The House of Eddas: Meet Balder in Journey Into Mystery #106

Thor106“The Thunder God Strikes Back!” concludes the story that began in the previous issue, with Mr. Hyde and the Serpent teaming up against Thor. Exploiting a loophole in the only-a-worthy-person-can-lift-the-hammer rule, the two antagonists use a mechanical crane to grab Mjolnir. Thor is eventually able to get it back and send the villains packing, but due to a misunderstanding he ends up with Jane Foster angry at his mortal alter-ego, Don Blake.

So, another conventional superhero yarn, then. Perhaps the most significant thing about this story is the time it takes raising the profile of Mr. Hyde in Thor’s rogues gallery. The Serpent is dealt with some time before the climax, leaving Hyde to take centre stage as Thor’s most evil enemy: “Of the many foes I have battled – even including the crafty Loki – you are the most completely evil – the most thoroughly wicked of all!!”

Clearly, while Marvel was introducing an ever-larger number of mythological figures into the Thor mythos, these took no precedence over the comic’s superheroic aspects: hence, the frankly generic villain Mr. Hyde being bigged up at the expense of Loki.

ThorCrane

Next we come to the back-up story, “Balder the Brave”. While the previous two back-ups had been essentially original stories about Heimdall, this tale sees Lee and Kirby return to the myths for inspiration – although, once again, their adaptation is loose indeed. As the title suggests the main character is Balder, a figure who had been given his proper introduction into the comics with the present-day section of Journey Into Mystery #104. More accurately, this is the first half of a two-part adaptation, the source material being the death of Balder (or Baldur, or Baldr).

According to the Prose Edda, Balder had dreams of his life being in danger. To set his mind at ease, the goddess Frigg spoke with various elements of the natural world – “fire, water, iron and all kinds of metal, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds and creeping things” – and made them swear never to harm Balder. Balder’s near-invincibility gave the residents of Asgard a jolly new game;

When this was done and made known, it became the pastime of Balder and the [Aesir] that he should stand up at their meetings while some of them should shoot at him, others should hew at him, while others should throw stones at him bit no matter what they did, no harm came to him, and this seemed to all a great honor.

BalderBrave

This is the portion of the myth adapted by the present issue, and the details are wildly different. “Balder the Brave” opens with Balder being called before Odin charged with deserting his post in a recent battle against the storm giants (possible the same conflict that began at the end of the previous issue). He pleads that he had good reason to do so: “I saw a bird fall from its nest, and I turned to place it back with its mother!”

Odin responds to this “lame excuse” by sentencing Balder to death. The other Aesir are appalled at the idea of beloved Balder being executed (Take the life of one of us instead!”) but Odin insists and Balder submits.

BalderDeath

Incidentally, in mythology Balder is the son of Odin and the brother of Thor. This family relation is completely ignored by the present comic, however – just as it was ignored in Journey Into Mystery #102, which indicated that (a very different-looking) Balder was Thor’s brother-in-law.

Balder’s executioner is to be “the steady-armed Tyr, master archer of Asgard” who reluctantly aims an arrow at his target. Tyr had, like Balder, been introduced to the Marvel universe as an unspecified member of an Asgardian crowd scene in Journey Into Mystery #85. Tyr is an illustrious figure in Norse myths, although I know of no mythological association between him and archery; indeed, his best-known narrative involves getting his hand bitten off by the Fenris Wolf, which would hamper his involvement with such persuits.

BalderBird

But Balder is saved when a hawk darts from the sky and snatches the arrow in mid-flight. He’s still on death row, however: “the ordeal of Balder is not yet ended!! At a command from Odin, his brother Honir, champion spear thrower of Asgard, picks up his truest shaft…” The wording here is ambiguous: is Honir the brother of Balder, or Odin? The latter would have some justification in mythology.

The Poetic Edda’s Voluspa identifies Honir or Hoenir – alongside another god, named Lodurr – as helping Odin to create the first humans, Ask and Embla. When this story is told in the Prose Edda, the roles of Honir and Lodurr are given to Odin’s brothers Vili and Ve – suggesting that perhaps Honir/Lodurr and Vili/Ve are different names for the same two siblings of Odin. That said, it’s possible that someone at Marvel was confusing Honir with Balder’s mythological brother, Hod – but given the relative ages of the characters shown in the comic, I’d conclude that Honir and Odin are meant to be brothers.

BalderHonir

Balder is again rescued by the natural world, as a large plant suddenly emerges from the ground and halts Honir’s spear. The next executioner called forth is Thor, who is ordered to slay Balder with his hammer: I cannot disobey thee, my father! But in my heart I pray for another miracle to save the courageofus Balder!”

BalderEnd

Before Thor can throw his hammer, Odin intervenes, and reveals that he had done so on the previous two occasions: “it was I who summoned the hawk – I who called forth the plant! For I have a gift for thee, brave Balder – the gift of invincibility! The gift which can only be won the trial and test!” Odin proclaims that “nothing can harm thee”, but an ominous narrative caption reminds us that “even as Achilles had his vulnerable heel, so does brace Balder have one spot of vulnerability”, thereby setting the stage for next month’s conclusion.

Another barely-recognisable rendition of a Norse myth, then, but in all fairness the changes make perfect sense in narrative terms. A sentence of death provides more tension than vague omens of calamity, and the forces of nature intervening to save Balder directly makes for a more dramatic spectacle than various stones, plants and animals promising Frigg not to harm him. Lee and Kirby managed to eke a coherent five-page story out of Balder’s mythological death – even before they got around to depicting his actual death.

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