Popular culture with Norwegian influence

In our previous article, we explored the basics of the Norwegian language, now we are going to look at cultural aspects.

What comes to mind when you think of Norway? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Could the mysteries of the North be closer to home than you thought? Let’s explore the different ways through pop culture and media, that you might be more familiar with Norway than you thought.

Books with Norwegian / Norse influence

1) Game of Thrones

The epic Game of Thrones series was a spectacular ride for modern pop culture. Though written by an American and based in Westeros, Norse influence can be seen in the series.

The frozen world beyond the wall, home to frost giants, is reminiscent of the mythical realm Jotunheim, the land of the jotnar (giants). Additionally, the novels make use of large Dire-wolves, and crows, which feature prominently in Norse mythology.

Norse legends predicted that the giant wolf Fenrir would eventually break free and kill his captor Odin, and in turn be killed by Odin’s son, Thor. Odin is said to have sacrificed one of his eyes for enlightenment and is aided by crows who gather information for him. See any similarities?

2) The Lord of the Rings

Norse mythology is visible in the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Familiar with Norse mythology from his youth, it helped to shape Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth. The name itself bears a strong resemblance to Midgard, the Norse mythical realm for humans.

Gandalf the Grey, a prominent character of the series, may well have been inspired by Odin. Both are elderly, bearded men known to travel in a cloak and wide brimmed hat, and carrying a cane.

With their casts of elves, dwarves, and wise bearded wizards, it’s easy to see similarities between the two fantasy worlds.

(read more about Scandinavian names)

3) Henrik Ibsen

Norway is particularly proud of the prestigious ethnic Norwegian author and playwright, Henrik Ibsen. Perhaps one of the most influential playwrights of all time, he authored around 25 plays and over 300 poems.

This revolutionary man pushed the boundaries of culture at the time and was a founder of modernism in theatre. Some of his biggest works include Peer Gynt, A Doll’s house, and Ghosts.

4) Comics - Thor

Marvel’s adventures of Thor earned themselves a spot alongside such titans as Iron Man, Captain America, and Spiderman comics.

Thor is the mythical prince of Asgard (one of the 9 worlds in Norse mythology). Asgard is home of the Aesir tribe of Gods, where Thor lived before he was cast down to Earth by his father so that he may be taught humility.

Marvel’s Thor introduced many readers to the polytheistic world of the Nordic, where Gods wield mighty powers but are petty and flawed like humans.

These ancient heroes begin to fight crime in modern settings presented by the “Journey into Mystery” series, later “Tales of Asgard”, and eventually “The Mighty Thor”.

The comics explored many mythological Norse story elements. The many gods of the Nordic world, who ruled over the great tree of life, Yggdrasil with its 9 worlds. The Nords believed that life existed on the many branches of this tree, and that Earth (where men lived) was just one of them.

Thor became one of the most recognizable icons of 20th century pop culture, mingling Norse mythology with modern storytelling and colourful superhero spandex.

Movies with Norwegian influence

1) Thor

Just as he was found worthy of his hammer, “Mjølnir”, Thor was found worthy of his own Marvel film adaptation in 2011. While a large amount of time is spent in America, the films make use of many classic Norse mythology story elements, just as the comics did.

This meant that a wider audience became familiar with his father Odin, his brother Loki, and the kingdom of Asgard. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston have become beloved fan favourites for their recurring roles as Thor and Loki, respectively.

Sequel films explore the Norse interpretation of the apocalypse - Ragnarok. This was the doom that would claim the 9 worlds, a gigantic battle between the Gods and otherworldly beings.

2) Avengers: Endgame

One of the most highly anticipated box office releases of all time was Avengers: Endgame (2019). Thor and the survivors of Asgard settle down in the real-life Norwegian city of Tønsberg, the oldest city in all of Norway. The author of this article lives only 20 minutes away from there!

3) Frozen

The animated Disney movie Frozen took the world by storm, bringing joy to children (and annoyance to parents) everywhere. While the film is loosely based on the tale of a Danish author, its fictional setting of Arendelle was inspired by Norway.

The kingdom’s name comes from a port in the south of Norway named Arendal, and its actual design resembles the city of Bergen.

Their research in Norway impacted the creative team behind Frozen in many ways. This is made clear by the film’s music, scenery, fashion, and the general mysticism of the North. Those trolls weren’t in the movie for no reason!

4) How to Train your Dragon

How to Train your Dragon and its sequels are heavily based on Scandinavian Viking culture. DreamWorks’ writers travelled to Norway for research, touring cities like Oslo and Bergen.

The setting of the sequel is inspired by Svalbard, a Norwegian island cluster. If the beautiful landscapes of Norway interest you, watch this movie!

Norwegian related television series

1) Vikings

Vikings, though a generically named historical drama series, it is anything but generic. This 6-season saga released on Amazon prime and Netflix has received extremely positive reviews. A sequel series with an equally uncreative name is in development – Vikings: Valhalla.

The plot surrounds early Norse Vikings, their assaults in Europe and eventual rise to power. It portrays the life of Ragnar Lothbrok, a true rags-to-riches story of a farmer raiding his way to becoming a Scandinavian King.

This popular series brought interest to Norway and its figures of early medieval history, although it was filmed in Ireland. While not entirely accurate, this dramatization of Viking history deserves some credit for creating this immersive cultural bubble.

2) Norsemen

Norsemen is a comedy about the experiences of Vikings set in Norheim, a village in ancient times. Their day to day lives and conflicts are injected with humour, which helps to humanise characters often depicted as warmongering savages.

The series is filmed in Norway, written and directed by Norwegians, and developed by the public Norwegian broadcasting company, NRK. So patriotic. English and Norwegian versions of the show were produced simultaneously by filming each scene twice.

Its dry, anachronistic humour may not be for everyone, it can certainly be quite graphic in terms of violence, sexuality, and language. Elements of physical comedy come across as more slapstick and low brow, but there's also subtle humour arising from a modern look at historical problems.

3) Ragnarok

Ragnarok is a young-adult Norwegian Netflix original series, which places great emphasis on climate change. Though it is produced in Norway by Norwegian directors and with a mostly Norwegian cast, it has been more popular outside of Norway.

Often compared to Twilight, this teen sci-fi drama derives its name from the Nordic prophecy of the end of the world (Ragnarok). This name connects both concepts of Norse mythology and environmentalism.

It may sound silly to fight issues presented by climate change with Norse magic, but it serves as a very apt metaphor for the very real battle we currently face. Ancient magic meets the modern climate crisis, and anyone interested in either of those should check this series out.

4) Loki

Disney continues to ride the success of their Marvel heroes, releasing a number of spin off series on Disney+ including the recent hit, Loki. Son of Odin, brother of Thor and God of mischief, this icon of Norse mythology returns for his own crime thriller.

Much lighter on Norse mythology and Norwegian influence in comparison to other series, this fun adventure through history with the rascally Asgardian prince villain has thus far received an extremely favourable fan response.

Norwegian / Norse Culture in Video Games

1) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that exists on virtually every gaming platform, so chances are that you’re familiar with it. But have you considered its Norse influence? The snowy, mountainous landscapes and skies alight with aurora borealis seem very Scandinavian.

Many names and words are borrowed directly from Danish, Swedish and of course, Norwegian. The 9 realms described in Norse mythology are reflected through the 9 provinces of Tamriel. These realms are populated with dwarves, elves, giants and humans with thick beards and a penchant for ale and mead (an alcoholic drink made of water and honey, malt).

Choosing to play as a member of the Nordic race grants the player greater resistance to frost and cold, and you traverse the lands with a terrifyingly powerful battle-cry.

After a hard day of adventuring, the hero may return home to wooden houses with vaulted ceilings, feast halls and firepits. Such a characteristically Viking ambience!

2) Assassin’s creed: Valhalla

The latest instalment in the Assassin's creed franchise, takes its name ‘Valhalla’ directly from the old Norse heavenly realm for warriors who fall in battle. Assassin’s creed: Valhalla takes a surprisingly detailed approach to portraying Norwegian Vikings in a historically accurate way.

More than simple marauders, they showcase the Vikings’ capability in military and naval strategy. It makes clear that the popularised noble-savage image of today is inaccurate. Norse civilisations of the past were more technologically and culturally advanced than we give them credit for.

3) God of War

In its latest installment, God of War traded in Greek mythology for Norse and embraced a setting in Norway. The protagonist Kratos adventures with his son Atreus through 6 of the 9 mythological realms of the world tree – Midgard, Alfheim, Helheim, Jotunheim, Muspelheim and Niflheim.

The game makes particular use of Elder Futhark, an alphabet made up of ‘runes’ that were used as early letters through the Viking ages. These cryptic symbols appear throughout the game, revealing many secrets to players dedicated enough to translate them.

The game is a beautifully crafted tribute to Norway and its early culture, covering many stories, myths and gods from the past. Anyone curious or passionate about Norse mythology would find this expansive game well worth their time.

4) Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Rather than friendly allies, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice places ‘the Northmen’ Vikings as enemies, with the heroine herself being of Celtic/Scottish descent. She sets out to save the soul of her lover from Helheim, the Norse interpretation of the underworld.

Throughout the game, the protagonist has a great deal of information given to her about her Norse foes. This comes from Lorestones found in the world and from narrated memories of her old friend Druth, a former slave captive of the Vikings. Again, any Norse mythology enthusiasts may find this title a fun (and horribly depressing) quest.

Norwegian Music

1) Edvard Greig and Johan Svendsen

You’d likely be surprised to find that you are more familiar with classical Norwegian composers than you thought! Their most prominent composers are Edvard Greig and Johan Svendsen.

Both of these composers brought the Norwegian influence in their music onto the world stage. You’re almost sure to recognise Edvard’s compositions of “Morning Mood” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.

2) Ylvis

Norway’s more modern music scene seems quite divisive. This can be seen from their participation in the Eurovision Song Contest. While they have won three times, they have also finished last more often than any other country (11 times). They have even acquired zero points on several occasions.

But that doesn’t mean that Norway is without its pop hit sensations! In 2013, for better or for worse, Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis graced the world with “The Fox”, better known to many as ‘what does the fox say?’.

Its video was top trending on YouTube and stayed in the top 100 charts in the US for a few weeks. The parody track was initially intended to “entertain a few Norwegians for three minutes” rather than annoy many radio listeners for weeks.

3) Astrid S.

More recently, Norwegian artists have found some success on the popular platform TikTok. Astrid S is becoming known worldwide, after achieving 5th place on the Norwegian version of Pop Idol. This rising star even had her music featured in the hit Norwegian TV programme, SKAM (shame).

TikTok users particularly like creating relatable comedy with her song “Hurts So Good”, which saw a recent resurgence in popularity despite being released in 2016.

4) Marcus and Martinus

The most followed TikTok account in Norway by far is that of Marcus and Martinus, a twin pop duo with more than 4.5 million followers on the platform, as well as over 3 million on YouTube.

These award winning young Norwegian boys have been entertaining since early childhood and have only just begun their promising careers, having released two popular albums in English.

5) A-ha

While many young artists ‘take on’ the world, one Norwegian band has been famously doing so since the 1980’s. A-ha impacted the charts worldwide and are one of the 40-50 highest grossing bands out there. They are definitely best known for their massive hit “Take On me”, a pop classic.

6) Aurora Aksnes (Aurora)

Aurora Aksnes, better known as simply ‘Aurora’ is a Norwegian pop sensation who is quickly becoming an international phenomenon. Her otherworldly vibes and ethereal voice may not easily suggest her origins are in fact Stavanger, Norway.

This quirky artist went from the mountains and dense forests of her home, to performing at Coachella, collaborating with Disney on music for Frozen 2, and accumulating over a billion streams on Spotify.

7) Black metal

Where to begin with the rock, metal and alternative music scene is impossible to say. Much of Scandinavia is known for these musical styles, as though the harsh frostbitten conditions produce harsh, headbanging bands.

Black metal originated in Norway and remains one of the country’s biggest exports, tied with Sweden for the second most metal bands per capita.

Viking and Pagan metal are genres of their own, with obvious influence drawn from Norse mythology running through their names, lyrics, album art, costuming and music videos. Heavy rock instrumentals often accompany the use of historical instruments and traditional melodies.

While no list could encompass all of Norway’s metal bands, three of the country’s most known bands are Mayhem, Emperor, and Immortal.

Conclusion

Titans of media certainly seem to think that there is much to appreciate about Norway, both old and new. It is possible you have been enjoying Norway’s influence unbeknownst to you all along. However you explore Norway, your adventures are sure to satisfy that childlike wish in all of us to find a little magic out there.

You can listen to the pronunciation of the Norwegian words appearing in this article here.