Edda’s success within the Norwegian welfare system was intended ironically, and that the town was in fact being held hostage by a large, polluting corporation. Gry then clearly states that Isolde was right about Jutul Industries, and Saxa shoots back with personal insults. Eventually Saxa leaves and the only student to follows her is, frankly, a bit of a toady. All the while, Laurits is literally and figuratively hanging out at the edge of the group and watching Saxa’s meltdown with tremendous interest.

Two days before Constitution Day, Laurits is getting his hair done by Gry’s mother, a towel over his freshly washed hair, when Ran comes into Bjorg’s shop to purchase some hair lotions. Ran says she is very sorry to hear that Gry failed her exam (which appears to be news to Bjorg) and says it must be because of all the time Gry is spending with Magne, who is clearly unstable. When Ran realizes she has just bashed Magne in front of his brother, she apologizes. Laurits is quick to reply that Magne is a bit “off his rocker” (to give her a false sense of security, no doubt). When he asks if he can deliver the student speech on Constitution Day, Ran smiles and says she’ll think about it, but she gives him a slightly unsettled look before she leaves. Suddenly, Laurits wants to go blonde.

It’s not clear whether Laurits was given the official go-ahead on the speech, but when the time comes for “Ran Jutul” to give her patriotic speech, the emcee signals that the principal should remain seated. And wouldn’t you know it, up strides Laurits in a traditional woman’s bunad decorated with bold floral embroidery and silver bling, freshly dyed hair flowing from beneath a flowery headdress. The audience giggles as “Ran” proclaims how much she “personally love[s] the youth,” and the real Ran can only scowl as her doppelganger extols the beauty of Norway’s mountains and how, when the sea levels rise, the “last to drown” will be those powerful few who live high above all others.

Laurits2
Laurits, you beautiful bastard. I love what you’ve done with your hair, not to mention the Jutuls’ reputation.

This is a glorious expression of the trickster spirit, the lowly misfit who willfully defies the norms of society and will even hold themselves up to scorn if it means debasing the powerful. But this time, the trickster takes Thor’s side in the ultimate battle, proving once again that you can never be sure whose side they are on but you can always count on them to shake up the status quo.

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