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The Doctor and Norse Mythology

By Leigh Hendry

This article was inspired by aspects of Norse mythology that cropped up in both The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and The Curse of Fenric. Wanting to see if these references were in fact taken from Norse mythology, I did some research into the area.

It would seem to be impossible to give a strictly systematic account of Norse cosmology. The myths about the creation of the world as the Norse knew it do not form a coherent or consistent narrative. Instead, there are a number of concepts that have survived in their mythology, sometimes contradictory. This can be partly explained by the fact that very little of the Norse mythology or stories were written down, at least until centuries after their beginning. They are bound to be distorted and changed after all this time. It is possible to get a vague outline of Norse creation myths as follows. I have left out areas which are not likely to be of interest to Doctor Who fans and concentrated on references to Fenric, Ragnarok, etc.

The gods created mankind and then gave them a place to live. From the mythology, the picture of the world that emerges is that of a disc with concentric bands: in the centre was Asgard (the home of the gods), then Midgard for mankind, then Ocean, and on the outside Jotunheim, the home of the giants. But although it was conceived as being flat, it also had 3 levels: Asgard at the top, Midgard in the middle, and underneath it Niflheim, the realm of the dead.

All these realms were held together by Yggdrasil, the World Tree, a mighty ash-tree which was the holy of holies of the gods. Here the gods sat in council every day. This was the centre of the universe; its branches reached the sky and spread over the earth, its three roots stretched into all the realms.

The concept was always held that the world was flawed and doomed from the very start - that Yggdrasil was rotting and suffering fearful torments. The seeds of destruction of the world were sown during the creation itself. This doom was summed up in the concept of Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods. The blood of the gods was flawed with latent corruption. The universe they created was always a precarious, vulnerable place, beset by terrible forces of destruction that had constantly to be kept at bay. The demigod Loki, catalyst of evil in the world of the gods, had spawned fearsome monsters whose menace always shadowed the future: Midgardsorm (the World Serpent) which lurked in the depths of Ocean, and the baleful wolf Fenric which lay bound in a cavern in the Otherworld (See later in this article for how Fenric is imprisoned). Ragnarok is seen by mythological sources as destiny, remorseless and fore-ordained: in other words, as Doomsday.

Odin the All-Father seeks occult knowledge of the future knowing that there is nevertheless nothing he can do to alter it or avert the impending doom, however much he may try to manipulate events.

Odin's favourite son, the god Baldur, is killed by Loki's treachery. Throughout the Universe, all order is breaking down:

Brothers will battle
And kill each other,
Sister's kin
Commit foul acts.
There's woe in the world,
Lechery rampant;
An axe-age, a sword-age,
Shields are sundered;
A storm-age, a wolf-age,
Before the world crumbles.
No mercy or quarter
Will man give to man.

The wolf, Fenric, breaks free from his prison and advances with gaping jaws that stretch from heaven to earth. The World Serpent writhes in fury. The dead burst from the Otherworld and cross the moat of Ocean. The World Serpent emerges from the depths of Ocean, spewing poison.

There follows a great battle with all the gods trying to avert the doom. Thor does battle with the World Serpent and eventually kills it but he dies too, overcome by its venom. The wolf Fenric, with fire flashing from his eyes and nostrils, devours Odin, only to have his jaws wrenched apart by Odin's avenging son.

All the old gods die in that battle. The world shatters and bursts into flame. The earth sinks into the sea, in a welter of fire and smoke and hissing steam. But it is not, after all, the end of everything. The World Tree survives and in its branches are discovered a man and woman who will repopulate the earth when it rises again from the sea, green with grass and fertile. And the children of the old gods survive to rebuild their home, Asgard:

And there once again,
Rare and wonderful,
Golden chessmen
Will be found on the grass,
Which the gods had owned
In olden times.

Another aspect of Norse mythology of interest is the story of Tyr, the sky-god. Tyr was a god known to be extremely daring and courageous. He has much say in the outcome of battles, and bold men are well advised to invoke his name.

The outstanding example of his courage was the part he played in the binding of the wolf Fenric.

Fenric, who was one of the monstrous offspring of Loki and was destined to devour Odin at Ragnarok, grew up with the gods in Asgard. He became so huge and ferocious that none of the gods except Tyr dared feed him. The god has a premonition of the catastrophe this terrible creature would cause, and resolved to chain him so securely he could never break free.

Twice the gods approached Fenric with fetters and playfully challenged him to try his growing strength by seeing if he could break them, and twice, to their dismay, he snapped them with ease. The gods then acquired a magic chain, but the wolf naturally suspected a trap when the gods approached him with it. Eventually he was persuaded to let himself be bound with it, but only on condition that one of the gods placed his own hand in the wolf's jaws as a pledge of good faith. Eventually Tyr volunteered to be the hostage and put his right hand in the wolf's maw. The wolf now consented to have the magic cord wrapped around him, only to find that the more he strained and struggled to break free, the tighter the fetters became. In his rage he bit off Tyr's hand, but Fenric was bound at last, and could be imprisoned in a cavern deep in the Otherworld, there to stay until the cataclysm of Ragnarok.

So far, I have just presented the Norse mythology. I found that as I researched this, possible links with the Doctor began to become apparent.

In The Curse of Fenric, Millington was obsessed by Norse mythology, especially Fenric and Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods. He was sure that the Sword-age was near. In The Curse of Fenric novelisation, Document I, an essay written by Millington when he was in Form IIC shows his knowledge of the myth, being basically similar to what I have written above.

In the Norse myths, at the time of Ragnarok when Fenric breaks free, the dead are supposed to burst from the Otherworld and cross the moat of Ocean. This can be paralleled in Curse of Fenric by the haemovores rising from the sea - they can be said to have burst from the Otherworld and come from the Ocean.

The chess figures which play an important and recurring part in The Curse of Fenric can also be related back to Norse life. Millington's chess set is said to be carved into figures of Viking gods and goddesses. Chess is a very old game and has long had links to Norse mythology - in the second poem extract in the article above reference is made to golden chessmen which the gods had owned. Chess is the game of the gods.

This makes it all the more intriguing that in The Curse of Fenric the fate of the world, and the success or failure of Fenric comes down again to a game of chess. We are told that this is not the first time that Fenric and the Doctor have played a game of chess. In this story too, all rides on the chess game which Ace unwittingly gives Fenric the clue to win. Again, chess is the game of the gods - Fenric vs. the Doctor - two gods?

There are similarities between Ingiger, also referred to as the Ancient One, and one of the wolves of Fenric, and the World Serpent mentioned in the Norse tales. Fenric and the World Serpent are both offspring of the evil god Loki. In the myths, at the time of Ragnarok, the World Serpent emerges from the depths of Ocean where he had been lurking, spewing poison. Fenric tells Millington that "you could call (Ingiger) the Great Serpent". Millington says "And the Great Serpent shall rise from the sea and spew venom all over the Earth". Ingiger indeed rises from the sea where he has been for a long time - he is obviously an Ancient One, being the supreme of the Haemovores, who waited for Fenric to break free from his chains before rising from the Ocean. And indeed, Fenric did intend to use Ingiger to poison the Earth - to spew poison all over the Earth. It is only thanks to the Doctor's intervention that Fenric did not succeed in using Inigiger to poison the world.

The time of Ragnarok is said to occur when all order starts to break down. "Brothers will battle", "a wolf-age" will occur, "No mercy or quarter will man give to man". This can be said to have occurred during the Second World War - when countries battled against each other and no mercy was given - Millington, presumably following orders from higher authority, certainly didn't intend to give quarter to the Russians - they were intended to be destroyed. But in this case, the "brothers" came to realise that they were being used, and banded together - the Russians and the British realised at the end that they had to work together to try to defeat Fenric.

Fenric did break free from his prison as foretold in the Norse myths. It can even be said that he had lain bound in a cavern in the Otherworld - his essence was in the flask in the cellar beneath the crypt - about as near to the Otherworld as most people would want to get.

Throughout the story, the Doctor seemed to know what was going to happen and the reasoning behind the situation. He initiated a conversation with Millington on Norse mythology, saying "... where broods of serpents spew their venom over the Great Ash Tree". Millington replies "The Great Ash Tree - the soul of all the Earth". The Great Ash Tree is also an integral part of Norse mythology - the holiest of all places to the Norse gods - the centre of the universe which the gods battled to keep alive and thus deflect the seemingly inevitable doom.

It can be said that the Doctor knew of the coming of Ragnarok and tried, yet again, to stop the doom that he saw coming. Could there be links between the Doctor and the sky-god Tyr? It seems prophetic that Tyr was known as the sky- god - primitives seeing the Doctor arriving in his TARDIS would surely see him as a sky-god. Tyr was the god who chained Fenric and bound him in a cavern until the time of Ragnarok - we know that the Doctor and Fenric have battled before - could the Doctor and Tyr be one and the same?

It is tempting to say that the Doctor knew of the coming of Ragnarok - he says in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, when compelled to entertain the three Gods that "That is why I've fought the Gods of Ragnarok in some form or other all through time". Has the Doctor appointed himself as the one to battle Ragnarok through all time - to divert the doomsday and the end of the World, or the end of the Universe? Or has he been appointed by someone or something as the guardian of the Universe - battling Ragnarok forever?

In the legend of Ragnarok Thor is said to be the one to kill the World Serpent and Fenric kills Odin. Thanks to the Doctor's intervention Fenric and the World Serpent both die, therefore the Universe is saved and Ragnarok is deferred - permanently? Probably only the Doctor really knows.

This item appeared in TSV 33 (April 1993).

Index nodes: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, The Curse of Fenric