Am I worthy? I ask myself variations on that question every day. Am I worthy of the family that has been entrusted to me? Worthy of the job that I have been asked to do? Worthy of the trust that students must place in me when they join my class? Am I a worthy husband, son, father, brother, friend, colleague? Worthy of love? Friendship? Respect?
No doubt most people ask these kinds of questions about themselves all the time. One of the defining features of being human is that we are aspirational—we’re programmed to desire greatness in the best sense of that term. We want to be morally good. To be good at what we do (and to do things that are worth doing). To deserve respect and honor. To achieve more. To learn more. To make our world at least a little better than it was before we arrived.
But what does it really mean to be worthy? The question prompts another one: worthy of what? Much of what we aspire to be, much of what we strive for, ultimately comes down to power. Now, “power” is a scary word. I don’t mean to suggest anything sinister there. I don’t mean political power necessarily, but something else—something more fundamental. For example, as a father of young children, I have a great deal of power to influence who they become as adults. As a teacher, I have the power to shape the direction of students’ thoughts and ideas. As a friend, I have the power to help my friend be a better or worse person. As a writer, I (hope to) have the power to help people see the world more clearly. In all of our aspirations, we seek the power to shape, influence, or control something in our lives and in the world. So when we ask if we are worthy, maybe what we mean is, “Do I deserve the powers, gifts, and abilities that have been entrusted to me?”
Ask any superhero fan questions like those I pose above, and probably the first person they’ll think of is Thor Odinson. Because of Thor’s relationship to his magical weapon Mjolnir, idea of worthiness lies at the heart of his story. For most of its history, the hammer bore an inscription that read, “Whosoever shall hold this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor” (later the pronoun changed to “she” when Jane Foster began to wield Mjolnir as The Mighty Thor, and then later to “they”). But what does it take to be worthy of a magical hammer?
Well, we have to talk about power again. Mjolnir is one of the most powerful weapons in the universe. It has the power to control the weather, channel lightning, absorb energy, open portals to other places and dimensions, as well as dozens of other mystical abilities. It can help its wielder protect the weak and vulnerable. It can also destroy and kill. Because it grants its wielder so much power, it is enchanted so that only those worthy of that power may even lift it, let alone use it. In order to “possess the power of Thor,” one has to possess the virtues that qualify a person for that power.
But what are those virtues? Courage? Prudence? Temperance? Honesty? Well, the answer turns out to be “All of the above—but… there’s more…”
Here to help us think through what makes Thor worthy is Mark White, a professor who has already written, contributed to, or edited several books about superheroes, ethics, and philosophy. In Marvel Comics’ Thor: If They Be Worthy, White explores the idea of worthiness in Thor’s mythos in order find out what it is that makes not only Thor worthy, but what makes anybody worthy. After all, all superhero stories—whether they’re about powerless heroes like Batman or ultra-powerful cosmic beings like Silver Surfer (or Thor)—are ultimately about us, ordinary people who have to work our way through ordinary lives. As I’ve said many times on this blog and in other places, that’s the whole point of mythology—to teach us who we are.
Thor’s adventures span seven decades, hundreds of issues, and at least eight movies, but White focuses most of his attention on Jason Aaron’s tenure on the character—and for good reason. Aaron’s tenure on Thor has joined the ranks of some of the most memorable and well-crafted Thor runs (The God Butcher and The Unworthy Thor remain some of my favorite superhero stories). But a more important reason for the book to focus on Aaron’s run is that it explores the idea of worthiness to even greater depth than most other runs (I’ve written about Aaron’s interest in worthiness myself).
White divides the book into five main sections. In the first section, he discusses Thor’s history and gives an overview of how Thor’s story has dealt with the idea of worthiness. In the second, he examines in what sense Thor can be a god, carefully drawing distinctions between the gods of paganism and the creator God of the Abrahamic religions. Using this distinction, he shows how important it is for small-g gods to be worthy of their power. In the third section, he introduces us to Jane Foster’s “The Mighty Thor,” who takes on the identity and power of Thor after Thor Odinson becomes unworthy of Mjolnir for a time. In the fourth section, he addresses what it is that makes Thor become unworthy, and in the fifth section, he shows how worthiness turns out to involve a striking paradox: in order to be worthy, one has to be aware of one’s unworthiness.
Throughout the book, White draws upon a variety of philosophical traditions in order to help us better understand the fantastical ideas, characters, and events that make up Thor’s world. He deftly employs ideas from Eastern thinkers such as Lao-Tzu as well as Western philosophers like Immanuel Kant, showing not only how philosophically rich Thor comics are, but also how useful the philosophical tradition can be for helping us make sense of the world.
I have read four books and several chapters by White at this point—including The Virtues of Captain America, A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War, The Ethics of Batman, and now Thor: If They Be Worthy—and two things always strike me about his work. The first is that White is an excellent example of that extremely valuable kind of writer who is well-read and well-educated, knows his subject backwards and forwards, and is able to explain sophisticated ideas in a way that can appeal to the average reader without watering them down. The second thing is that not only is White able to do this with the long and complex history of philosophy, but he can also do it with the equally byzantine history of superhero comics. When you pick up a Mark White book, you know you’re getting a lesson in important ideas, but he’s not going to present them unnecessarily difficult ways.
Thor: If They Be Worthy is a timely book (and not just because Gorr and Jane Thor will hit the big screen soon in Thor: Love and Thunder). The ideas and questions that White explores in it are perennial, but they seem especially important right now. Modern democratic society and modern technology have empowered individuals to probably a greater degree than ever in history. Are we worthy of such power? It’s hard to look at the world and think that most people with power even consider the possibility that they might need to see their own unworthiness before they can actually be worthy.