Making my Peace with the God of Thunder – Of Marvel’s Thor, Richard Wagner and Cultural Appropriation

Tor.com has some more amusing post Comicon reporting such as a whole lot of photos and videos of John Barrowman a.k.a. Captain Jack Harkness kissing a whole lot of more or less famous people of various genders and species. The photos of John Barrowman with Nathan Fillion or Misha Collins probably set off a flurry of Captain Jack meets Malcolm Reynolds or Captain Jack meets Castiel fanfics. Not so sure about the pic with Wil Wheaton (though his expression is hilarious), because I don’t think there is a huge demand for Captain Jack/Wesley Crusher fics.

I also loved the story behind Tom Hiddleston’s surprise appearance as Loki (in character and full regalia) at this year’s Comicon. Turns out Tom Hiddleston wore a full Jango Fett costume during the whole flight from London to San Diego to keep the surprise, which must have been incredibly uncomfortable. Though I would have loved to see the faces of passengers and crew when they found themselves faced with Jango Fett. But considering the rather humourless and non-pop-culture savvy business people often found in business and first class, a lot of them probably would have no more idea who Jango Fett is than who Tom Hiddleston is. My Dad most certainly wouldn’t have recognized Jango Fett. In fact, I was surprised that he recognized Yoda when I wore a Yoda t-shirt while visiting my parents.

On a related note, also at Tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin analyses the various subtle and not so subtle changes in Thor’s and Loki’s respective outfits and comes to the conclusion that their armour/costume is probably a form of energy, which they can manipulate at will, and that both Thor and Loki are probably running around naked underneath their energy armour (Just think of the reams of incest fic inspired by that image). Her theory is supported by the fact that when Thor is stripped of his powers and expelled to Earth, he is naked.

Interestingly, the likeable portrayals of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki respectively have also achieved something I hadn’t thought possible. They finally caused me to make my peace with the Marvel Comics incarnation of Thor or as I sometimes call him, “the hammer of cultural appropriation”.

I’ve already gone a bit into my issues with Thor in my review of the movie. Basically, from my very first contact with the character (via the not very good 1960s cartoon version) on, I was bothered by the fact that Marvel’s version of Thor, at least as he was in the 1960s, was a case of clueless cultural appropriation (not that I would have known the word back then). And since it’s very likely that my ancestors once worshipped the Norse gods, I felt offended on their behalf.

Afterwards, I left Thor strictly alone. Didn’t read either his own comic or The Avengers, didn’t buy the Comics Spain PVC figurine (though I have all of the others, even Captain America), didn’t watch the movie. I didn’t even watch The Avengers in the theatre, because while I really liked Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man and liked the character of Hulk, though neither of the filmic portrayals, there were still both Captain America and Thor involved, neither of whom I could stand (as well as Hawkeye and Black Widow, towards whom I’m indifferent).

Eventually, I did watch the Thor movie and found it surprisingly enjoyable. Sure, they still played fast and lose with Norse mythology, but it was still a far cry from the dreadful cartoon version I had watched as a teenager, which had coloured my impressions of the character.

Besides, it’s not as if The Mighty Thor is the only ever appropriation of Norse mythology. There is plenty of Norse mythology based epic and urban fantasy around (e.g. Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens trilogy, Greg van Eekhout’s Norse Code, J.A. Pitt’s Black Blade Blues, Diana Paxson’s Brisingamen), including some which happily mashed up figures of Norse mythology with various other traditions (having Thor meet Hercules in the old Marvel cartoons had been a particular point of contention for me) such as Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series or Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series. And I had liked many of those modern takes on Norse mythology.

Never mind that what is probably the most famous of the modern reinterpretations of Norse mythology (sorry, Thor), Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, is itself an unholy mash-up of the Edda, the Völsungasaga, the Nibelungenlied and other Dark Age sources. Even the names of the various heroes and gods differ between Wagner’s Ring and other versions of the legends he used. In other words, The Ring of the Nibelungs is as much an appropriation as The Mighty Thor. On some level, I always knew this. Nor was Wagner content to stop with Norse mythology. He did the same thing to Arthurian mythology in Parzival and Tristan and Isolde and Lohengrin and he has the Greco-Roman goddess Venus show up living in a mountain in the Rhineland in the early Middle Ages in the otherwise very Christian Tannhäuser. Yeah, cause that makes sense. And though I’m not a Wagner fan by any means (nor a reflexive Wagner hater), The Ring of the Nibelungs and the rest of Wagner’s oevre never bothered me the way The Mighty Thor did.

Now the Bayreuth Festival opened last week and since 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth, there is a new production of the Ring of the Nibelungs, directed by Frank Castorf. In spite of the bicentennial, this year’s festival opened, perhaps wisely, with last year’s production of The Flying Dutchman in order to avert the potential controversy caused by the new Ring production.

Now the Bayreuth Festival is a big deal here in Germany and gets a lot of media coverage, both in the cultural programmes and regular news media. So you don’t necessarily need to go to Bayreuth (which is nigh impossible anyway with years-long waiting lists for tickets, unless you happen to be a politician or celebrity) to have some idea of how the latest productions look. And since the most recent Bayreuth productions have been more or less updated versions such as a production of Lohengrin set inexplicably inside an animal testing lab with the choir dressed as rats (!!!), it was pretty obvious that you wouldn’t get a winged helmets and chain mail production of the Ring. In fact, there hasn’t been a winged helmets and chain mail production in Bayreuth since the end of WWII.

And indeed, Frank Castorf’s Ring cycle does not feature winged helmets or chain mail or swords or even the Rhine, nor does he have any interest in any of these things. Indeed, Frank Castorf himself called his interpretation of the Ring cycle “artistic terrorism”. I wouldn’t go quite so far, instead Castorf’s Ring is yet another painfully wannabe current updating of a classic opera. Castorf has somehow turned the Ring cycle into a parable for the decline of the capitalist system (not all that far-fetched, considering that Wagner’s Ring cycle has sometimes been viewed as a parable for the industrial revolution destroying the old ways of life) with oil standing in for gold treasure of Alberich and the Rhine daughters. Yeah right, very original.

The Rhine daughters no longer live in the Rhine, but are now prostitutes working in a neon-drenched Route 66 motel (which interestingly recalls the neon-tinged nostalgia of the Southwest US scenes in Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor), pimped out by Wotan a.k.a. Odin. Siegfried no longer vanquishes dragons with his sword Notung, but instead assembles a Kalashnikov on stage. Other parts of the cycle are set on an oil platform adorned with a red star (apparently supposed to evoke Azerbaijan, center of an early oil boom and hotbed of the Russian revolution) and in front of a neat visual gag, a Communist Mount Rushmore depicting Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Ragnarok takes place at a Berlin döner truck, breaking with the American nostalgia motif in favour of East German nostalgia. Instead of vintage neon motel signs, we now get another example of classic vintage neon, namely the famous “Plaste und Elaste of Schkopau” sign, which once advertised the products of the East German chemical industry on the highway between Leipzig and Berlin (here is the sign again in its original context with the Buna chemical factory on the horizon). And of course oil is the basis of most chemical products, bringing us back to the oil as a stand-in for gold theme. It’s all very random, a lot of neat visuals which say something about capitalism and communism and East Germany and the US and modern life and oil, though no one is quite sure what. At any rate, the different cultural programs I follow all had different interpretations and Castorf himself mainly seems consumed with glee that an East German guy like him gets to direct in Bayreuth (which might even have been impressive, if the unification hadn’t been 23 years ago).

You can see a report about and some footage of the new Ring in this video. There is also a longer version which includes some interviews with the various politicians showing up for the premiere. Love the Lord of the Rings reference BTW. There is also a video interview with director Frank Castorf and one with Katherina Wagner, festival co-head and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner. Here are also some English language reviews of the first installment, The Rhinegold (the Ring cycle is performed over four nights and only two productions have premiered to date) from Deutsche Welle, Reuters and the New York Times. I think New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini sums it up best: “It could have been worse.”

As I saw the reports about the new production of the Ring cycle (which is by no means the worst of the modern Wagner productions in Bayreuth – IMO the lab rats of Lohengrin were worse), I found myself wondering: Are those vague bits of random meaningfulness really less appropriative (doubly appropriative, since Castorf appropriates both Wagner and the original myths) than Kenneth Brannagh’s tale of brotherly rivalry, jealousy and learning responsibility? Isn’t it potentially more offensive to see Odin/Wotan portrayed as a sleazy pimp than as a well-meaning but incompetent father? Isn’t it more resonant to see Loki/Loge portrayed as an adorkable young man driven to villainy by jeaousy, lies and incompetent parenting than as a sleazy gambler in a sequinned suit? (I have no idea what Castorf did to Thor/Donnar, who is a strictly supporting character in the Ring cycle.) If we time-scooped a Germanic tribesman or Viking and sat him down to watch both Castorf’s interpretation of the Ring cycle and Kenneth Brannagh’s interpretation of Thor, which one would he recognize as a respectful portrayal of his deities?

Never mind that Kenneth Brannagh’s version of Asgard looks like I always imagined a Ring production in Bayreuth should look, only that for some reason it never did, at least not in my lifetime. Indeed, upon watching Thor, I immediately thought, “Please, get Kenneth Brannagh to Bayreuth and have him direct the Ring or anything really, cause he’d be so bloody brilliant at it. For that matter, get Joss Whedon and let him have a crack at Wagner. I’m certain he’d do a great Meistersinger or maybe Tristan and Isolde. Katherina Wagner, are you listening?”

Of course, it’s possible that they did ask Brannagh and he declined. The Bayreuth festival has a reputation of being a horrible place to work for directors (the stress of directing at Bayreuth is rumoured to have contributed to the premature death of Christoph Schlingensief) and plenty of well-known directors such as Lars von Trier or Wim Wenders have declined invitations to direct in Bayreuth over the years.

Nonetheless, I would never judge an opera on the basis of a bad production. And for the record, from what I’ve seen, I don’t Castorf’s Ring is a bad production per se. The sets and the visuals look fine, it’s just that the updated take (like most updated takes on classic operas) is not nearly as clever or meaningful or revolutionary as Castorf thinks.

So why am I judging The Mighty Thor on the basis of a bad cartoon from the 1960s? Because the truth is that the portrayal of Thor and Loki and the rest of the Norse pantheon in Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and presumably the upcoming The Dark World is a good one. It may not be entirely true to the original myths (which are contradictory as hell anyway), but those films manage to be entertaining, tell a good story, really lucked out in their choice of actors and there is probably a more meaningful message to be found in Thor or The Avengers than in Castorf’s laboured “It means something, we’re just not sure what” interpretation of the Ring cycle.

So what is the takeaway regarding the always thorny issue of cultural appropriation? I’m not sure there is one apart from the obvious “If you want to borrow somebody else’s culture or mythology, make sure to do your research, be respectful and have a good story to tell.” Because the truth is that I don’t know why one new and updated take on the Norse myths or Grimm’s fairytales (which are two mythologies I feel particularly protective towards) bothers me, while another very similar take doesn’t. Trying to analyze why I am bothered by A,B,C but not by X,Y,Z reveals not a lot of similarities. In general – and I know this is grossly unfair – I am more likely to be bothered by an American interpretation of somebody else’s mythology than by a non-American one, probably because the US, in particularly Hollywood studios and media conglomerates (I’m looking at you, Disney), have a sorry history of clueless appropriations of – well, anything really.

And indeed, the key here is cluelessness. I am bothered by clueless appropriation, by taking something from somebody else’s culture and yanking it out of its context with no regard to the background or history of the thing (which actually applies to Castorf’s Ring with its mix and match imagery as well). I am bothered by quiet academics like the Brothers Grimm being turned into monster hunters. I am bothered by fairytale characters from different traditions, i.e. Grimm and Perault characters mixed with Hans Christian Andersen characters with Arthurian characters, characters from Mother Goose rhymes and a classic children’s book characters like Alice or Peter Pan thrown in for good measure, being put into the same place (often some kind of Fairytale or Storybook Land) with total disregard for the fact that all of these characters come from different times, traditions, backgrounds and contexts. Yes, the wonderful Czech TV series Arabela a.k.a. The Fairytale Bride managed to pull it off, but very few things can be as brilliant as Arabela.

So in short, don’t be clueless when borrowing somebody else’s culture and you should be okay.

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5 Responses to Making my Peace with the God of Thunder – Of Marvel’s Thor, Richard Wagner and Cultural Appropriation

  1. Andrea K says:

    Very interesting post, Cora. Your conclusion matches my own opinion – working from a position of knowledge, so that any departures are deliberate choice, makes a big difference.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, this. Departures should be a deliberate choice and in service of the story. To stay with Thor for a moment, the choice to have Odin lose his eye to the king of the frost giants rather than to a glimpse into the well of knowledge (which is the most common mythological version) makes sense in the context of the movie, which is very much focused on the conflict between Asgardians and forst giants and the fallout of Odin’s actions.

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  3. Ravn says:

    Thank you for writing this! I’m a Norse Pagan myself – or, I try to be, considering the limited access to information about the Norse mythology – and I’ve always felt deeply offended by the whole superherogods-thing.

    At the same time, I’m a rational gal – I’m fascinated by mythology and culture myself and I think they can make interesting modern tales. But especially when it comes to Norse mythology, I think it should be – for the most part – left alone. I’m Norwegian, and we hardly learn anything about the “Vikings” (and yes, that’s what they call them) at school. What we learn is the typical Christian point of view; they were barbarians who burnt down villages and raped women and all that jazz. And that’s in Norway! Imagine that, we only get a tiny and black-painted review over our very history!

    In other words, the Norse era (I refuse to call it the Viking age!) has been shoved under the carpet by Christianity for centuries. They’ve tried to erase all of our history and culture. We don’t know much about our Norse ancestors, despite their great impact on the rest of the world. I’m not saying everything they did was good, not at all; but for anyone who has the slightest respect for history, the view of the “Vikings” we are taught today should be deeply disturbing; we degrade them into blood-thirsty barbarians, pretentious warriors, sheer bloody fiction!

    My point is, the Norse era is indeed a sensitive topic. We treat it as if it’s nothing but gruesome fairytales, when in reality, there were so much more. People fought for it, they killed for it, they raised their children on it, and they died for it. It’s not for Hollywood to make into a series of sex-symbols and funny lines.

    I mean, I’ve seen people writing about the Thor movies: “I want Thor to hammer me all night long!” and things alike. It makes *me* feel like hammering them, and not in the good sense! THEY. ARE. MY. GODS. How hard is that to understand?!

    I have no idea whether you’ll read this or not, but thank you again for the article. It’s good to bring the topic to light. Also, excuse my poor English!

    • Cora says:

      The situation is quite similar here in Germany, where the Germanic people are usually treated as a sidenote of history, unless it involves the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (which is usually presented from a Roman POV!), and Norse mythology isn’t covered in schools at all. I always assumed that this was a result of our sorry history and particularly the Nazis’ fondness for Norse mythology and symbolism, which somehow caused interest in Norse mythology to be conflated with Nazi views. Indeed, when I planned to do a session on runes in the context of a linguistics class, friends and family were horrified, because “They’ll think you’re a Nazi and you’ll never get another university job ever.” In the end, I cleared the session with the department head who – bless him – didn’t see any problem at all. And this was at a Catholic university, too.

      However, I assumed that this was purely a German quirk and that other people actually did get to learn about the culture, religion and mythology of their ancestors. I’m sad to hear that this is not the case in Norway and presumably elsewhere as well.

      BTW, there is no need to excuse your English. It’s perfectly fine.

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