I am full of good things to say about the Netflix original animation, Hilda. It’s a fun, funny, and adorable show about a young girl named Hilda, who reluctantly leaves her wonderful woodland home to live in the city of Trolberg. From the uncertainty of her new environment, Hilda learns to get along with other children while navigating a surprising amount of supernatural mysteries. I’m always happy when children’s cartoons set a high benchmark for imagination, humor, and strong writing. These cute tales are especially striking upon realizing that Hilda is about Norse mythology.
Each episode features Hilda’s exciting adventures through different tales from Scandinavian folklore. The city of Trolberg leads a parade in honor of The Great Raven, a large black bird that resembles the raven belonging to All Father Odin, the Chief of the Aesir Gods in Norse mythology. Hilda makes friends with an elf named Alfur (loosely derived from the Norwegian and Swedish words for “elf”), though this show depicts the elves as an adorable community of tiny, invisible bureaucrats. Their introduction was a creative interpretation on how each of the Nine Realms (including Alfheim, home of the elves) rest on top of Midgard while occupying the same space.
In other episodes, Hilda runs into Giants migrating across the country to find long-lost friends, as well as colonies of subterranean Vittra defending their sprouts from those above ground. She also encounters a terrifying Mara, spirits who perch upon people’s chests while they sleep to give them nightmares. The city of Trolberg erected its walls specifically for defense against trolls, who themselves are aggressive and imposing. The show also has other little details that draw attention to the unique setting. The character, including Hilda’s new friends David and Frida, have names common to Scandinavian nationalities, and many of them speak English with regional accents.
I feel like the references to Norse mythology in Hilda 1) weave subtly into a new narrative about childhood adventure rather than a retelling of old stories with a modern twist, and 2) avoid fixating on the Viking attitudes toward combat. When the average person thinks about Norse mythology, they probably imagine a nation of fighters building a religion around fighting, while worshiping Gods who love when they fight. They live rugged lives, die in glorious battle, and spend their afterlife Valhalla (or Folkvangr, if chosen by Freyja). After all, this is what most of popular entertainment media focuses on.
Video games love drawing from Norse mythology. Series like The Banner Saga take directly from these folk tales, while action RPGs like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim provide a fictionalized analogue to medieval Scandinavian people. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice had its protagonist conquer figures of Norse mythology, such as Surtr and Valravn, as a way to recover from the trauma that Viking invaders caused her. The heavy metal band Amon Amarth built a career on stories of Viking conquests and folklore, with songs like “Destroyer of the Universe,” “Twilight of the Thunder God,” and “Valhall Awaits Me.”
Media that doesn’t revel in the violence often puts it into critical focus. The episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, “A Kick in the Asgard,” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe hit, Thor: Ragnarok, deconstruct the way modern society lionizes mythic fighter. Billy and Mandy makes fun of this reverence for warrior culture by demonstrating how easy it would be for exuberant idiot to take control and ruin things for everyone. Thor: Ragnarok, on the other hand, tells audiences that warrior cultures thrive on genocide, and their legacy of violence can only be redeemed by the destruction of their empires.
On the other hand, God of War (2018), through the story of a god looking to become better than his violent past, shows how different parts of Norse mythology should be protected from from the violence surrounding it. Kratos may spend much of his time killing, but he comes to understand his role in protecting his new home from the gods who would lead it to destruction. It’s this refreshing appreciation for life that God of War (2018) shares with Hilda – now think about how often you’re ever going to hear these two series compared to one another!
Hilda is, first and foremost, an explorer, sharing a taste for adventure and discovery like the Vikings who came centuries before her. When she finds something or someone new, she cherishes the excitement of having uncovered some mystery or hidden secret. Characters like Twig the Deerfox or the socially awkward Woodman even become a part of Hilda’s life, benefitting from her general acceptance of the outside world. She doesn’t share the human tendency to push different or remarkable things out of their space. As a result, she gets to see things most other people could never dream of.
This is part of what makes her so averse to moving to Trolberg in the first place. Humans, the cities they build, and the communities they form are boring, because they bury themselves in their own pristinely constructed corners, while the large and everchanging world remains beyond their reach. To Hilda’s excitement, however, she gets to help her friends see how much more the world has to offer once they leave their urban enclosure. This is where the Viking spirit comes in.
While Scandinavians and Vikings were no pacifists, their violent reputations are one hyperbole among many misconceptions about them. The common focus on their combat (as reflected in their mythology) discounts another important quality to the Vikings: they were skilled seafarers who got around quite a bit. Whether they were pursuing new lands, searching for new trade routes, or escaping the wrath of the empires they antagonized, Vikings thrived out in the wide world. While children may not have much use for lucrative maritime expeditions, exploration is great for their sense of wonder.
Building Hilda around Norse mythology created a new impression of the Vikings; they wanted to see new places, far away from Scandinavia. They never built large cities or permanent, walled-off residences, because they knew there were opportunities beyond the temporary spaces they occupied. Hilda was dissatisfied with Trolberg, because the wilderness offered something new for her to experience every day. Her “opportunities” came in the form of fascinating discoveries and knowledge gained. Her “Viking spirit” led her to find hidden beauty within a constraining city, as well as sharing some of that loveliness with her friends.
Vikings also aren’t massive colonialists. Much of European story-telling surrounding adventurous explorers clashes with the reality of imperialism. England, France, Spain, Germany, and other European nations made their global discoveries through violent conflict, land theft, economic destabilization, resource plundering, and slavery. Any attempt to portray that pain through the lens of childlike enthusiasm would be a disgusting affront to those who still feel the sting of colonialism. It’s weird how Vikings got the “rape and pillage” stereotype, when Christopher Columbus did exactly that to the natives of Central and South America.
By contrast, television shows about young girls who act like Vikings (again, despite committing their fair share of violence) don’t have a genocidal legacy to reconcile, so Hilda can come up with a sweeter version of the real thing as a way to teach children about how cool the world can be. Even better, Vikings also had women among their ranks, giving Hilda another reason to look up to these warriors of the past. It’s nice to now that inclusivity isn’t something the show has to compensate for; we can be happy that it was there all along.
Hilda is a strong Netflix original with darling animation and strong writing, yet it’s lifted to another level through its wonderful integration of Norse mythology into the themes of each episode. Instead of wallowing in the popular impression of Vikings as brutes, Hilda offered a fresh perspective on the misunderstood culture. Instead of violence, they praised a daring spirit and an appreciation for each new mystery beyond the horizon. When shown through the prism of a cute cartoon, it’s an inspiring attitude that other would be happy to live by.
Created: Luke Pearson
Produced: Silvergate Media, Mercury Filmworks, Nobrow Press, & Atomic Cartoons
Released: September 21, 2018