I’d never had occasion to visit the Wal-Mart in Overland Park, Kansas, even though I’ve been working for the company just behind it for nearly a year. That might be for the usual reason—an anti-corporate stance that manifests itself solely in avoiding one big-box department store in favor of other, somewhat less notorious big-box department stores—but honestly, I shopped at Wal-Mart plenty while in college. I had just never needed anything from this one before.
I finally went in last week, on a Tuesday night after I got off from my overnight shift. (I needed paint. My hobby right now is painting tiny plastic men for use in a game so obscure and so expensive that I fear saying its name aloud. The game company suggests using their own paints, of course, but I refuse to pay six times as much for paint called “Chaos Black” instead of “Licorice.”) The store was much cleaner than the one I’d known when I was at Truman State, and more inviting: bright lights, smiling photographs hanging from the ceiling, a grocery department painted the color of warm earth. But the overnight stock crew looked the same as every Wal-Mart’s: tired, sallow-faced, and vaguely haunted. They seemed surprised to have a customer walking around the store at 4:45 in the morning.
As I stood in the paint aisle, the loudspeakers announced a test of the sprinkler systems, and my curiosity got the better of me. I stood there for ten minutes, listening to the thunderous sizzle of the alarm, waiting for the sprinklers to wet down the merchandise, but they never did. How this constituted a test of the important part of the sprinkler—the part that puts out the fire—I will probably never know.
I am in my mid-twenties and have no children, but still I am always drawn to the toy department when I’m in a store like Wal-Mart. I never buy anything there, but I like looking at the aisles of action figures and chintzy plastic dress-up kits. They remind me of running headlong through Venture or Target as a child, my parents hustling behind me as I raced to see what new Batman or Power Rangers toy I could coerce them into buying. It’s a habit I’ve never grown out of—see the aforementioned wallet-draining obsession with plastic soldiers.
My years in the toy aisle have taught me what to expect, usually. Star Wars and professional wrestlers will always make up at least a third of the selection. GI Joe and superheroes, another third or so. The rest goes to the current movie juggernaut. I turned into the boys’ toys aisle, not expecting anything out of the ordinary, and then remembered the current blockbuster.
Everywhere I looked the packages sang his praises: Wal-Mart, home to Thor, God of Thunder.
I looked the blister-packs over. The Lord of Storms came in multiple varieties and price-points. For eight dollars, you could buy “Lightning Clash” Thor, who seemed like the default version—Thor in his “not going anywhere in particular” clothes, suited for lazy days around Thrymheim. For fifteen dollars, though, Thor came with his “Deluxe Blaster Armor,” which you may recall featured prominently in the ancient myth of his trip to Utgard. I also found “Secret Strike” Loki, wielding two daggers and looking mildly incontinent. Both Loki and Thor came with swords as wide as the hood of a Honda in addition to their other weapons. The packages also promised a “Shield Bash” Odin, but he was nowhere to be found. (Typical.)
Beyond the action figures, I found four items of Thor dress-up apparel: an Asgardian Armor helmet, a “Thor Sword” (where are all these swords coming from, by the way? Thor never used a sword in the myths or the comics) and two versions of Thor’s Hammer, neither of which used the word “Mjolnir” anywhere on the box. Written in a circle around the top of the hammer was this:
If you don’t know how to transliterate the runes of the Elder Futhark into the Latin alphabet, it comes out to this, plus or minus a few misplaced runes:
He who wields this hammer commands the lightning and the storm.
(I’m holding out for a scene in the film where, after finding Mjolnir in a crater somewhere in the Arizona desert, a federal agent bursts into a classroom at Arizona State University and shouts, “Professor! Drop everything—the fate of the world depends on your doctorate in ancient Scandinavian literature!”)
I held that foam hammer in my hand for a long time, which I’m sure only confirmed my weirdness to the nightgaunts of the third shift. With my other hand, I rubbed the Mjolnir necklace I have worn every day since my initiation into my family’s coven. I did not know what to think of it.
I know what I’m supposed to say. Of course the Thor of the movie, and the comics that I grew up reading, is not the same Thor whom Snorri Sturluson wrote of in the Prose Edda, who perhaps is not the same Thor the Norsemen worshipped in the time before Christianity came to Northern Europe. The character Chris Hemsworth plays is not the deity I worship, the god whose symbol hangs around my neck. Anthony Hopkins, in his Hollywood regalia and metallic eyepatch, is not the Gallows-God I pray to. And even if the film is terrible, perhaps someone will watch it and then pick up Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths at the bookstore, and that will make it worthwhile.
If I could say that, then there would be nothing troubling about Sword Strike Thor and the rest. At worst, it’s harmless and ephemeral; at best, perhaps more people would learn something about the myths. But it’s not that simple.
The truth is, I looked at the toys in my hands and I saw the result of millions of dollars of development and thousands of hours of manpower, put into something bearing the name of a god, my god, and it had nothing to do with me. Their Thor was a god forgotten by all except the few quiet geeks who read his adventures in Journey into Mystery and The Mighty Thor for forty years. It wasn’t that they meant to upset or unsettle me; they simply realized that people like me were too few to matter. It’s impossible to think of a story about Jesus like this, not written to pander to or irritate Christians, but simply not considering them at all.
But not Thor. The Aesir were dead gods, their stories ready to be stirred and stolen and sold, without any remorse or complaint.
I put the toys back on the shelf and walked to the checkout. An old man in a blue vest shuffled over to the cashier. He smiled a gummy smile and scanned my bottle of Licorice Black.
“Going to do some painting, huh?” he said.
I nodded and swiped my debit card in silence. He tore off the receipt and handed it to me.
“You be careful driving,” he said. “It was raining something terrible earlier.”
I drove back home along a wet highway glistening with streetlights, one hand on the wheel, one on the sigil around my neck.
The toy hammer was gone the next week, when I returned for a bottle of Burnished Inca Gold. Mjolnir, spirited away, a gift to a child who likely knew nothing about the Aesir, or the Jotun, or Asatru, a child in whose hands now rests the power to command the lightning and the storm.
Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.