Thursday, November 16, 2017

Norse Mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien in Israel's Ynet

It’s been a busy month for interviews! In addition to speaking with The Atlantic about Ásatrú theology and The Boston Globe about Norse mythology and Ásatrú religion, I was interviewed by Amir Bogen of Israel’s Ynet for his article about Norse mythology in today’s popular culture.

As is usually the case when a journalist interviews someone for background information, Mr. Bogen only used a small portion of my answers in his published piece. For those interested in these subjects, I’m posting his questions here (in large bold type) with my full answers.

You can read the article (in Hebrew) on the Ynet website by clicking here.

Lately, Norse mythology became very popular in [the work of] American pop culture artists and filmmakers. What makes it so appealing to comics and super-hero and geek audiences?

I’m not so sure that Norse mythology itself has become any more appealing to that particular audience. Are comic book fans suddenly reading translations of the Old Icelandic Eddas in massive numbers?

We have yet to see a single major Hollywood feature directly based on the Norse myths. The Marvel Thor movies are based on the comic book mythology created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s and subsequently expanded by Walter Simonson and many others.

The redesigned Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok movie

The Marvel mythos directly contradicts Norse mythology in several significant ways, not least in that they substitute a Christian storyline that recasts Odin as Yahweh and Thor as Christ, as seen in the first film. There is no sense in the original mythology that Thor must prove himself worthy to his father by being willing to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity. I don’t see much in the movies that reflects ancient pagan worldviews.

The excitement over Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Eddas has much more to do with the dedicated fanbase for his original fiction than it does with interest in the source material. Ditto for the recent Norse series by Rick Riordan. I think the vast majority of those who faithfully follow these authors would just as readily read their fantasy novels if they were based on Sumerian or Egyptian mythology.

I would love to see a big-budget Hollywood film based on the myths that were preserved in medieval Iceland. The stories that survive are full of high drama and epic excitement alongside fascinating characters and powerful emotions. What’s not to love?

Why is Norse mythology more attractive to the younger audience than the classic Greek mythology, which was so well known in the past and seems to be almost non-existent anymore in pop culture, especially in America?

I’m also not so sure that Greek mythology has disappeared from pop culture. The Rick Riordan books and movies incorporating Greek myth seemed to do pretty well. The kids I know who read Riordan's Norse series did so because they loved his Greek series so much. I’d be interested to know how many pre-teens in the United States can name Norse gods beside Thor and Odin compared to how many know Greek gods other than Zeus and Ares.

The second of Rick Riordan's Gods of Asgard books

I think kids are interested in many mythologies. When I was little, my parents told me that I could practice any or no religion as an adult, but that I needed to know the mythologies that shaped our culture: Greek, Jewish, and Christian. Back then, I was just as fascinated with the modern mythologies of DC, Marvel, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and so on. If young people aren’t forced to believe that one set of mythology is true and the rest are wicked, they’ll enjoy a much more diverse set of stories.

What misconception do we have about Norse mythology as it is presented in comics and films?

There are a lot of basic concepts in the Marvel version that don’t reflect the mythology. Thor’s power coming from his weapon, Thor having to prove he’s worthy, Loki being Thor’s adopted brother, and so on. The biggest alteration is, of course, that the gods worshiped by pagans long ago and by practitioners of Ásatrú today are really space aliens.

A farmer looks up to Thor in a painting by Max Koch (1900)

I don’t get tied up in knots over any of this. I love the Marvel comics and movies. I’m adult enough to realize that they’re part of a separate fictional universe, and I’m not going to go picket them or some such nonsense. I would simply love it if people would take the time to read the original myths and learn about the religion and culture of which they were a part. If people want to stick with the pop culture versions, bless them. We all have different interests!

Tolkien is always good to talk about, so if you can comment about Norse mythology influence on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, that would be great.

Like much in life, Tolkien’s use of Norse materials has positive and negative elements. I love how deeply his fictional works integrated the material that he knew so well as a scholar and educator. I’m much more impressed by his transformation of the mythic elements into an original creation (or, in his terms, sub-creation) than I am by straight retellings or adaptations of the myths.

Tolkien’s process is most plain in the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which provide multiple versions of the same stories as he reworked them for more than a half-century. In the earliest texts, some of the gods of what became The Silmarillion are referred to by Norse names. Here, as in his other works, he increasingly obscured his source material. At the time of The Hobbit’s first publication, he very much insisted on recognition of the Norse sources that appear in his text, of which there are many: the wisdom contest, the conversation with the dragon, the runes, the wandering wizard, and so on. Later in life, he strongly stressed the original nature of his work.

The first volume of The History of Middle-earth

Why the change? For one thing, the association of Norse mythology with the Nazis during the war had made it awkward for an English professor to champion the same material in the years immediately following the Holocaust. Similarly, Hitler’s public celebration of Wagner likely led Tolkien to deny that his Lord of the Rings had anything to do with Wagner’s Ring. This is patent nonsense. Tolkien's legendarium features dwarves as anti-Semitic figures pulled from Wagner, not Norse myth. The Hobbit is the worst, drawing on the darkest stereotypes of the backstabbing large-nosed Wandering Jew consumed with uncontrollable lust for gold.

The fact that Tolkien wrote one letter stating he was against Germany’s anti-Semitic policies does nothing to change the fact that he praised the “obedience and patriotism” of German citizens under the Third Reich, questioned whether a victory of “Americo-cosmopolitanism” would be any better than a Nazi one, and put into the hands of generations of children a version of the dwarf that owed more to German bigotry than the Eddas.

When I teach Tolkien's works, I don’t cover up or brush aside the troubling elements. I think we all need to face the failings of the great artists of the modern age, and they are legion. I’ve been told by some Tolkien fans that I must be a Nazi, since I notice the anti-Semitism in his work, which is anti-intellectual and ridiculous. I’ve been told the same thing by an English opera director, when I brought up the anti-Semitism in Wagner’s writings, which is bizarre and insane.

People want their favorite creatives to be angels, or at least they want to separate the creator’s prejudices from their artistic creations. However, great artists deeply incorporate their beliefs into their work. I hope we can be adult enough to discuss these issues without either burning books or burning educators.

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