The Real Ancient Myth at the Heart of 'God of War'
In a game very much about beginnings and endings, the overpowering Norse myth about the end of the world rules all.
All images courtesy Sony
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Spoilers for God of War, including the endgame, to follow.
Kratos is fundamentally a subtractive force in his universe. We’ve spent the entire God of War franchise controlling this vengeful, murderous man who has sliced his way through Greek mythology tale by tale and character by character.
The turn in God of War, our newest entry in his tale, is that Kratos is tasked with adding something. This being of pure negativity who shuts things down with maximum violence has to mold a child into a being who can be something other than what Kratos has been. This child, Atreus, is the root of a supposed sea change in Kratos, and God of War is about navigating the transition from annihilator of pantheons to educating father figure. This positive story happens in a context, though, of another child. His name is Baldur.
Baldur is the fuel for God of War’s plot. The game truly opens when he appears at Kratos and Atreus’s home, it’s his attack that causes Kratos to destroy the portal to Jotunheim that causes the back half of the game, and it’s his murderous rage at his mother that causes Kratos to step into the affairs of the Norse gods at the close of the game. Baldur is more a function than he is a character, and it’s his ability to keep returning to the fight that makes him such a powerful villain within the context of a God of War game. Kratos is good at doling out violence, but Baldur is the perfect receptacle for that violence. After all, he cannot die and he can feel no pain. In fact, he can’t feel anything at all.
Within God of War, Baldur’s immortality and inability to feel are explained in the context of a larger bit of lore. He’s the product of a political marriage between Odin, head god of the Aesir, one set of Norse gods, and Freya, leader of a competing faction called the Vanir. When he was born, Freya learned that he was destined to die in some horrible way, so she worked her powerful Vanir magic on him so as to make him immune to everything. Baldur was left immortal, pleasureless and painless. This inability to feel drove him to exact revenge on his mother. It would be better to die than to live this way.
Baldur does die. He dies unfulfilled, unhappy, at the hands of the god-killer Kratos. And his death matters, not just for the plot of this game but in the context of the mythology that the game is cribbing from in order to create its universe of gods and their worlds. In the Prose Edda, a volume of Norse mythology cobbled together out of the Icelandic oral tradition by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, Baldur’s death immediately precedes Ragnarok, an event that upends much of the world and causes the destruction of many of the gods.
In that mythological tradition, Baldur talks too much about the dangerous acts he wants to accomplish. In response, his mother Frigg (transformed into Freya in the game), decides that she wants to protect her son, so she forces all of the natural world to promise not to hurt Baldur. Fire and water, iron and disease, all of them pledge to refrain from harming Baldur, all except for a tiny plant named mistletoe that is deemed too small and young to harm him.
Through a convoluted set of events, Loki manages to learn this information, and takes a sprig of mistletoe to where Baldur and many other gods are performing sport. They’re shooting Baldur with all sorts of weapons because it’s funny. He cannot be harmed, and so there is no reason not to. Loki puts a dart of mistletoe in the hands of a sporting god, the dart slays Baldur. The gods wail and mourn.
God of War puts many twists on this tale. It’s still Loki who causes Baldur to be slain, since Loki is revealed to be what the giants call Atreus. He’s still killed by mistletoe, since Atreus removes his magical invulnerability by putting an arrowhead made of the wood through Baldur’s hand. And he’s still shot, stabbed, hacked at, and cut over and over again for sport, since that’s literally what the gameplay is. As players, we control a god who passes his time by fighting an invulnerable Baldur.
Just like in the Prose Edda, the death of Baldur is followed immediately by the onset of Fimbulwinter. It’s a kind of deathly cold, unbroken by summer, and the dwarves who serve as the game’s upgrade merchants will not shut the hell up about it after the final boss of the game is slain. The end of the game screams “here comes Ragnarok,” and it’s easy to get the feeling at the end of the game that Baldur really was just his function. He lives to deliver exposition and get in the way, and he dies so that we can move along to kill more important gods in the pantheon.
God of War does everything in its power to encourage us not to think too hard about Baldur. He’s a thin character who feels about as complex as Jared Leto’s version of The Joker. He’s a fighting figure easily reducible to his almost-catchphrase of talking about “feeling.” His body motions, dominated by leaning and gesticulation, feel like reprisal of actor Jeremy Davies’s role as Dickie Bennett in the Kentucky crime drama Justified. And just like Dickie Bennett, Baldur has the feeling of a symptom, a herald for other beings more powerful than he is.
Those beings never appear in God of War. Instead, we only get Baldur, and just like in the mythology, his primary function is to die so that change can happen. Kratos is a hammer, Baldur is an anvil, and Atreus gets shaped as a person when he’s pressed between the two of them. Baldur’s dogged pursuit of the father and son is what forces Kratos to eventually confess his godhood to his son. Baldur’s hatred of his own mother provides life lessons for Kratos to narrate at his son. And at the end of the game, with a brutal crack, Kratos tells his son not to be like Baldur.
In the mythology, Baldur’s death begins a period of chaos where most of the gods, including his parents Odin and Freya, die. But that period, Ragnarok, ends with the redemption of the world. Baldur returns from Hel, resurrected, and contemplates the world that was. His death becomes a device that allows for the world to be made better than it was before.
This is also what God of War’s Baldur does. When Kratos finally breaks Baldur’s neck, for good this time, he says “The cycle ends here. We must be better than this.” It’s a ham-fisted line, but it’s also appropriate for Kratos, a character who remains about as deep as a Grecian urn full of unidentifiable, yet chuggable, alcohol. He’s referring to a cycle in which children kill parents. He’s referring to a system of gods slaying gods, of violence beyond human understanding, marked by unfiltered rage. He’s referring to vengeance, his own as much as Baldur’s, and what the pursuit of that vengeance costs.
And yet, if the mythology and the onset of Fimbulwinter are anything to go by, the cycle begins here. In that moment, with Baldur’s death, the God of War franchise begins the slow turn toward Ragnarok and the rebirth of the world. There will be a great many tragedies and deaths, and out of that there will come a better world for the people who survive and return to life. Who will get to live there? Who will this new world be for? It will be a different place, one where cycles no longer make sense, and Baldur’s death is a finger-wagging lesson, horrible in nature, aimed at Atreus. Baldur dies, staring out at the audience, as a symbol for a monstrous lesson from father to son. Do not allow yourself to be like me, and do not allow your world to be like mine.
Subtracting is what Kratos does, and killing Baldur is meant to be a moment of removal. He’s taking the Norse god’s vengeance out of this world. And yet it’s hard to imagine Atreus, almost certainly a steward of a new world, recovering from this stern lesson in cold pragmatic murder. But Baldur is ultimately a child raging against a parent, just as Kratos was a child raging against his father Zeus, and if Baldur’s death is a lesson then it is a father telling a son where a child should stand in relation to a parent. He says that the cycle ends there, but it seems to me that Baldur’s death starts up more cycles than it ends.
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