Tuesday, May 17, 2011

THOR: Mythology and Comics meet Sword & Sorcery

Yesterday I went to see Thor at the invitation of two good friends of mine.  Upon conclusion of the film, they called to my attention the fact that director Kenneth Branagh is very well regarded for his work in adapting Shakespeare to the screen, most notably Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996).  In light of this, I'd be surprised if a well-versed student of Shakespeare were not able to detect a reference or two to the old bard in this film.  If this is true, the film has at least three direct influences weighing upon it and vying for consideration in any interpretation.  Quite obviously, the other two include the original norse mythology and the corporate middle-man of Marvel Comics.

Without calling into question the validity of looking at Thor through any of these lenses, I'd like to suggest, in addition, the very trope that is the subject of this blog: Sword and Sorcery.  Though I realize Thor wields the hammer Mjǫlnir, and not a sword, the themes of the film are extremely consistent with those of classic Sword & Sorcery cinema, including many of the films included on the "List of All Sword & Sorcery Films" (located in the menu to the right).

Most prominent among these is the theme of Initiation: the journey from "hero" to "warrior" or "boy" to "man."  Early on in the film, the conflict is established when Thor invades Jotenheim against the orders of Odin (his father) to take revenge against the frost giants for invading Asgard.  His childish bravado brings war to the realms.  As punishment, Odin calls him unworthy of his heritage and banishes him from Asgard to land on Earth among mortals where he comes in contact with a beautiful scientist and her team.  Intially, Thor has learned nothing.  He only seeks his mighty hammer, which has also fallen to the mortal realm and become lodged in the earth where it is being studied by the US government.  Thor plunges headlong into the frey after his hammer, defeating a whole squad of armed agents even without his divine powers.  But, as with the would-be kings of Arthurian legend, when he goes to pull the hammer from the stone, it will not yield.  Thor hangs his head and we see him defeated by the task.  This is an important step in his journey to manhood which is only completed when, unarmed and without his powers, he faces the wrath of his sinister brother, Loki, seeking only to protect the lives of the innocent.  When he is struck down by Loki's enormous mechanical avatar, Mjǫlnir returns to him in what is the most powerful scene of the film: the moment where he has redeemed himself and reclaimed his power as a God through the metaphorical initiation from "boy" to "man."

I can write with certainty that there are other themes in the film that are consistent with those of the Sword & Sorcery genre, but this is the most priminent among them and it teaches an important moral lesson about humility and the responsibilities of power.


  1. There are several themes in Thor that are consistent with some of Shakespeare's best known works. The most notable was the theme of an aging king deciding to pass on his kingdom, and the tension that exists between his children as each tries to prove which is the most worthy. This is clearly based on King Lear. Anthony Hopkins, a great Shakespearian actor in his own right, even looks the part in a salute to Laurence Olivier's famous adaptation for the BBC at the Old Vic. The influences don't stop there. There are numerous biblical themes thrown in as well. Kane and Abel being the most prominent, but far from the only one of note. Due to Thor's banishment, there is even a tinge of the Prodigal Son mixed in as well. Branagh was a great choice to handle this material, but overall, it only scratches the surface of what this phenomenal talent is capable of achieving. While not exactly sword and sorcery, I strongly recommend his Henry V to anyone who enjoys high drama and sword wielding spectacle.

  2. Wow! Thanks for filling in the gaps there Liloleme! I'd say that the "aging king" is something of an archetype to the sword and sorcery film. King Osric in Milius' Conan the Barbarian and King Theoden from LOTR are examples from two pillars of the genre. Not to mention the great Grandfather of all S&S tales: Beowulf and the famous King Hrothgar.

  3. No problem. In the case of the King Lear influence on Thor, two of Lear's daughters pretend to love him, as does Loki with Odin, while the third daughter defies the king, as does Thor. Yet, in both cases, it is the defiant child that truly loves the parent. The defiance is done honestly and with the best of intentions. I was thinking about the S&S genre and Shakespeare in general, and I thought of several of his plays that feature sword fighting and just as many that have some component of sorcery, but I couldn't think of any that would likely strike the right balance to fit into the S&S theme.

  4. Well done! I would love to have you as an official consultant for Sword Cinema!