Time to cross the rainbow bridge (how very appropriate for Pride month) and return to the world of Norse mythology. Or, rather, the world of Norse mythology as filtered through the inky pages of Marvel comics. This time, let’s peek at the ninety-ninth issue of Journey Into Mystery and find out what mystery Thor’s journeyed into…
The main story this month is “The Mighty Thor Battles the Mysterious Mister Hyde!” The comic introduces its latest villain in Calvin Zabo, a crook who applies for a job with Dr. Don Blake (“I have heard of him! He is the famous lame doctor!”) in the hopes of robbing him, only to be turned down as the good doctor has heard about Calvin’s track record.
But Calvin has a back-up plan, and turns to mad science – with a literary twist. “For years, I had been fascinated by the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!” he says. “I had always felt that it was more than just an imaginary story – I felt it could happen […] I know it must be possible to change a human being – change him so that his baser nature takes over, just as happened to Dr. Jekyll! And if my calculations are correct…”
The experiment is a success, giving Calvin Zabo a whack from the ugly-stick along with superhuman strength. Still something of a Robert Louis Stevenson fanboy, he adopts the name Mt. Hyde prior to smashing into Dr. Blake’s laboratory and stealing his papers.
So, Marvel has once again given Thor an antagonist with absolutely no connection to Norse mythology. But on the other hand, Mr. Hyde makes a perfectly logical choice of villain for a superhero story, given the genre’s fondness for dual natures.
And this particular story makes heavy use of dual natures. For one, Mr. Hyde’s plans lead to an evil Thor – yes, another one – being unleashed on the city, for reasons left to be explored in the following issue where the two-part tale is concluded.
The story also introduces a potential dual identity for Jane Foster, the love interest. Odin stands by his decision to bar Thor from marrying a mortal, but he now raises the possibility of Jane being granted immortality – if she prove herself worthy (an early prefiguration of the Jane-as-Thor storyline from decades later).
But since we’re here for the mythology, the main draw for this issue isn’t Mr. Hyde’s antics, it’s the back-up story “Surtur the Fire Demon!” where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby try their hand at retelling another chunk of Norse myth.
As the title suggests, the villain this time is Surtur, a figure briefly glimpsed in the first “Tale of Asgard”. Surtur, more commonly known as Surtr or Surt, is mentioned in the Prose Edda, where he is associated with the fiery realm of Muspelheim:
Still there was before a world to the south which hight Muspelheim. It is light and hot, and so bright and dazzling that no stranger, who is not a native there, can stand it. Surt is the name of him who stands on its border guarding it. He has a flaming sword in his hand, and at the end of the world he will come and harry, conquer all the gods, and burn up the whole world with fire.
This latter scenario is described in more detail elsewhere in the Prose Edda, as part of an account of the apocalyptic Ragnarok:
In the midst of this clash and din the heavens are rent in twain, and the sons of Muspel[heim] come riding through the opening. Surt rides first, and before him and after him flames burning fire. He has a very good sword, which shines brighter than the sun. As they ride over Bifrost it breaks to pieces, as has before been stated. The sons of Muspel direct their course to the plain which is called Vigrid […] Frey encounters Surt, and heavy blows are exchanged ere Frey falls. The cause of his death is that he has not that good sword which he gave to Skirner.
Surtr also turns up in the Poetic Edda. The poem Völuspá has two stanzas about him:
Surt comes from the South with what damages branches [ie, fire],
There shines from his sword the sun of corpse-gods;
Rock-cliffs clash, troll-wives crash,
Warriors tread Hel-roads, and heaven is rent.
Then there comes for [Frigg] a second sorrow
When Odin goes to fight the wolf
And Beli’s bright bane against Surt;
That’s when Frigg’s beloved must fall.
“Beli’s bright bane” refers to the god Frey; the battle between Frey and Surtr parallels a number of other conflicts that occur in Ragnarok (Odin vs. the Fenris Wolf, Heimdall vs. Loki, Thor vs. the Midgard Serpent, Tyr vs. Garmr). Surtr is also mentioned in the Poetic Edda verses Vafþrúðnismál and Fáfnismál, each of which briefly restates his role in Ragnarok as a foe of the Aesir.
None of this gave Marvel much to work with. The “Tales of Asgard” backups are set in a primordial universe, but the Eddas’ only actual narrative concerning Surtr takes place during the end of the world. Meanwhile, the character is given no actual origin: perhaps we can infer that he’s a descendent of Ymir, but this would clash with Marvel’s depiction of Ymir and his offspring as being made of ice – and therefore, presumably not prone to begetting fiery demons.
And so, Lee and Kirby simply made up a new story about the mythical characters.
“Surtur the Fire Demon!” opens by depicting an alliance between Surtur and the troll race, a species last scene in Avengers #1. “There are no secrets from Odin, king of the gods!” declares a narrative caption. “When he hears that the trolls have joined Surtur to rebel against Asgard, the mighty Odin personally invades the land of the trolls, and thus begins our legendary epic…” Meanwhile, a note from Smilin’ Stan Lee tells us that “according to Norse legend, the trolls live under hills which they crank up in order to see the outside world” – I haven’t found a citation for this, but it seems a plausible piece of folklore.
Odin is able to defeat the Troll King and subjects simply by plunging his sword into the ground, “for when he plunges his sword into the ground, anchoring it there, he draws unto himself the limitless powers of the gods!”
This image isn’t from Norse mythology, but it does mesh with Marvel’s portrayal of Thor activating his hammer’s powers by banging the handle on the floor. It also has obvious Arthurian connotations.
Next comes the promised battle between Odin and Surtur, which turns out to be an odd concoction of space opera and vague pseudo-mythology. Surtur starts by turning his fingers into a bevy of giant serpents, an image that owes nothing to the Eddas but does rather evoke the Grecian Hydra. Odin’s response is to summon a barrage of meteorites – “the frozen remnants of long-dead planets… at the moment they are hit with the icy space waste, the serpents shrivel up and become harmless”.
Surtur’s next move is to attack “the one thing Odin loves… the planet Earth!” This he does by boring into the Earth’s centre and pulling out (but don’t worry, there aren’t any inhabitants to be harmed at this point: Earth and its magic tree Yggdrasil are still “awaiting the coming of man”). He then throws the vast rock into space to create the moon.
Incidentally, the Prose Edda states that the moon is guided in its course by its personification, a figure named Mani, just as the sun is guided by Mani’s sister Sol. However, although the text states that the gods created the sun using sparks from Muspelheim, the origin of the moon is left unexplained.
And so, Odin creates the rainbow bridge linking Asgard with Earth and – moving from myth to pseudoscience – draws upon “all the electro-magnetic particles of the cosmos”. This causes the Earth to begin spinning. The centrifugal force seals Surtur inside the Earth, “where he furnishes heat and energy to the planet he had hoped to destroy!”
Surtur attempts to bargain with Odin by giving him a winged horse, but the divine patriarch is unimpressed (he keeps the horse, mind). The previous issue showed Odin with two winged horses – is this the third, or did that story take place after this one? Either way, as I pointed out last time, the winged horse is an image from Greek rather than Norse myth – although this scene vaguely parallels the myth in which Odin receives an eight-legged horse from Odin.
The last issue’s retelling of the Ymir narrative completely avoided the part of the story where Odin and his brothers carve the Earth from Ymir’s body. Well, this time around Marvel have made up by coming up with a replacement creation myth: while Odin doesn’t exactly create the Earth, his battle with Surtur does a lot to whip it (and the moon) into shape. Other than its usage of modern scientific knowledge (the Earth as a rotating sphere with a molten centre, the existence of other planets, the moon’s possible origin as a displaced chunk of Earth-matter, electro-magnetism) the story feels like an authentic creation myth – simply not the Norse creation myth.
As with the Ymir story, Marvel has introduced a touch of Judeo-Christian influence. The references to Surtur as a “fire demon” and “king of the fire demons” (possibly analogous to the “sons of Muspelheim” described in the Prose Edda) along with his eventual imprisonment in the Earth’s molten core mark him as another obvious Satan-figure.
Next issue: storm giants!