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More than a Fairytale: Why I’m no longer talking to the Marvel-mad about Mjolnir

Illustration by Chen (Cornelia) Chen

Behold, one of my favourite scenes in The Avengers quite possibly ever…

(Disclaimer: please watch the scene – it’s literally only 2 minutes and you won’t regret it, and if you’ve seen it already then you know it’s iconic and will watch again for the nostalgia. No really, please watch or the first bit of this column will make no sense, then you won’t like it, you’ll stop reading, and I’ll be sad). 

Mjolnir, the mighty hammer of the Norse God Thor, only to be wielded by the worthiest of warriors. The idea is relatively simple; in the films it was largely there for dramatic effect, to make the audience gasp (or clap irritatingly- I really hate cinema clappers, do they not realise nobody on the screen can see you clap!) when characters who were not Thor suddenly picked up the hammer. That being said, people did start to overcomplicate the issue, to explain the phenomena through science, or come up with an outlandish far-fetched way in which the hammer could ‘technically’ be lifted. So, because it is exam season and we all a little bit of humour in our lives, I thought I would offer my three personal favourites…just so you can know there are people sillier and much more obsessed in little irrelevant details than anyone at Oxford! 

Physics it Out 

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and one of the directors of the American Museum of Natural History (I am not sure why he doesn’t have anything more pressing to do, but I am grateful for his scientific contribution to this important issue) somewhat condescendingly reminds us on Twitter that Mjolnir is forged in the heart of a dying star. This means it is made of neutron star matter, the heaviest substance in the universe, and so would weigh the same as – to use his words – ‘a herd of 300 billion elephants’ 

THE VERDICT: the scientific snobbery was there, theoretically his argument is perfect. The common sense, however, is severely lacking. Thor does not perpetually carry his hammer, he puts it down, and when he does it does not sink from heaviness into the depths of the earth….

If not Physics then Philosophy…

Mjolnir isn’t magic, it just belongs to a civilisation much more advanced than we are. As Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law pretentiously (but accurately) states, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Namely, as I loved to argue in GCSE philosophy, if you gave an iPhone to Henry VIII he would denounce you for wizardry. iPhones aren’t magic – although I do English, so science and tech is all magic to me! – they are just products of an advanced civilisation. Thor can lift Mjolnir because he comes from this advanced Asgardian race, he knows the tricks humans are too dumb and evolutionary backwards to know. 

THE VERDICT: Like most things in philosophy, this argument is mainly hot air and fancy words. I mean yes Vision lifts the Hammer and he is technologically more advanced than the others but so does Cap – and he, having been born in the 1920s, is the grandad of the team who barely understands mobile phones let alone advanced Asgardian mechanics. 

To lift…in a lift? 

I really don’t get the obsession with putting Mjolnir in an elevator, but gosh do people love to debate whether or not the lift would still go up when holding the fabled hammer. Some say yes, because the elevator is not technically holding the hammer, others no…so it’s anyone’s guess really. 

THE VERDICT: people really need to get out more 

But that’s just the thing, in popular culture, particularly superhero culture, we have a really perverse obsession with weapons and armour. Just think how excited everyone got when Wanda was given a new suit in the most recent WandaVision TV series. A lot of the journalism surrounding her new badass costume used phrases such as Wanda ‘finally gets the suit she deserved’. What can we learn from this? Well, in the most obvious instance, her armour absolutely needed reinventing, her old stuff – as is typical with basically every representation of female armour – was as misogynistic as it was utterly impractical. Elizabeth Olsen literally had to lobby Marvel to get it changed. It’s the 21stcentury we can – and need to! – do better. 

It also reminds us that the armour and weaponry must match seamlessly with the hero. It is more than just a pretty costume; it is a representation of the journey the hero has made to ‘deserve’ the title ‘hero’. Thor works endlessly to become ‘worthy’ and wield Mjolnir, Wanda has to suffer immensely to be reborn in the armour of ‘The Scarlett Witch’. Perhaps this is exactly why we like these objects; we are proud of the steps the hero has taken to earn them. Hence why the hero can actually survive and fight without them. 

One of the most poignant moments in The Marvel Cinematic Universe (yes I did call Marvel ‘poignant’, and I would absolutely do it again!) comes in Thor Ragnarok. With Mjolnir broken by his psychotic sister Hela, Thor finds himself in a classic crisis of (masculine) identity, believing he cannot perform without his trusty hammer. Yes that is an innuendo… but let’s not dwell on it, the link between weapons and manhood is hardly a secret. But his father, the oh-too-wise Antony Hopkins, aka Odin, God-of-vague-and-deep-sounding- metaphorical-phrases, is absolutely right. A hero’s strength comes from within, their ability to overcome adversity and move powerfully forwards…it does not come from having the biggest hammer. 

That being said, when a hero’s weapon does fail we can’t help but be shocked and, if it’s an arrogant man, we find ourselves laughing. Believe it or not, Marvel did not invent the idea of a powerful, unstoppable, mythical weapon being crushed by an even more insanely mythical female. That honour belongs to Beowulf. About halfway through the story the Beowulf poet makes an absolutely massive deal of this huge sword called ‘Hrunting’ (which hilariously – and rather subtly! – translates as ‘thrusting’) gifted to Beowulf before fighting Grendel’s Mother. Seriously, the poet is crazy for this sword, it’s given like over 30 lines of description and a hell of a lot of adjectives…oh and they emphasise that it ‘never ever ever ever fails’, it’s that trustworthy. 

So, you can probably guess what happens next. When it comes to fighting ‘Hrunting’ is absolutely useless. It seems Grendel’s Mother only has to hold out her hand before it smashes into a thousand little pieces. Basically, Hrunting is all the chat with absolutely no substance – the perfect match for its owner really!

Something I do hate about weapons in popular culture is this obsession with giving them names. Is it just me who finds this really weird? Especially when we consider the things a sword might symbolise. Plus, people are so uncreative with their names. Sure a name like Excalibur or Mjolnir sounds really cool now because we no longer speak those languages. They sound all exotic, dark, mysterious but they certainly wouldn’t have at the time. For accuracy and authenticity we should really be translating, calling them ‘Cut-Steel’ and ‘Lightning’ because that is how boring and ordinary the names are! Okay, maybe I’m being a bit cynical, but I actually couldn’t bear how much of a big deal everyone makes about the symbolism of the names behind weapons. The only thing we learn is that creativity is clearly not a quality needed in a hero. 

But we’ve heard enough about Mjolnir and Beowulf, and I am not even getting onto Excalibur, no way! I’m sick of it and the silliness of King Arthur mythology and you will know that if you’ve read my last column. Although there is one thing I will briefly say: 

Excalibur was not the sword in the stone. This was a completely fabricated detail introduced in John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur because he thought his audience would get to confused with Arthur having two separate swords over the course of his reign. I mean it must be really confusing to think he had one sword as a boy only to be given another, more improved, sword by a Lady who (for some unknown bizarre reason) lives in a lake when he grows up – that’s like counting two whole numbers! 

 But really, enough on Excalibur! 

So I’m going to finish with the more obscure, the less mainstream, the less ‘Hollywood’ of the legendary weapons – but, that being said, some of them have really fabby stories with which film companies would have a field trip! I’ll leave you with my top five:  

  1. Caladbolg – If any of you have played games like Final Fantasy or Guild Wars 2 you might have heard of this one because it has very much become a staple in fantasy popular culture. In reality, it is much older and dates back to Irish Celtic Mythology. Wielded by the legendary King Fergus mac Roich. Why do I like it? Well, it was believed to emit rainbows when swung and (allegedly!) it had the power to slice the top off mountains. 
  2. Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar – now we move over to Ancient Persia and the sword used by Prince Milad to slay the hideous winged demon Fulad-Zerah. You may also know it from Dungeons and Dragons. The sword is special because the demon’s mother had bewitched her son to be invulnerable to all weaponry, but she was too in awe of this sword to add it to the charm. It is the only sword in Persian mythology immune to magic. 
  3. Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi – an incredible sword in Japanese mythology that came to symbolise the virtue of valour. I like it partly because it has a beautiful name, even in translation (as it literally means ‘the heavenly sword of gathering clouds’). I also like its origin story where it was found in the belly of a great serpent king by the hero-God Susanoo.
  4. Colada and Tizona – okay fair enough, I did cheat the numbers slightly! Just like Arthur had two separate swords so did the legendary Spanish warrior king Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, El Cid. Now these swords are ‘real’ (or as ‘real’ as you ever get with semi-legendary relics), you can see Tizona in the Museum de Burgos. I hope it doesn’t provoke the reaction it used to, that would be very bad for tourism. You see, there are accounts in medieval Spanish stories of armies taking one look at these babies and running the other direction. That’s some pretty scary iron. 
  5. Skofnung – I had to end where I began, with Viking mythology. But Skofnung should absolutely be given the same clout as Mjolnir in my view. It was the sword of the legendary Danish King Hrolf Kraki and was believed to be imbued with the spirits of his twelve Berserker Bodyguards. As a result, there are some very strange superstitions associated with the weapon, my personal favourites being that the sun is absolutely not allowed to shine upon its blade. I guess Kraki had to do all his fighting in the dark…