How Nature Influences Fantasy, Through Norse Mythology
Nature inspires all forms of creativity, playing an important role in a range of fantasy stories and feature films. The context of the natural environment is not only often vital to the atmosphere of each story’s setting but, equally, the direction and drama of the unfolding plot. In this blog post, I wish to discuss how natural symbols in Norse legend influence in particular some of the animated fantasy media we see today; including the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero franchise, and the recent series Vikings (Michael Hirst, 2013-).
Nature impacted the stories that were told by our ancestors thousands of years ago; a time when pagan communities would speak of natural forces, perhaps represented as gods (Fig. 1). Some of these stories would echo on throughout the ages, and have helped to shape what we now know as ancient mythology. Modern fantasy media has been repeatedly influenced by ancient mythology, one that arguably has its roots in the stories of our pagan ancestors. These pagans were intrinsically connected to nature in their daily life, reliant on the earth and water as if it were their lifeblood. Tribulations of daily life were told through story and song, operating perhaps as a precursor to the modern musical, allowing stories to take on a symbolic and figurative value that superseded their mythic function to allow the Norse gods to symbolise different aspects of nature. For example, in old Norse texts, Odin typically represents wisdom and death, portrayed as one eyed, with a long beard. He was often accompanied with ravens Huginn and Muninn who inform him of news around Midgard – the only one of the nine worlds visible to man. Nature, in turn, is depicted not just as something with a spiritual significance, but a vessel which can allude towards aspects of the human condition.
Despite the inaccuracies, naturalistic icons in Norse myths have continuously been re-imagined by artists through the ages. The Mead of Poetry ancient myth inspired the comic book The Magic Mead in the Danish comic book series, Valhalla, created by Henning Kure and Arne Stenby and written by Kure, Peter Madsen, Hans Rancke-Madsen and Per Vadmand. Of course, we also cannot forget J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a scholar who was able to extract many references from ancient texts, notably Norse mythology, giving rise to his epic trilogy. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations make use of New Zealand’s striking landscapes to contribute to the story’s epic atmosphere, replicating Tolkien’s own insistence on the presence of nature throughout his journey narrative. As part of his fantasy world, Tolkien invented a tree-like race of beings called Ents, showing similarities to the talking trees found in Norse folklore. Ents were sketched and animated using visual effects (by Jackson’s own WETA studio) in the Lord of the Rings films to seem life-like, as we see them move at snail-pace, and hear the cracking of their movement, as if they were real trees bending to the wind. Treebeard, who carries Merry and Pippin in a scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002) was brought to life with a giant puppet, that was edited through a combination of computer effects and animatronics to give him his digitally-produced, expressive face (see above).
However, Norse mythology influenced creative work in the late 19th century too, when Richard Wagnar wrote the opera ‘Ring of the Nibelungs’, based on the Norse legend about dragonslayer Siegfried and shieldmaiden Brunhilde (from old Norse texts; Edda poems and Volsunga saga). The story has been re-portrayed in the recent German film Sword of Xanten (Uli Edel, 2004). Key events in the natural landscape unfold when an animated meteor shower marks the meeting of Brunhilde and Siegfried, that Brunhilde believed to be a sign from the gods. Siegfried slays the dragon Fafnir, who is fiercely brought to life with the help of CGI technology. The glory of Siegfried is short lived, however, with the curse of the Fafnir’s gold, even though he was warned by the ghosts of immortal twilight, who were resurrected onto the screen through special effects. While the end is tragic, as the ghosts promised, we can see how the striking visuals of this film are portrayed through outdoor film-making and special effects, and how pagan beliefs help to shape the story. In the narrative, there are diversions from Wagner’s opera, just as there are differences between the opera and the original Norse folk story.
Thor is a well-known Norse god to many of us, representing thunder and strength. Today, the icon is heavy popularized today by Marvel’s Thor films, as well as its many spin-offs within the MCU franchise (Fig. 2). Based on the comic series “The Mighty Thor”, Thor is one of the physically strongest of Marvel’s superheroes. Digital animation and computer graphics brings ancient Norse symbols to life throughout the series - from the magical strike of Thor’s Hammer to Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge. When we look into the films’ imagery closely, there are many more Norse symbols to unravel. A key example is Yggdrasil (or Tree of Life) - an ancient Norse symbol for the interconnectivity of all living things. There are theories that Marvel tweaked the Yggdrasil to represent the ten realms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with 9 staying true to Norse mythology, and ‘Heven’ being added). We can see a possible depiction of Yggdrasil in the credits of the first “Thor’ film, where the structure of a tree is conveyed among stars and nebula (see left). While Marvel recreated Odin and Thor in their own image to create strong superhero characters, the faces of these gods are not seen in the popular History channel series, Vikings, directed by Michael Hirst. Instead, the pagan people talk of Thor and Odin through the telling of stories, while spiritually connecting to the landscape. The leading character, based on a renowned hero in Norse legend, Ragnar Lodbrok, had mystical visions of crows and dramatic landscapes, and his son, Bjorn Ironside, retreated as a hermit in the forest, for a transition to manhood. In Vikings, the beauty and darkness of the natural environment is emphasized through well edited and polarized cinematography.
Throughout the ages, we’ve taken inspiration from the natural icons of Norse legend in our art and popular media, including our modern fantasy, film and animation. Ancient storytellers were connected to the landscape for their livelihoods and beliefs, shaping and reshaping the stories in Norse legends for a multitude of purposes. To this day, the stories of Odin,Thor, Ragnar, and Siegfried, continue to impact our modern fantasy media; whether it be film, fiction, animation or even opera.
Originally from Aberdeen (Scotland), Clarissa Wright is a Science Journalist and Editor at NatureVolve science-art magazine. Clarissa studied her BSc and MSc in Geoscience, before working in science publishing in London. On the side, she paints artworks inspired by nature and mysticism. Free digital issues of NatureVolve can be downloaded via https://www.naturevolve.com/subscribe.