Please be warned reader that this article contains MAJOR spoilers for the story of ‘God of War.’
Transforming traditional folklore and stories faithfully isn’t an easy task, though the writing team at SIE Santa Monico Studio makes it look flawlessly smooth and frustratingly easy. Usually, when a work by another person is either rewritten or reworked, some sort of magic that the original had is lost along the way. Despite this, God of War treats Norse mythology and its stories with the utmost respect as it takes inspiration from some, and bends others to fit the narrative.
Recounting the tales of magnificent gods, stupid wagers, and cunning plans, much of Norse mythology reflects the flaws we see within ourselves. The stories are timeless because of this constant theme of parallels between us as mortals and the ageless Aesir, the gods of the Nine Realms. (That and the fact that Marvel took Thor’s name as one of their Avengers, which can likely be attributed to why Norse culture is currently experiencing a revival in the Western world.)
The stories have always held a place in my heart, so to see this world brought to stunning life in one of my favourite game series was nothing short of a dream come true. It was also intriguing to see how the studio interpreted or re-imagined certain gods and characters already established within the Poetic and Prose Edda (where most of Norse mythology hails from), especially given how some act in this title.
Second born of Allfather Odin and most beautiful man alive, Baldur’s counterpart in God of War is a far cry from the man he is in legend. He was supposed to have been so radiant that people who looked upon him would weep, for they couldn’t contain themselves with the light that surrounded his fair head. Contrast this with the gritty, dull spoken version in God of War, and you’ll quickly see why the writers made some twists and turns along the way.
Baldur in legend wasn’t immortal or invincible as he is in game; instead, it was simply that his mother, Freyja (or Frigg), spoke to every animal, person, plant, and creature in all the realms and asked them to never harm him. Arrows shot at him would curve out of the way, blades would not cut him, and no animal would attack him in passing. In keeping with the lore, the game’s Baldur is immune to harm because his mother used her keen understanding of Vanir magic to render him numb to sensation. It’s an interesting change, but with the same catch.
Baldur is ultimately slain by a sprig of mistletoe, the one thing that can harm him. Same as in the mythology, Baldur’s death hails the arrival of Fimbulwinter, and is one of the events that lead to the death of the gods in Ragnarok. Given how important this is, the next game has quite the stage set for it.
Freyja & Frigg
Not to be confused with Frey, her brother, Freyja is one of the few Vanir gods that Kratos meets along his journey. Initially introduced as a woodland witch, it’s quickly established that she has great sway over the creatures in Midgard, and watches over them as some sort of protector. Of course, once it’s revealed that she’s a goddess of nature, the game takes a remarkable turn.
In legend, Freyja is married to Odin in Asgard as part of a peace agreement between both the Aesir and Vanir families. However, in the game this narrative is pushed a few steps further by making Odin angry at Freyja, stripping her of her warrior spirit (likely the chariot drawn by the old relatives of Norwegian forest cats as well) and condemning her to imprisonment within Midgard.
It’s unclear from the mythos whether or not Odin’s and Freyja’s relationship was so inflammatory, but certain tales do point to the fact that Freyja was angry at Odin because of his salacious acts outside of Asgard. Frigg however, is a little more mysterious. In Germanic folklore, Frigg is the wife of Odin and mother of Baldur. This connection between the two, however, is only present in Norse interpretations of texts, leading some scholars to believe that both Freyja and Frigg are in fact that same person. At least the game does the source material a favour by making it easier to understand.
One of the most memorable characters from God of War (and one I desperately hope will make a return in the future) is Mimir, who coins himself as the smartest man alive — “alive” being a loose term at best. While not enough sources survive today to clarify whether Mimir was Giant, Aesir or Vanir, it’s clear that he’s an immortal spirit of some sort.
In God of War he speaks about travelling from realm to realm since time immemorial both as a wise man and as a not-so-wise man. Given the sheer lack of stories around Mimir (the most notable being about how Odin gave up one of his eyes for a drink of water), it’s impressive that the writing team at SIE Santa Monico Studio have crafted such a fleshed-out character. Of course, he wouldn’t be the same Mimir if he didn’t lose his head.
In Germanic folklore, Mimir attempted to broker peace between the warring Aesir and Vanir gods. However, the Vanir assumed Mimir (coming from Odin’s household and offering advice) was a spy sent to kill them somehow. In a horrible turn of events, Mimir ends up dead, and his head is sent back to Odin as a warning.
In the game, these events take the form of Odin restraining Mimir atop the highest peak in Midgard as penance for aiding the Vanir many years ago. What matters, however, is that Mimir’s head rolls and survives intact. In a surreal scene, Kratos revives Mimir using Freyja’s magic in order to consult him as an advisor, a role he filled in legend to Odin himself.
Laufey the Just
In the game’s most incredible reveal, we and Kratos learn that Faye, his wife, was in fact a giantess of Jotunheim, as well as Atreus’ mother, whom she named Loki before her passing. Referred to as Nal (or Laufey) in the Prose Edda, a name that means ‘needle’, it suggests she is small and weak in stature. Given what we know about Kratos, his incredible strength, and the fact that Atreus exists, Faye could have been small, but not weak.
This marks one of the most radical departures from the mythos that the writers embark upon, but not without good reason. Little exists describing Laufey in Norse, text and even less about what she was like to speak to. Perhaps it’s the lack of context that allowed the writing team to essentially reforge her character into this protector of mortals and bulwark for the weak.
So gargantuan that his body wraps around the entire realm of Midgard once over, legend sees Jormungandr as the middle child of Loki and the giantess Angrbooa (which is a frankly interesting detail if you’ve played and beaten God of War). Instead of being the offspring of an Aesir and a Giant, the World Serpent is simply a Giant in God of War. It does beg the question: where are his supposed siblings, the Great Wolf Fenris, and Goddess Hel in this world?
Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore Jormungandr in God of War because he occupies at least ten percent of Midgard’s landmass at any given moment. Being a poster boy for the game, the mighty Jormungandr has a surprising amount of personality for a gigantic, all-encompassing snake. Aside from the aesthetic redesign, it’s clear that the writers wanted him to be as closely related to the folklore as possible.
Magni & Modi
As a mid-game boss fight, Magni & Modi are seen in the company of Baldur two times before they appear blocking the way to Thamur’s chisel. These two are some of the only examples in God of War where the mythology doesn’t wholly line up with the character they are given, and the writers instead seem to take inspiration rather than use documentation.
Modi, the god of bravery in legend, first son of Thor and he who will survive the end of things in Ragnarok, is a complete coward in God of War. Facing off against Kratos and Atreus, Modi is the only survivor after Magni is killed by Kratos wielding the Leviathan Axe. It’s such an extraordinary contrast to the god that Viking berserker’s prayed to before battle for good fortune, but what’s even more striking is what happened to his brother.
Magni, bastard son of Thor and giantess Jarnsaxa, is the strongest of all the Aesir, and he who will inherit Mjolnir after his father’s passing in Ragnarok. What’s polarising here is that Magni is the god of strength, meaning that in legend he’s stronger than even his father, Thor (who once lifted Jormungandr off the ground with his might). It was strangely saddening to see this god reduced to a character who seems fairly weak in comparison to his mythological self. Imagine the fight that would have ensued if Magni and Kratos were pitted strength for strength, and had some sort of brawl to decide their battle.
Other Named Gods
In what I can only assume is a teaser for the next God of War, Thor makes an appearance after the end credits sequence outside of Kratos’ home in Midgard. The god of thunder looks the part, being presented as a wall of muscle and anger. Naturally, since the entire game spent a fair portion of its time talking about how terrifyingly strong he was, it was tantalizing to see him appear before the homestead, ready to draw out Mjolnir.
Equally, many other gods are mentioned in God of War without making an appearance at all (which is understandable, as the family tree is immensely vast and sometimes confusing) including Odin, Fjord, Ymir, Frigg, Frey, and some of the more prolific Giants that Mimir talks about.
Norse mythology is playing a part in shaping the future of Sony’s largest franchises, it seems, and is not about to go away anytime soon. This inclusion and faithfulness to the source material is actually endearing to see, not only because it shows that SIE Santa Monico Studio actually care for the world they’re creating, but also because they care about where the material came from in the first place.
The stories are inspiring in their own way, and when you show them off with this level of polish in a story this well written, perhaps it will get people to go out and read those legends. I’ve found that God of War has reignited a passion within me not only for great single player titles, but also for stories about a land where Thor’s fake wedding to the Ogre King ended in a bloodbath, and to Odin’s ten days hanging from the branches of Yggdrasil where he learned of the power of prophecy.