Welcome back to another look at how Marvel Comics processed Norse mythology to create its Thor comics. In this issue, the main story is “Slave of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man”, which concludes the storyline beginning in the previous instalment.
There’s not much to do with mythology here, although Loki gets a small part in which he refers to Thor as “the stepbrother whom I despise”. I believe that this is the first time the comics have acknowledged Loki’s complex family background: in mythology he’s the son of the giant Farbauti (his mother is named either Laufey or Nal, depending on the text) but Marvel made him and Thor brothers. The main plot is not concerned with genealogy, however, but with the newly-enslaved Thor being taken in to the twenty-third century by the evil genius Zarrko, who forces him to sow discord by smashing the city’s central control mechanism.
Visiting the headquarters of the World Council, Zarrko orders to be shown the location of the Master Machine, “the one supreme machine which gives you your orders”. Thor has to fight his way through multiple mechanical threats, starting with the “maximum security octi-robot”, but he and Zarrko eventually reach the Master Machine.
But naturally, things go a bit wrong for the evil genius, who finds that Thor has outsmarted him: “While you were talking, I have been gently rubbing my hammer head along the ground”. This allows the Master Machine to trap Zarrko in a ball of semi-solid energy matter.
Thor then travels through time by swinging his hammer “at exactly twice the speed of light” and ends up back in the twentieth century – and back in Odin’s good books.
Well, that’s another sixties superhero adventure wrapped up. Now on to the main attraction…
This issue’s pseudo-mythological backup story has the longest title yet: “Tales of Asgard, Home of the Mighty Norse Gods! The Boyhood of Thor! At the Age of Eighteen! Death Comes to Thor!”
It begins with the eighteen-year-old Thor (who, incidentally, looks about the same as the present-day Thor) continuing his quest to obtain the hammer from Odin, as established in previous issues. He decides to seek supernatural information: “At last, I’ve found the three fates! They can tell me if I shall ever be awarded Odin’s magic hammer!”
Strictly speaking, the Fates are figures of Greek mythology. The three hooded women seen in the comic are clearly meant to be the Norns. The name change possibly occurred to distinguish these three figures – obviously based on the trio of Norns who are described presiding over past, present and future in the Poetic Edda – with “the Norn Hag” who was depicted amongst the various monstrous foes of Asgard in the previous issue. Of course, as the Poetic Edda is inconsistent as to how many Norns there are, and indicates that there are both good and evil Norns, there’s no reason that the four characters seen so far can’t all be Norns.
In the comic, the Fates inform Thor that he can win the hammer but “will have to meet death first”. Undeterred, Thor carries on his quest for the hammer, but is interrupted by “Balder, the innocent” announcing that his sister Sif has been kidnapped by Storm Giants. Thor decides to go and rescue Sif, at that moment becoming worthy of the hammer, which he wields aloft (“but so intent upon his mission is he that he doesn’t realize what he is doing!”)
Balder made his Marvel debut back in Journey Into Mystery #85, where he was simply namechecked as part of a crowd scene. He’ll become a more prominent character in later issues, so I’ll be talking about him in due course. Until then I’ll just note that his depiction here as white-haired and moustachioed is somewhat unorthodox, and he’ll be given a drastic redesign the next time he turns up.
Sif, meanwhile, is a newcomer to the Marvel canon. In mythology she is the wife of Thor – although this comic is clearly set before any romance between the two, as Thor refers to Sif simply as “the sister of my friend Balder”. The idea that Sif and Balder are siblings has no mythological basis – which is just as well, as the mythical Balder was Thor’s brother.
Sif is mentioned several times in the Prose Edda, although only two narratives give her notable roles. One is Snorri Sturluson’s foreword in which he theorises that the Norse gods were actually Trojans and claims that Sif was a Greek sibyl. The other, more authentically mythical narrative has Loki cutting off Sif’s hair as a prank, and then escaping Thor’s wrath by going to the dwarves and arranging for them to create new hair for Sif out of gold. Loki returns not only with golden hair for Sif, but also gifts for a number of other gods – including Thor’s hammer. The present comic, of course, contradicts this myth by inventing a different means for Thor of obtaining his hammer.
Thor fights his way through the Storm Giants (last seen in issue 100) to the castle of King Rugga. A man with whom Thor is familiar: “Though he is not a god himself, it is his dearest desire to become one!” I don’t believe that King Rugga was based on any particular figure in Norse mythology, although the seeker of immortality is a very common character type, going back at least as far as the epic of Gilgamesh.
It turns out that Rugga has made a deal with Hela, goddess of Death, and presented her with Sif in exchange for immortality. Hela is obviously the Norse goddess more commonly known as Hel (although Hela, an alternative name with clear euphemistic potential, has been around since at least as far back as the nineteenth century).
The Prose Edda states that Hel was one of three children of Loki and the giantess Angerboda, the others being the Midgard Serpent and the Fenris Wulf. After the gods found out “that these three children were being fostered in Jotunheim, and were aware of the prophecies that much woe and misfortune would thence come to them” they decided to apprehend the three monstrous siblings, with Odin granting Hel a place in the underworld:
Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave her power over nine worlds, that she should appoint abodes to them that are sent to her, namely, those who die from sickness or old age. She has there a great mansion, and the walls around itare of strong height, and the gates are huge. Eljudner is the name of her hall. Her table hight famine; her knife, starvation. Her man-servant’s name is Ganglate; her maid-servant’s, Ganglot. Her threshold is called stumbling-block; her bed, care; the precious hangings of her bed, gleaming bale. One-half of her is blue, and the other half is of the hue of flesh; hence she is easily known. Her looks are very stern and grim.
In the comic, Thor travels to Hela’s domain (an epic journey that takes place entirely between panels) and confronts the goddess of death herself. He offers to take Sif’s place, an act of self-sacrifice that touches Hela (“I cannot take a life which is so young, so brave, so noble!”) And so she allows both Thor and Sif to go free.
This story does have a mythological counterpart – albeit a very loose one. The Prose Edda tells the story of how, after Balder died, his brother Hermod rode for nine nights through dark valleys, arriving at the gold-thatched Gjaller-bridge that leads to the land of the dead, and learning from its warden Modgud of where Hel resided. Meeting Hel in her mansion, Hermod asks for Balder’s return; Hel agrees to let him go, so long as all things both alive and dead weep for him.
The gods respond by sending messengers across the land, asking all things to weep. “Al things did so,–men and beasts, the earth, stones, trees and all metals, just as you must have seen that these things weep when they come out of frost and into heat.” But there is one exception: a giantess named Thok, who the gods decide is actually Loki in disguise, refuses to weep for Balder. And so Loki is punished while Balder remains in the underworld.
In adapting this myth, Lee and Kirby made a number of alterations to turn it into more of a crowd-pleaser: the obscure deity Hermod is replaced with series star Thor; Balder is replaced with Sif, adding a romantic subtext; and a happy ending is grafted on, with Thor riding baclk to Asgard with both the liberated Sif and his iconic hammer.