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Scandinavian Myths, Heroes and Legends in TV and Movies

Children’s books, movies, games and even curriculum are often centered around fabled characters with roots in ancient times. The mythological genre offers exposure to world cultures, history, literature and art, while modern pop culture has inspired more interest than ever in all things magical. In this series Myths, Heroes, and Legends, we examine various categories of our favorite movie adaptations in this area and how they enhance and inspire your child’s learning. In this post, we cover:

Scandinavian Myths, Heroes and Legends

Frozen, rated PG (2014)

The immensely popular movie from Disney is notorious for its song that gets stuck in everyone’s head. The movie can also be a great way to introduce kids to Scandinavian culture and history. The story itself is based on a fairytale The Snow Queen and the setting Arendelle is similar in name and location to the city of Arendal. There are also a group of characters pulled directly from Norwegian mythology: the trolls.

Trolls originated in Norwegian culture and were believed to be aggressive, gigantic creatures that lived in the mountains and caused landslides. Over the years myths about them changed to include smaller, more tranquil beings. Thankfully, the creative team at Disney used the kinder, gentler myths for the trolls.

Groups of trolls were often depicted with features that resemble nature to help them blend in, similar to the ‘rock like’ trolls seen in the film. They were believed to only come out at night, as being touched by sunlight would turn them to stone. While this is never mentioned in Frozen, all the scenes that include trolls are at night.

Trolls were believed to be magical creatures and use runes and other magical items. True to the myths, the movie’s trolls wear necklaces that light up when they speak and the shaman-like troll changes Anna’s memory.

Frozen does a great job of capturing many of these elements in the film. Scandinavia is proud of their trolls’ mythic history. Statues of them are featured around famous landmarks and scattered throughout cities and are thought to bring luck. It appears that many families have been inspired to travel to Norway since the film’s release to learn more about trolls; and Scandinavian culture too, of course.

And for young readers, here’s a well-reviewed, expanded version of the “Frozen” story.

How to Train Your Dragon, rated PG (2010 & 2014)

Dreamworks’s ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ can be much more than just a fun flick. The series provides a perfect way for kids to get into dragons and spike an interest in learning about other cultures, especially the Viking way of life.

Dragons are prevalent in many cultures and can be found in the myths and legends around the world. They have been used to represent everything from wisdom, the beginning of time, and the end of the world. This film explores many kinds of dragons and while the setting is Scandinavian the dragons were inspired by the many varieties found around the world.

The setting of the film is the island of Berk which is heavily inspired by Viking culture. The architecture features great halls and houses that would typically be found in a Nordic village. There are games and competitions inspired by traditional games Vikings would play. Even though the film is a fantasy, it does depict Viking culture surprisingly well.

The film is based on the book series by Cressida Cowell. In the TV show, School of Dragons, based on her books, many creations from the series come to life. The website also provides dragon-related learning activities with scenarios that challenge kids’ critical thinking skills. There is also an interactive book app with three different reading levels.

Read our review of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and a download free printable

Beowulf, PG-13 (2007)

The epic poem set in Denmark tells of a great warrior who comes to defeat the monster Grendel to stop it from terrorizing King Horthgar’s people. Beowulf’s fame as a monster-killer is known throughout the land. The story is truly epic and can inspire a mature reader to look for a translation of the original, epic poem or Scandinavian folk lore.

This film is great because it sticks to the original pretty closely. We are introduced to Beowulf’s previous battles with monsters and understand why he is so famous. The monster he has come to kill is Grendel; a horrible creature whose very sight is too much to bear, except for our hero. Grendel is exceptionally terrifying, and the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf is very PG-13, so perhaps not for younger ones.

The film does take some creative liberties: Grendel’s mother in the original is depicted as a monster, but in the film she is played by a CGI-version of Angelina Jolie! Their encounter is quite different than in the original epic. In the poem, Beowulf is the embodiment of a perfect hero and king, who does no wrong. In the film, he’s a great man, but far from perfect.

The original poem portrays Beowulf as a more inspiring character than the film. After reading the poem you might feel like you want to emulate Beowulf and take on the whole world, whereas the film paints him as a much more conflicted character, troubled by past sins.

Regardless of this issue, the film does do Beowulf justice and retells his epic tale in an epic way. Using CGI and motion capture the film powerfully portrays the terrifying Grendel, the heroic Beowulf, and a voracious dragon.

There are many translations of the story. The most popular was translated by Seamus Heaney. There are other adaptations of the story including a famous short novel in which it’s told through the eyes of Grendel. If your student enjoyed the film, or the original poem, it may get him or her interested in other epic poems.

Vikings TV-M

The History Channel’s Vikings, now starting Season 3, finds the right mix between entertainment and retelling history. The show follows the story of Ragnor Lodbrok, a legendary Scandinavian figure.

Legend has it that Ragnor was a Viking king with four sons who all found fame. While there are historical records of each son it is unclear whether Ragnor really existed. In any case, the story follows his rise to fame as he traverses seas, raids new lands and fights the French and English.

The Norse gods also play a role in the show, with references to major and minor Norse gods as well as historically accurate depictions of Norse religious services including sacrifices, marriages, and transitions of power. The History channel has created a forum where questions on these topics are answered.

There are liberties taken with the history so the show can create a more involved plot. Ragnor’s family has been expanded for dramatic effect, and historical figures and the timing of events have been altered to allow for plot pacing.

Nonetheless, the show provides a way to be both entertained and learn much of value about Norse history and myth. (Seasons 1 and 2 available via Amazon streaming, Netflix rentals, and other sources.)

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Peter Spain

Peter Spain is a contributing writer for Learning Liftoff and a manager at K12. A graduate from George Mason University, Peter has worked for several years in the education and entertainment industry. He strives to make learning fun for children by contributing to the games and activities section of the site, and keeping an eye out for advancements in edutainment.

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