Fairly early in the process of writing this blog I realized that it was useful to have some prior context for a given story before writing an entry on it. And so I bought the About Time books, which are fabulous and were my anchor for several stories in the classic series about which I’d have had little interesting to say on my own. But I was also, early on, aware that I was eventually going to hit the new series and there would be no About Time to help me.
The solution, I realized, was to get a friend hooked on Doctor Who so they would blog about it and I could just take off on their posts. Unfortunately for me, the friend I chose was Anna Wiggins. The problem with Anna, you see, is that she is vastly more clever and intelligent than I can ever hope to be, and so when my blog hits Series Six, about which she has blogged extensively, I am going to abruptly be found out as the pathetic fool I am and all of my readers are going to, quite correctly, go follow Anna instead. Oops.
In order to ease the transition to all of you abandoning me in favor of my smarter and far cooler friend, I thought I should get a guest post from Anna about the relationship between the Doctor and Odin. And so I did.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, several Germanic tribes migrated to England. And they brought their gods with them. The British isles would be settled, resettled, and invaded by many peoples over the next several hundred years. The bones of Britain contain traces of dozens of cultures, and many of those cultures were Heathen.
To be clear, I’m using ‘Heathen’ in a fairly specific and uncommon sense. Prior to the encroachment of Christianity, a similar worldview and set of religious beliefs was practiced widely across Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The Romans termed these people ‘heathen’. So, I am using the term ‘Heathen’ to refer to this basic religious system, which largely included the same gods, myths, and folk legends. The more commonly known term for this religious system and worldview is ‘Norse’, as in ‘Norse Mythology’. But that is a misnomer – in practice, the same basic set of beliefs and practices held sway throughout northern Europe, and included, at various times, various parts of the British Isles. (I will also mention ‘modern Heathenry’ in the course of this entry – which is a reference to the reconstructionist religion that revives the worship of the Heathen gods)
And so, in the late 1980s, Doctor Who began to draw on these Heathen bones of British culture. The Seventh Doctor was cast as an explicitly Odinic figure, and this vision of the Doctor operating in a Heathen mode would have a lasting influence on the show.
Odin is widely known as the ‘chief god’ of the Heathen pantheon, and as a ‘god of war’ and, if you have a particularly verbose summary on hand, maybe a ‘god of secrets’ or a ‘god of wisdom’. And this strikes at a common misconception about polytheism: that the gods are archetypal representations of natural phenomena and abstract concepts. That a particular deity can be succinctly defined as “the god of” war or fertility or the ocean or anything else. But the reality is that gods are bigger than that. They are complicated and contradictory and bigger on the inside. In other words, they are people.
So let’s look at who Odin is, as a person. Odin is a leader, yes – but he is frequently an absent leader. He wanders the worlds searching for knowledge, often disguised. In fact, ‘wanderer’ is probably the best single word to describe Odin; before he is anything else, he is a wanderer and a seeker after knowledge. He also manipulates events to suit himself, and frequently deceives people to get what he needs or wants – often, this involves tricking people into giving him knowledge.
The Doctor, of course, is also primarily defined as a wanderer, and the Seventh Doctor in particular also manipulates people for his own ends. This is remarked on often enough, with the best example I’ve found being from the New Adventures novel Conundrum:
“But that’s the whole point, though, isn’t it?” said Ace. “To the Doctor, it did mean nothing. J0ust another of his games, another upset in the universe to be dealt with and then chucked.”
This sort of manipulation for the greater good (for some value of ‘good’) also defines Odin. There is a pervasive sense in the Heathen lore that there is some greater purpose to Odin’s actions, but this purpose is never revealed. The Seventh Doctor gives the same impression, especially in the New Adventures. So the Doctor manipulates people and events Odin. To argue that this is an explicit characterization, though, we turn to the iconography of the Seventh Doctor.
In terms of iconography, the connections between the Seventh Doctor and Odin are pretty straightforward. In The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the Doctor is represented as the Hanged Man, and fights the Gods of Ragnarök, who communicate with our world via an eye at the bottom of a well. The Curse of Fenric speaks well enough for itself, with Fenric being one potentially anglicization of the monstrous wolf more commonly known as Fenrir. “Let the chains of Fenric shatter,” of course, is a reference to the events that occur during Ragnarök:
festr mun slitna, en freki rennabond shall rent, and the greedy wolf run
And, of course, is case the connection wasn’t explicit enough, Paul Cornell cinches it. In Timewyrm: Revelation, we find the Fifth Doctor hanging from an ash tree in the Doctor’s unconscious mind, complete with a wound in his side. This is the most iconic image of Odin on offer.
Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði áI know that I hung on a windy tree
nætr allar níuNine full nights,
geiri undaðr ok gefinn Óðnispear-pierced and sacrificed to Odin
sjalfr sjölfum mérmyself to myself
á þeim meiði es manngi veiton that tree which no man knows
hvers hánn af rótum renn.from where its roots run.
Of course, the fact that this is the Fifth Doctor is somewhat odd, since it is the Seventh Doctor who is so obviously an Odinic figure. The obvious answer is that to some extent, Doctor Who has always been indebted to the Heathen legacy in British culture. Surely if the Seventh Doctor is Odin, then the Fifth Doctor, who encountered the Vanir after all, is also Odin.
The scene with the Doctor on the tree also evokes Niðhöggr (in the form of the Timewyrm) and the runes: “Above the man, the three runes that Ace had recognized as the Doctor’s signature were carved on the tree, brought together as one sign.” It is notable that the entire reason Odin hung on the tree was to discover the runes:
Nýsta ek niðr,Downward I peered,
nam ek upp rúnar – öpandi nam –I took up the runes – screaming I took them –
fell ek aptr þaðan.Then I fell back from there.
So, in light of that, let’s discuss the Doctor’s runes in more detail: “Ahead of her a final door was glowing, etched with three runes: a square spiral, a bent “S” and a horizontal bowl.” If we take some minor liberties with the ‘square spiral’, these could easily be Ing, Sowilo, and PerÞo. Which would be a bit unpronounceable as an actual word (ngsp), but is interesting nonetheless. The runes have literal meanings in addition to basic pronunciations, which are enumerated in a series of Rune Poems. These meanings form the basis of a magical system that dates back to at least the Viking Age (which is to say, the Icelandic sagas reference rune magic).
Taking up the Doctor’s runes, then. Ing has associations with the sort of active energy that evokes change. To frame it in terms of this blog, it is Mercury. Sowilo is straightforwardly the sun, light shining into the darkness. To quote Paul Cornell, “the storm in the heart of the sun”. And Perþo, well… the meaning of Perþo isn’t precisely known, because the word does not occur anywhere outside of the rune poem. Based on the poem, however, it seems to have connections with games and, more broadly, with fate. So, it is a nameless agent of fate that manipulates reality like a chess board. Really, it was nice of the classical Heathens to provide us with a perfect metaphor for the Doctor like that.
There are some differences, of course, between the Seventh Doctor and Odin. These aren’t necessarily a problem – legends get corrupted over time. But some of them are worth noting. The Doctor on the Tree isn’t hanging there to discover the secrets of the universe, he is there because having a conscience was inconvenient. Odin doesn’t bind Fenrir, Týr does (although to be fair, ‘he pulled bones from the desert sand and carved them into chess pieces’ is exactly Odin). Also, and most noteworthy, when Fenrir’s bonds break, Fenrir defeats Odin, and Ragnarök comes. Which didn’t happen with Fenric and the Doctor.
Except, of course, that it did. After only one more story, Doctor Who went off the air. The Curse of Fenric heralded Ragnarök after all. Sure, the series would survive as a line of novels for the dedicated fans, but Doctor Who, in the cultural fabric of Britain, was dead, a thing of the past.
Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Doctor survived, escaped from the belly of the wolf, hid from his fate in the form of a series of novels, and comes back on the air in 2005. And here is where our story ends, because he’s no longer the seventh Doctor, and thus no longer an Odinic figure.
Well, not quite. Because even though some of the more overtly Odinic elements are gone, the Doctor still draws parallels to Heathen lore throughout the new series. So, let’s skip ahead and talk about the new series, the world after Ragnarök. Because Ragnarök, in the Heathen tradition, is not the end of all things. The world does not end, although many people die and many things change. The world endures, but at a steep price.
A common line of thought in modern Heathenry is that Ragnarök is a cyclic event, a destruction and renewal. Ragnarök, in other words, is indistinguishable from a Whittakerian narrative collapse. Or from the Doctor’s regeneration. In this sense, there has been a Heathen thread in the narrative of Doctor Who sense the very first narrative collapse story, which is brought to light by the more explicitly Heathen stories of the Seventh Doctor.
So here the history of Doctor Who becomes, itself, a narrative collapse, a Ragnarök. The series is cancelled, but it survives, returning to the air 16 years later. On the mythological front, at least three of the sons of Odin survive Ragnarök: Baldr, Váli, and Viðarr. And all three of these figures seem to inform the new series. Viðarr slays Fenrir at the end of Ragnarök, avenging the death of Odin and saving the world from being completely devoured. He then survives Ragnarök. This, then, is the Ninth Doctor, the Doctor of the Time War who heralds the return of the show. Váli is born when Baldr is killed, and his sole purpose is to avenge this death. While there is no direct parallel in Doctor Who, the half-human Doctor created by Donna Noble echoes this figure strongly. After all, “He was born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge.”
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Baldr. Taking the show as a whole, Baldr is altogether a better figure to compare the Doctor to than Odin. He is a champion of truth, the “shining God”. And he is killed by a friend, who is in turn being manipulated by someone else. Except his death is not permanent – he returns to the land of the living. This is the Eleventh Doctor, and in particular Series Six can be read as a fairly straightforward retelling of the death of Baldr. The central myth of Baldr, in fact, is his death. He is killed by Loki, although the actual killing is done by his brother Höðr, who is tricked into the act.
But the Eleventh Doctor also has a lot of Odinic tendencies. He manipulates, and lies, and always seems to be searching for knowledge that will be useful to him (and specifically knowledge of his own death). But then, Baldr is Odin’s son. There are bound to be some similarities.
And more broadly, even with the evidence of Series Six there isn’t any impression that the new series is written with an explicitly Heathen iconography the way that the Seventh Doctor stories were. And yet Heathen themes persist, because the new series is built most visibly from the groundwork laid down in the Seventh Doctor’s era. And that era invoked the Heathen myths in the bones of British culture. Of course those bones didn’t just settle back down; they have been carved into chess pieces, and the Doctor can’t resist a game of chess.