The House of Eddas: Giants Walk the Earth in Journey Into Mystery #104

Screenshot_2020-11-06-16-19-08-1There are a couple of things to note about this issue. First off,  Thor’s name now dominates the cover: although Journey Into Mystery wouldn’t be officially retitled The Mighty Thor until later, the change is clearly being prepared for. Secondly, there’s been a bit of a development in how the comic engages with mythology.

At this point the “Tales of Asgard” stories have introduced a number of Norse mythological characters into the Marvel canon, but so far none of them had turned up in the main features. For all intents and purposes Marvel had publishing two separate Thor universes: one in which Thor lives on modern-day Earth and battles various costumed supervillains (with occasional appearances from Loki, Odin and Heimdall and maybe the odd Asgardian extra) and one taking place in a more recognisably mythological setting, featuring the likes of Surtur, Balder, Hela, Sif, Mirmir, the Norns and Ymir.

But that changes, if only in a small way, with Journey Into Mystery #104: for the first time, mythological figures introduced in the back-up feature are folded into Thor’s superheroic adventures.

The main story “Giants Walk the Earth!” opens as Loki scolds his henchdemigods Enchantress and Executioner for failing in their mission last issue, while Odin is still vexed by Thor’s forbidden love for the mortal Jane Foster (“the only emotion I cannot control is… love!”) Loki suggests that Odin visit Earth and confront Thor on the matter in person, and Allfather decides to do just that – bizarrely naming the troublemaking Loki as ruler of Asgard in his stead.


With Asgard under his control, Loki immediately sets about causing mischief. He unlashes two imprisoned giants: the storm giant Skagg and the fire demon Surtur. His scheme reaches the ears of Heimdall, who sends Balder to alert Odin of the happening.


Surrtur has already been introduced into the Marvel canon. The storm giants have also been seen before, although Skagg himself is a new addition (I am unaware of any mythological figure by that name – but since the Norse “skaga” means “to jut out”, it’s not entirely inappropriate).


While this is Balder’s third appearance, the issue marks the point at which Marvel finally settled on a design for him. In issue #85 he saw him in partial silhouette as an unspecified member of a crowed, while issue #101 depicted him as an older man with white hair and a thick moustache (and, contrary to mythology, identified as the brother of Sif). This issue is truer to convention, with Balder drawn as a youthful, handsome figure. I’ll be going into more detail about the Balder of myth in a later post. (Note that he is shown here riding a winged horse, another case of Marveel interpolating the Greek Pegasus into Norse mythology).


Instead of Odin — who is currently walking the Earth in a suit and hat — Balder bumps into Thor. Still, the job is done, and Thor is able to track down his snappily-dressed dad to bring the grave news. A Midgard with Skagg and Surtur on the rampage is no place for mere mortals, so Odin takes the precaution of sending the entire human race “to a dimension beyond the ken of the human mind”.


And so the field is clear for Odin, Thor and Balder to take on the giants together. Balder battles Skagg upon his winged horse…


…while Thor goes against Surtur. Eventually, Odin has to intervene.


Surtur, boasting that he has “energy enough to destroy an entire galaxy” announces his plan to melt the icecaps so that the waters flood the globe “as they did once before, at the dawn of time” – a characteristic mizture of science fiction and myth (here, the widewpread flood myth).


Odin places a protective shield around the city and defeats Skagg, but exhausts himself in the process. So, Thor borrows his father’s sword and heads off to tackle Surtur, eventually blasting him into anotehr galaxy where he gets stuck to “a very special asteroid”.


Back in Asgard, Odin deals out Loki’s punishment (“you will serve the trolls until I set your free”) while Thor goes back to pining over Jane Foster – who, like the rest of humanity, is blissfully unaware of having spent a period in another dimension.


Now, on to the back-up feature. This issue marks a slight change in focus for “Tales of Asgard”, which now presents itself not as adapting Norse myths as before, but as something more character-oriented: “biographies in depth of Asgard’s heroes”. The deity in the spotlight this month is Heimdall, a character who had appeared semi-regularly in the comic but received little actual development.


The story turns out to be Heimdall’s origin. It opens with Asgard recovering from a battle against invading storm giants, repair work being carried out by trolls. The idea that trolls are employed by Odin as manual labourers – implied in the main story by Loki’s punishment – marks the first point that Marvel canon has portrayed the trolls as benevolent. I am not aware of any mythological basis for this depiction of trolls as builders for the Asgardians, unless – at a stretch – we count the story in which the Aesir hire a builder to construct fortifications, only to find out that he is a giant in disguise.


Odin decides to hire a sentry to guard the rainbow bridge, and has gathered together three candidates. Agnar the Fierce boasts that when the time comes to sound a warning “on the enchanted dragon horn of Asgard” he will be the man for the job (“My lungs are the strongest, Lord Odin! None has a chest as mighty as mine!”), The second candidate, Gotron the Agile, brags about his fighting prowess.

The “enchanted dragon horn” is clearly based on the Gjallarhorn of myth, which Heimdall shall blow at the start of Ragnarok to awake the other gods (the horn is also used by Mimir to drink water from his well of wisdom). I don’t believe that the horn has any mythological association with dragons.
Agnar the Fierce may be derived loosely from the Poetic Edda’s Grimnismal, which includes two characters named Agnar: one is the brother of the cruel King Geirrod, the other Geirrod’s son who comes to secede him as king; most of the narrative takes place when the latter Agnar is ten years old. I am unaware of any mythological basis for Gotron the Agile, although a character named Gotron appears in Sangeskonig Hiarne, a nineteenth-century opera based on the Icelandic saga Fridthjof.


That leaves us with Heimdall the Faithful, who claims that his hearing is so sharp that he can detect the sound of a small plant growing in the dragon-scarred desolation of Asgard’s hidden hills. Odin sends his unnamed gardener (a new addition to Marvel’s version of the Norse pantheon) to verify the claim.


As well as his sharp hearing, Heimdall has superhuman vision, and notices a band of storm giants heading for the rainbow bridge. And so the Asgardians head off the vanquish the threat, after which Heimdall gets the job as sentry.

Aside from incorporating a few details from Norse mythology, this story is primarily an original piece of fiction on the part of Lee and Kirby: there is no surviving myth outlining how Heimdall became Asgard’s watchman. The Prose Edda does have quite a bit to say about him, however, and I leave it to you to decide how well Marvel’s interpretation stacks up:

Heimdal is the name of one. He is also called the white-asa. He is great and holy; born of nine maidens, all of whom were sisters. He hight also Hallinskide and Gullintanne, for his teeth were of gold. His horse hight Gulltop (Gold-top). He dwells in a place called Himinbjorg, near Bifrost. He is the ward of the gods, and sits at the end of heaven, guarding the bridge against the mountain-giants. He needs less sleep than a bird; sees an hundred miles around him, and as well by night as by day. He hears the grass grow and the wool on the backs of the sheep, and of course all things that sound louder than these. He has a trumpet called Gjallarhorn, and when he blows it it can be heard in all the worlds.

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