The US writer Mark Twain famously wrote: “There is no such thing as a new idea. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.” This is particularly true of storytelling. I am a novelist, and teach creative writing. In this discipline, the premise that there are seven basic plots (as outlined in a book of the same name by Christopher Booker) holds sway.

From Marvel’s Thor to Game of Thrones and Neil Gaiman, Norse legends have influenced culture and current ideas, according to a new book.

The stories we tell reflect who we are, as both individuals and societies, at any given time. Reading stories from centuries’ past, it’s reassuring to discover that while times change, human instincts and emotions are more constant and universal. The joy of reading is to commune with other people through the stories they have left behind – but to recognize in their worlds something of our own.

A new book, The Norse Myths that Shape the Way We Think by Carolyne Larrington, a professor at Oxford University, explores the contemporary resonances of Norse myths, and examines their reimagining in popular culture. “The Norse myths are important because they take place in a landscape which for people in Britain and the English-speaking world, we recognize as being like our own,” Professor Larrington tells BBC Culture. “And unlike Greek and Roman myths, they portray a world which is finite. Its inhabitants are marching towards the end of time. So they have a note of pessimism which resonates in a more secular world.”

Despite this, they are not without hope or enlightenment. From an elegiac exploration of the environment, musings on masculinity and a reckoning with existence, these ancient Nordic myths underpin many of the ways we think today

1. Green myth

Where biblical texts and other legends attributed floods, plagues and pestilence to the wrath of God or the gods, the story of Yggdrasill resonates more in a world that is alert to the impact of man. A version of the tree of life, Yggdrasill stands at the centre of the Old Norse universe. Its branches reach up into the heavens; its roots go down into the world of the dead and frost giants. The animals that live on it both thrive and damage it. When the end of the world comes, the tree groans and totters but we are not told whether it will fall.

“Yggdrasill is a model for our environment that we would do well to think about,” says Larrington. “It represents a natural world that is giving but cannot be taken for granted: a symbiotic system that may – or may not – withstand all the depredations that humanity inflicts upon it.”

The implicit warning is especially pertinent now, given that Yggdrasill is not just any tree but an ash tree. “It was silver-grey,” writes Neil Gaiman in his myth-infused 2001 novel American Gods. “Spectral and yet utterly real.” You have only to walk through one of the many forests across the globe recently ravaged by ash dieback disease, to see vast ghostly clearings, where utterly real silver-grey trees recently stood.

The Valkyrie (1869), a painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, is featured in a new book The Norse Myths that Shape the Way We Think (Credit: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/ Photo by Børre Høst)

The Valkyrie (1869), a painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, is featured in a new book The Norse Myths that Shape the Way We Think (Credit: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/ Photo by Børre Høst)

2. Myth of undying fame

Valhalla (or Valhǫll) is a magnificent hall, ruled by the god Odin, where deceased warriors live alongside kings and other legendary figures. When Ragnarök (the end of the world) arrives, they will be called to fight the Jotnar (giants). It is a hall of fame for a heroic society, a place where those who have died in battle live on. Valhalla has lived on, too.

In 1830, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria commissioned the building of a Valhalla temple near Regensburg, Germany. Here, pan-Germanic heroes were celebrated to strengthen the German unification project. At around the same time, August Smith created a Valhalla museum at Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly, to house the figureheads from local shipwrecks. The mythical hall of fame is also depicted in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, numerous paintings and in the writing of Hunter S Thompson. Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull all refer to Valhalla in their songs.

“In pre-Christian societies, especially Germanic ones, the only way to survive after your death is by achieving fame,” says Professor Larrington, explaining the myth’s enduring appeal. “Now that there is less cultural confidence in the idea of life after death, people cling to the idea of being famous and impressing themselves on the world in some way. Valhalla is our 15 minutes of fame.”

Henry Fuseli's 18th-Century etching depicts the Norse god Odin in the underworld (Credit: Art Institute of Chicago)

Henry Fuseli’s 18th-Century etching depicts the Norse god Odin in the underworld (Credit: Art Institute of Chicago)

3. Myth of the end

Ragnarök (the doom of the gods) is the Norse end of the world, clearly echoed in the Christian Armageddon. In Norse mythology, Ragnarök culminates in a final battle between gods and the demons and giants, ending in the death of the gods. The world ends in fire and ice.

It’s George RR Martin’s “Winter is Coming”. The saying in Game of Thrones is House Stark’s motto – it is situated in the North of Westeros and often hit hardest by cold winters – but is also a general warning that bad things are going to happen. And Ragnarök is also a popular theme in Scandinavian death metal or Viking Metal, which draws on Norse mythology.

In Ragnarök, the older generation of gods will be destroyed. “There is an inevitability to this,” writes Larrington in her book. “Even the warriors in Valhalla can’t defeat the cosmic forces. After this mythical end the world will rise again. But the question remains, will it be an improvement on the old?” In her retelling of the myth, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, author AS Byatt decides that the world is not coming back, while for writer Neil Gaiman in his book Norse Mythology, there are echoes of Animal Farm. The new generation of gods repeat the same moves, and history repeats itself. Ragnarök is both in the future – and in the past.

4. Myth of the wanderer in search of wisdom

Odin, the father of Thor and creator of the Norse world, is also the god of war, poetry, runes, magic and the dead. But he is not all-knowing, and wanders both the human and divine worlds in search of wisdom. This comes at a price. When he reaches the Well of Urd, he is told that to sip the water of wisdom he must sacrifice an eye.

Odin the wanderer inspired JRR Tolkien’s Gandalf. He also lent his name to Wednesday, from the Old English “wōdnesdæg”, originally from “Woden” (Odin). In the Marvel universe, he is always portrayed with his right eye missing – a wise figure, with a blind spot.

“Odin shapes the way we think about continuing to learn, but at the same time he is seen as a patriarchal force who must ultimately step aside, and we see this dichotomy a lot in contemporary politics,” says Larrington. “At the end of the Norse world, a new generation of gods will come, with new, untested ideas. But there is a sense that these will prevail.”

5. Myths of masculinity

There is a paradox of masculinity in the Norse world. On the one hand, there is the blond-haired athletic Viking hero, adventuring, trading, writing poetry and carving runes, and on the other hand there is the raping, pillaging Berserker, destroying all in his wake.

Some reimaginings have even bestowed Vikings with an almost cuddly quality, as in the 20th-Century children’s books Noggin the Nog, or have parodied them, as in the Terry Jones film Eric the Viking. Probably the prevailing myth, though, is of a heroic, adventurous band of brothers confident of their place in the world. 

But it’s a myth that is open to disturbing reinterpretations. “In the [mid]-19th Century, the figure of the adventurous Viking was used to underpin doctrines of Aryan superiority,” says Larrington. “Today the males exercising power over women have their own adoptees in far-right, white groups, who want women to ‘know their place’.” That’s not to dismiss the myth as irrelevant, Larrington argues. The figure of the Viking warrior has always represented a struggle and a need for balance: between heroic rage, personal honor, courage – and openness to love. And that conflict between the idea of traditional male values and men who inhabit a world of women resonates as much now as ever.

Thor, shown here in a painting by Mårten Eskil Winge, has been reinvented by Marvel Comics as the Mighty Thor (Credit: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

Thor, shown here in a painting by Mårten Eskil Winge, has been reinvented by Marvel Comics as the Mighty Thor (Credit: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

6. Myth of the superhero

Thor (from the old Norse Þórr) is a prominent god associated with the protection of humankind, and a model for the latter-day superhero. Reinvented by Marvel Comics as the Mighty Thor, the hammer-wielding hero who patrols the borders of the human world and keeps the giants out, he is echoed through Superman, the Hulk and other Avengers.

“What’s interesting is that from the old Norse myths what remains is bit of a bonehead who hits people with his hammer first, and asks questions later,” says Larrington. “What Marvel has done has given him a learning curve by putting him in a family where he has relationships with and adoptive brother and father and where he falls in love, so that his superhuman strengths are tempered by his human flaws.”

In the Norse world, an oral society without written contracts, Thor represents the values of standing up for the weak and keeping your word. In our largely secular world, he is not about picking fights but being ready to tackle them when they arise. He does not turn the other cheek, but has the courage to call things out.

Editor’s Note: Lizzie Enfields’ article was published in BBC on 17 March 2023.

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6 Ancient Norse Myths For Classic Storytelling