By: Koen Uffing
As far as ancient deities go, Marvel’s version of Thor is remarkably close to a human being. For despite his centuries-long lifespan, godlike strength, and undying immortality, Marvel’s writers have ventured to plague the God of Thunder with distinctively human-like demons. In the comic book Young Thor’s Lament, for example, Thor is given an origin story revolving around his personal struggle for independence from his overbearing father – the tyrannic All-Father Odin. Turns out, even the gods have their fair share of toxic family relationships.
But how does that work, exactly? On what grounds does Odin and Thor’s familial relationship fall apart? And how is that tied to the depiction of both characters in the narrative? In this article, we’ll examine those questions in further detail. We’ll look into how writer Jason Aaron carefully builds out the polarization between the characters of Thor and Odin as we go through the story of Young Thor’s Lament, and dig deeper into the starkly human relationship between All-Father and son.
One note: this article only touches on the iteration of Thor and Odin as found in Marvel’s comic book universe, rather than the company’s cinematic universe. As such, we’re going to zoom in on one standalone story in Jason Aaron’s landmark seven year-long comic book run: the aptly-titled Young Thor’s Lament.
Odin the Executioner
Young Thor’s Lament wastes little time establishing the tyrannic cruelty that defines Thor’s father. For the comic’s opening page depicts the All-Father confronting a trio of Elven prisoners in his throne room; Odin situated atop the raised platform of his throne, literally looking down upon his prisoners. In the first panel, Odin is quoted as asking whether his prisoners have any “last words,” to which the Elves screamingly reply “Death to Asgard! Death to the tyrant Odin!” After a brief exchange detailing the Elves’ plan to invade Odin’s realm of Asgard, the All-Father proceeds to magically immolate his Elven prisoners. Towering over the burning corpses of his captives, a satisfied Odin remarks how such is the manner in which the All-Father metes out justice: “with his own two omnipotent hands.”
The Young Prince of Asgard
The sequence featuring the execution of the imprisoned Elves is captioned by narration from Thor. In the comic’s two opening lines, The God of Thunder entrusts to the reader he has lived “in fear of [his] father for many years. For good reason.” In this context, the depiction of Odin violently immolating his prisoners serves the narrative purpose of proving Thor’s point: demonstrating to the audience why the Thunder God was right to fear his All-Father.
As the Elves meet their brutal demise, Thor’s mentions how he, despite Odin’s omnipotence, “began to “learn lessons my father could never teach me.” These lessons involved “joy and passion and the thirst for adventure. And what it truly meant to be young, alive, and immortal.” In spite of the splendor of the Realm Eternal, Thor points out he never acquired these insights “in Asgard.” He only learned what he “loved about being a god… once [he] was among the mortals.”
All-Father and Son
By offsetting Odin’s cruelty against Thor’s open-mindedness, writer Jason Aaron manages to create a stark contrast between All-Father and son. While Odin is depicted as a cruel and condescending god, Thor’s narration positions the God of Thunder as an open-minded deity. It is implied that while Odin was busy crushing the minds and bodies of dissenting mortals, Thor was spending his time learning as much as possible from the beings that were violently suppressed by his tyrant father.
In a narrative sense, this contrast in characterization between Thor and Odin serves to establish the former as a likeable protagonist, while the latter is introduced to the reader as a cruel antagonist. As such, Aaron’s opening is engineered to steer the sympathy of the audience towards Thor rather than Odin, while familiarizing readers with the stark differences between father and son.
Gods Among Men
The second scene illustrates this contrast further. As the narrative shifts towards Thor, readers find the God of Thunder in a lively Viking-style longhouse in Midgard. Our protagonist is depicted holding a huge mug of ale in his left hand; a delighted grin visible on his face. Thor is shown to sit and drink among the humans, who all cheer passionately in his honor. As the “men of the snowland” shout a toast in his honor, Thor returns the favor by embarking on a brief speech. In the short monologue, the Prince of Asgard speaks about why the mortals should raise their mugs to themselves as well, praising his audience as the “finest vikings in all of Midgard.”
But before he has a chance to finish, the longhouse is invaded by two black ravens barging through the front door. Thor is taken away by the pair of intimidating black birds, who are identified as Odin’s personal ravens Huginn and Muninn. The two of them carry Thor by his cape as they fly away from the longhouse.
The God of Thunder is then delivered to Odin. The pair engage in a heated argument, in which the All-Father physically and verbally smacks Thor for his “arrogant” behavior:
Look at yourself! You do not belong here, boy!
You are the god of the storm, not the mud!
You want to come among the mortals to swing your ax and sow your oats? Be my guest!
Gods know I did the same once upon a time!
But you will not neglect your duties in the Realm Eternal, not for the sake of Midgard!”
To which a visibly disgruntled Thor replies:
You understand nothing of Midgard. Or of me. Old man.
If you want gods blindly knowtowing at your feet, then go back to Asgard.
And leave me in the mud where I belong.”
The climax to Aaron’s second scene cements the contrast between Thor and Odin as originally laid out in the story’s opening sequence. While the introductory segment implicitly opened up daylight between All-Father and son through use of dialogue, this follow-up segment involves an explicit, head-on confrontation between the two gods. Not only do Thor and Odin differ drastically in behavior: they engage each other in physical and verbal conflict just as easily.
What it Means to Be a God
The remainder of the story revolves around a plotline featuring a tragic romance between Thor and the human character of Erika the Red, who is portrayed as a fierce warrior leading her tribe of Vikings in battle. The story ends with Erika’s inevitable death of old age, after which the God of Thunder learns a painful, yet invaluable lesson on living life to the fullest – on what it means to be a god:
I never thought about turning my back on the realm I loved. That would have been the same
as letting her go. Letting her die in vain.
And that, I will never do.
Cherish every moment. And every mortal soul you touch along the way.
Cherish them all the more because they are fleeting. And you are not.
That is the legacy of Erika the Red.
The woman who taught Thor what it means to be a god.
What it meant to be worthy.”
The story’s ending thus reveals the nature of the lesson Thor was never able to learn in Asgard. While Odin’s conception of godhood was all about dominance, Thor’s experiences in Young Thor’s Lament lead him to embrace a very different interpretation of what it means to be a god. Rather than dominating mortal lifeforms, Thor’s journey leads him to appreciate life in all its forms; to recongnize the importance of savoring the moment as it presents itself – to live his life of immortality with the same intensity as mortals do.
A Family Feud Fit for the Gods
In the final analysis, Jason Aaron’s Asgardian family feud originates in the Thunder God’s insistence on spending time with the mortals of Midgard rather than staying with the gods of Asgard. Aaron generates conflict by creating a sharp contrast in characterization between protagonist and antagonist – that is, between Thor and Odin. When the former seeks seeks to pursue an adventurous, open-minded lifestyle, the latter intervenes by trying to violently oppress his son’s freedom of behavior.
The Thor-Odin relationship that emerges, then, is one of polarization and confrontation. When Thor and Odin fall out over the course of Young Thor’s Lament, there is little to no love lost between them. On the contrary: it is only through fighting Odin that Thor learned “what it means to be god,” implying that the God of Thunder only became the beloved superhero of the Marvel Universe by distancing himself as much as possible from his father’s misguided sense of superiority. Thus, as Marvel conceives them, the contrast between Thor and Odin could hardly be greater.