Welcome to the second part of my discussion on modern media portrayals of Thor and Loki! Each of these movies, TV shows, and book series could easily take up a whole post, so I’ve split things into two. The first part looked at brotherly depictions from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Norwegian show Ragnarok. These next two works put them in the same story, but they never directly interact. Even without a close relationship, however, they still reflect how their writers approached bringing mythology to modern viewers. For the overview on the original Thor and Loki, see Part 1. Now, let’s take a look at a couple classic Thor and Loki stories before we see how their modern versions work at a distance.
This first story influenced both the works I’ll cover later as well as Ragnarok and the Marvel Thor comics. It contains two Lokis, the standard one who more often accompanies Thor than his official blood-brother Odin, and Utgarda-Loki, giant king of Utgard or the land “beyond the enclosure.”1 Utgard Loki wears chains in some versions, suggesting both Lokis may have once been the same being.2 Second we have a fun tale to illustrate the general dynamic between this original odd couple. Both are heavily condensed and adapted from a combination of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, this translation of the Prose Edda, and Daniel McCoy’s website.
The Tests of the Utgard Giants
Thor once set out on a journey to Jotunheim, home of the giants. By his side were Loki and Thjalfi, a mortal boy sworn to serve Thor as penance for injuring one of the god’s goats. Seeking shelter for the night, they came upon a strangely-shaped hall, where they slept only to wake to an earthquake. Thor went to investigate and found an enormous giant snoring in a ravine. The giant woke and greeted Thor, introducing himself as Skrymir and picking up the “hall” that turned out to be his glove.
Skrymir invited them to join him a while and even carried their provisions in his bag. Later, however, he fell asleep without retrieving their provisions, and not even Thor could open the giant’s bag. Angered, Thor attempted three times to kill Skrymir with his hammer, but each time the giant only woke complaining of a leaf, acorn, or moss falling on his head. On rising, Skrymir parted ways with Thor and his companions, suggesting they travel to Utgard if they wanted to see truly impressive giants.
Skrymir and Thor, by Louis Huard / Public domain
Thor and his friends soon found the massive hall of Utgard, where equally massive giants sat at dinner. The king, Loki of Utgard, greeted them and challenged them to show their strengths through contests with his giants. Loki, swift and hungry, was pitted against Logi in an eating contest. Both met midway through a trough of meats, but because Logi devoured bones and even the trough, he won. Next Thjalfi, fleet of foot, raced against the giant child Hugi. Three times they raced, but always Hugi flew ahead.
Thor’s tests began with the giants’ drinking horn, which the Utgard king claimed many of them could drain in one go. Thor drank mightily, but even after three tries, the level in the horn barely dropped. Giving him a second chance, the king challenged Thor to lift his cat. All Thor managed was to pry one paw from the floor. He demanded a wrestling challenge, and the Utgard king called forth his old foster-mother, Elle. Thor threw all his strength into the match, yet Elle forced him down on one knee.
Though disheartened, the group spent the night. In the morning, the Utgard king revealed his tricks. He had disguised himself as Skrymir to invite them to Utgard, tying his bag with enchanted iron and placing an invisible mountain before his head to survive Thor’s hammer blows. In daylight, they could see deep valleys carved into the mountain. Loki, it seems, had eaten against Logi, a living fire, and nearly won. Thjalfi had raced Hugi, thought itself. Thor had drunk from a drinking horn anchored in the ocean, draining enough to lower sea levels. The cat had been the Midgard serpent wrapped around the mortal world, and lifting that “paw” had shaken the earth. Elle was old age itself, yet Thor had only fallen to one knee. The Utgard king told them to leave, for if he had known their strengths, he would never have allowed them to find his realm, and he never would again.
So in failure they had triumphed, for in some cases their triumphs would have led to failure.
Thor woke one morning to find his hammer missing. He sought council from Loki, who borrowed Freya’s cloak of feathers and set out to find the hammer. It had, he discovered, been stolen by the giant Thrym, who would not give it up unless they gave him Freya as a wife. The gods conferred and Heimdall suggested they send Thor dressed as a bride to retrieve the hammer. Thor protested, but Loki loved the idea and assured him it was the only way. So they dressed Thor in finery and pulled the veil over his face. Loki transformed to accompany him as a handmaid.
Thor gets smooched at the wedding feast. Illustration in Thrym’s Wedding-feast, 1908. W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) / Public domain
At Thrym’s holdings, the giant welcomed his new bride with a great feast. Thor nearly gave himself away by gulping down an entire ox, several salmon and several casks of mead, but Loki assured Thrym that his bride was only recovering her appetite after pining for days in anticipation. At last, Thrym presented Thor’s hammer as a gift to his bride. Thor instantly tore off the veil and struck Thrym and his giants dead.
So Thor left in triumph, in part because Loki did not have access to a smartphone.
Thor and Loki Separate
Spoiler Alert: To discuss how Thor and Loki are portrayed in these books and movies, I will have to touch on important reveals and other spoiler-ish content. If you want to avoid the spoilers, stick with the first paragraph of each, where I’ll try to keep fairly general.
New Zealand: The Almighty Johnsons
Thor and Loki aren’t the stars of this adult-oriented comedy. They are just among a handful of people who become hosts to Norse or Maori gods and goddesses at age 21 due to their bloodlines. The main story follows young goofball Axl, newly deified as Odin, who must find and unite with the latest incarnation of Odin’s soulmate Frigg to restore the gods to full power. Their main opponents are goddesses who don’t want gods having power over them. Yes, it’s as problematic as it sounds. The show spotlights some less well-known gods and goddesses, such as Fulla, Ullr, Sjöfn, and Bragi, which is cool. However, it often remakes mythology on a whim. Hodr, for instance, is a blind god mainly known for accidentally killing his brother Baldr through Loki’s manipulation. Yet here Hodr is an ice god “of all things dark and cold. Sorry,”3 as his human incarnation Ty explains. Ice was more of a giant thing, but it adds a great source of drama for Ty’s love life, so the show throws it in.
Almighty Johnsons’ Loki has a similar situation. Living as a rich lawyer named Colin Gundersen, Loki is identified as the “god of fire.”4 He spends a lot of time burning people and objects when not drafting shady contracts or planting hidden cameras. The “fire god” thing is a common misconception made popular by Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle, which combined Loki and his Utgard opponent Logi into a fire sprite named Loge.5 Though somewhat ambiguous, Colin often leans more toward villain than best friend. His actions range from irritating to repulsive to outright attempts at murder. Though he never meets Derrick Hansen, the current Thor, Colin has some interesting parallels with him, such as trying to get Axl to marry his daughter as “the Frigg.” Neither have healthy father-daughter relationships, but while Derrick shows some affection for Delphine, Colin treats Eva solely as a pawn. Ironically, she turns out to be Loki’s mythical daughter Hel as well, which probably only makes her hate Colin more.
Derrick appears only occasionally, as he lives in the fictional rural town of Whangamaungamoa rather than Auckland. The series emphasizes Thor’s “god of war” aspect over thunder,6 though he is a goat farmer. His few storylines have strong mythological connections, whether he is chasing a giant or dressing in a bridal gown to retrieve his hammer. Axl takes Loki’s place in the latter story, which is appropriate considering that Odin is also a shapeshifter.7 And unlike Colin, who is always a middle-aged man in a suit, Axl once accidentally transforms into a woman.8 Because Derrick was adopted, he was treated as delusional after becoming Thor and so identifies more with his god self than as a “mortal.”9 Yet even the other gods think he’s a bit off and tend to keep their distance. It’s an interesting reversal of Marvel’s vision where Thor is the insider golden boy and Loki is the adopted outsider struggling with his identity.
U.S.: Magnus Chase Trilogy
It would be stranger if Loki and Thor didn’t show up in Rick Riordan’s middle-grade fantasy trilogy. Magnus Chase and his friends encounter a whirlwind of characters and creatures from Norse mythology in each book, including the malevolent squirrel Ratatosk and Utgard-Loki. Most of the gods have seemingly done little since right before Ragnarok besides develop modern quirks and produce demigod children. Actually, that’s a little strange. Unlike the Greek gods of Riordan’s main series, Norse gods don’t usually have children with mortals. Yet here Thor has numerous children, including the Valkyrie Gunilla with her “bandolier of ball-peen hammers.”10 Though his name resembles Magni, Magnus is a son of Frey, not Thor. And Loki is able to project “splinters of [his] essence” that can father or birth demigods,11 despite being bound to a rock with the guts of his son Vali instead of Narfi.12 Valkyrie Samirah/Sam and einherji (warrior dead of Valhalla) Alex are respective examples.
Riordan’s Thor mostly plays the role of burly buffoon. He is a grungy, crude man with red hair and tattoos who binge-watches TV shows on his hammer, Mjolnir.13 Though officially he guards Midgard from giant attacks, his main role in the story is losing his weapons and sending Magnus and company off to fetch them. His talking goats, who go by Otis and Marvin, are often more involved in the action than he is. They die frequently but seem able to resurrect without the hammer, which is a good thing since it takes Thor two books to recover “Mee-mee.”14 Thor never interacts with Loki in the books, but he does sigh remembering how they were “a good team.”15 Gunilla is more anti-Loki than her father because a “son of Loki” betrayed her and Valhalla,16 Ironically, this places her in an antagonistic role against Magnus and Sam for most of the first book.
Loki is the main villain of the series, appearing mostly in dreams even after being freed. Magnus first sees him wearing a Red Sox jersey, but Loki also often wears green, possibly a nod to the Marvel Loki. Meanwhile his “red, brown, and yellow” hair17 plus flame-like eyes18 may reference the fire god interpretation. He doesn’t shoot flames in this case, though he can transfer the acid burn of serpent venom through touch. Nor does he do much shapeshifting compared to Sam and Alex, relying on his most potent weapon of words to make people enact his plans. Yet because he deals in deception, he can neither trust nor be trusted by anyone. This alone-ness is what Magnus throws in Loki’s face during a flyting, basically an insult battle. That Loki immediately denies it and calls for his wife and children to show their “love” reveals how desperately Loki wants to fill that emptiness.19 Perhaps this is even why he meddles so often in his demigod children’s lives, which actually drives them to hate him more.
There are probably far more modern stories that pair up Thor and Loki, but these are among the most popular. Perhaps you’ve seen a story that takes a different approach to this mythic duo. If so, please share about it in comments! I’d also love to hear which of these media portrayals you’ve seen and which interpretation you like the best.
1. McCoy, Daniel, “Innangard and Utangard,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, accessed Aug. 26, 2020, https://norse-mythology.org/concepts/innangard-and-utangard/.
2. McCoy, Daniel, “The Tale of Utgarda-Loki,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 27, 2020, accessed Sep. 23, 2020, https://norse-mythology.org/tale-utgarda-loki/.
5. Seigfried, Karl E. H., “Questioning Loki, Part One,” The Norse Mythology Blog, posted Jan. 5, 2013, accessed Sep. 6, 2020, https://www.norsemyth.org/2013/01/questioning-loki-part-one.html.
7. McGrath, Sheena, “Blood-Brothers: Loki and Odin,” We Are Star Stuff, posted Apr. 4, 2015, accessed Sep. 6, 2020, https://earthandstarryheaven.com/2015/04/04/loki-and-odin/.