For a Thor film, Ragnarok is definitely a standout – and not just because it’s been a smash hit with critics. The Marvel movie delves deeper into Norse legends than its predecessors, portraying the mythology’s most explosive moment: Ragnarok.
Yet Thor: Ragnarok projects the tale through a comic-book filter, one that distorts events of the original myths to bring to light a simpler story. Some of the changes are fairly easy to spot (yes, the Scandi legends are light on wormholes and The Hulk), but there’s plenty in the film that although seems mythological, is actually a Marvel creation, from the comics or films.
So, how can you tell what was part of the myth and what was purely Marvel? You can either look into your copy of 13th century Norse compendiums Poetic Edda and Prose Edda that tell the story, or pick the easy option and consult our simple Ragnarok FAQ below.
1. What is Ragnarok in Norse Mythology?
Ragnarok (or Ragnarök, as the Swedes spell it) is the old Norse word that roughly translates to “The Doom of the Gods”. Actually, it’s the doom of pretty much everything: Ragnarok is a set of events that describe the destruction of much of the cosmos. It ends with Asgard, Earth and all living life hurled into a blank void called (brilliantly) the Ginnungagap.
Like the film, this entails a massive fight between the Gods and mythical creatures. In both versions of the story a huge figure with a flaming sword (a demon called Surtur in the movie and Surtr in mythology) arrives to engulf Asgard in fire. However, in the myth, Surtr not only successfully destroys Thor’s home, but all of humanity too. All people except a man (Lífþrasir) and woman (Líf) are wiped out when Surtr burns the known world into the Ginnungagap.
So, if the film were being faithful to the original myth, Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, Spider-Man and basically every Marvel hero would be wiped out before the Infinity War. Even poor Black Panther would be killed off before his debut film.
2. What is Hela actually like in the myths?
The Asgardian Goddess of Death depicted by Cate Blanchett in the film is very different from the Norse text. Firstly: she doesn’t actually exist in the myths. Well, not really. Although the realm of the dead (called Hel) is controlled by a woman (also called Hel, confusingly), she’s not definitely depicted as a goddess. She’s so infrequently mentioned her form is ambiguous, which has led some scholars theorise that she’s merely the personification of the underworld Hel.
(Marvel Studios, TL)
Even if you see Hel as a character in her own right, she’s by no means Odin’s daughter and Thor’s brother, as Marvel tells you. Instead, she’s the child of Loki and giantess Angrboda.
But it doesn’t really matter as Hel has virtually no role in Ragnarok or any other myth, only briefly appearing in a story centred around the death of a God called Baldur. In Norse Mythology, she’s a C level celeb at best.
3. Does Thor really lose an eye in the myths?
Much worse: he dies. Rather than losing an eye fighting Hela as in the film, much of Thor’s role in Ragnarok comes in battling Jormungandr (meaning “huge monster”), a giant sea serpent and another of Loki’s offspring. And this snake certainly lives up to its name, growing so big that it is able to surround Earth with its tail. Jormungandr is also staggeringly dangerous and during Ragnarok poisons the entire sky.
(Marvel Studios, TL)
Although Thor has beaten the snake in battles before Ragnarok, their final bout ends in disaster. The God of Thunder manages to kill the snake, but he’s mortally wounded by its venom in the process. And there’s no recovery: after Thor slays Jormungandr he takes nine paces and falls dead on the ground.
4. Were the Asgardian Valkyries actually a thing?
Yes, the band of warriors Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking character belongs to were part of Norse mythology. In fact, the group of female soldiers depicted in the film played a key role in several stories: they’re the figures who decided who lived and died in war. And yes, like the film there were known for entering the battlefield on flying horses, an image that inspired many paintings and, of course, the Flight of the Valkyries opera by Richard Wagner.
Thompson’s character was actually based on one particular Valkyrie called Brynhildr, who’s not exactly as courageous as the hero depicted in the films. Although starting off as a warrior, she turns out to be the original sleeping beauty: Odin imprisons Brynhildr inside a remote castle, where she must sleep in a ring of fire until rescued.
Brynhildr is eventually set free before becoming a tad, shall we say, unhinged: she kills her ex-husband’s three-year-old son before committing suicide.
It’s hardly a plotline we’re hoping to see in a Ragnarok sequel.
5. Did that giant wolf in the film really exist in the myth books?
Oh yes: in the myths, the wolf Fenrir plays a massive role in Ragnarok. Rather than dying from natural causes as the film depicts, Fenrir is the one who kills Odin, swallowing the God whole on the battlefield. It’s not a particularly good move on Fenrir’s part, though – Odin’s son Víðarr soon avenges his father by slicing the wolf’s jaw apart and killing it.
Also worthy of Note: like Hel and snake Jormungandr, Fenrir is another one of Loki’s children. We don’t mean to judge, but shouldn’t somebody put him on a positive parenting course or something?
(Marvel Studios, TL)
6. What other mythology does the film miss out?
A lot. And some of this is probably for the best: 3D cinema-goers will be particularly pleased that, unlike the myth, Loki doesn’t ride into battle aboard a boat made from the dead’s toenails.
However, if you wanted a picture of Norse Mythology, Thor: Ragnarok isn’t the place to look. Most key plot points of the legends – the death of Odin and the fertility god Freyr, the fleeing of the Dwarf race (seriously, don’t ask) and the destruction of the very cosmos – isn’t included. But, hey, not even Marvel could fit all that in one film.