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'Badass' Guys: Giving History A Kick (And A Punch)

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The Norse thunder god Thor, with his two goats. i

The Norse thunder god Thor, with his two goats. Ralf Hettler/ hide caption

toggle caption Ralf Hettler/
The Norse thunder god Thor, with his two goats.

The Norse thunder god Thor, with his two goats.

Ralf Hettler/
Badass: The Birth of a Legend
By Ben Thompson
Paperback, 384 pages
Harper Paperbacks
List Price: $16.99
Read An Excerpt

Marvel Comics hero Thor smashed his way to the top spot at the box office this past week, but author Ben Thompson says you don't need to go to the multiplex to appreciate the Norse god of thunder.

The original Norse myths provide plenty of excitement on their own, Thompson says. "There's one time, these giants were pissing off the gods, so he disguises himself as a goddess, and goes to some, like, giant feast that they're having," he gushes. "And then, he throws off his costume and just wastes the entire dining hall with a hammer."

Thompson's new book, Badass: The Birth of a Legend, collects the stories of characters whom you do not want to mess with. It pulls from both history and legend, telling stories from Jesus and Genghis Khan to Captain Kirk and Chuck Norris.

Reading Badass actually gives you a decent grounding in history, literature and mythology. Thompson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that his book has a not-so-secret educational mission.

"I've always been really interested in history," he says. His own father brought the past to life for Thompson with a collection of replica weaponry like Spartan swords and flintlock muskets.

"I never had a chance, growing up," Thompson says, "He would tell me, 'Oh, you know, here's the story of Thermopylae, and here's King Leonidas, and he fought and he had a sword that was like this.'" But when Thompson started taking history classes in high school and college, he says, the experience was disappointingly boring.

"I wanted to find a way of telling the story like a pulp fiction novel," he says. "To have it be as far away from a history book as I could get without sacrificing the actual history."

Excerpt: 'Badass: The Birth Of A Legend'

Badass: The Birth of a Legend
Badass: The Birth of a Legend
By Ben Thompson
Paperback, 384 pages
Harper Paperbacks
List Price: $16.99


Thor was the head-smashing Norse god of Lightning, Thunder, storms, being awesome, and killing Giants in the face with a meatnormous magical hammer. The son of the god Odin and the goddess Earth, Thor was the defender of the heavenly land of Asgard, the toughest warrior among the gods, an original Avenger, best friends with Captain America and Iron Man, and the guy who everybody called on whenever they needed some pompous douche's ass kicked out through his forehead.

The life of Thor reads like a loosely-associated amalgamation of badass battles and duels thrown together into one epic narrative of carnage and destruction. This bloody succession of continual assbeatings usually takes place at the expense of the hapless race of the Frost Giants, a group of impossibly-large hardcore humanoids who Thor intensely detested for a variety of borderline-justifiable reasons. For instance, one time a Giant architect threw an unnecessarily-violent temper tantrum when the gods stiffed him on the tab after building a set of impenetrable fortifications for Valhalla, so Thor paid the guy back by caving in his skull with a hammer. Another time some Giant snuck into Thor's house, drank all of his ale, and boasted that he was going to go off and have a rape-tastic threesome with Thor's wife and the fertility goddess Freyja, and it took the take-no-bullcrap Norse hero roughly five seconds to haul ass back home, crash his glorious flowing locks through the walls of Valhalla like a blonde wrecking ball, and challenge that soon-to-be-excerebated d-bag to a one-on-one deathmatch. The dude showed up to the dueling field clad in armor made from stone and accompanied by a twelve-foot-tall clay golem, but nothing was going to deter Thor's implacable fury and insatiable desire for Giant homicide. The Defender of Asgard was so ferocious and pissed about the whole "I'm going to rape your wife" comment that the golem took one look at this guy and started urinating uncontrollably on itself, whizzing itself so hard that liquid piss melted the clay and dissolved the creature down into a fetid pool of failure and defeat and golem urine. That's right, folks — Thor was so crap-your-pants scary that he could make inanimate constructs spontaneously spawn an execratory system solely for the purposes of wetting themselves. In the ensuing battle between god and giant, Thor got a broken-off hunk of a whetstone lodged in his head but didn't even blink — he just chucked his hammer right through the giant's eye, blowing his brains out like a close-ranged headshot with a sawn-off twelve-gauge.

In addition to being utterly terrifying, super-strong, and rocking a glorious 1980s hair metal mane that was, according to the stories, "more beautiful than gold," Thor was also the owner of the legendary weapon Mjolnir. Mjolnir was a fully-rad warhammer that never missed its mark when thrown and always seemed to bring about the vicious blunt-force trauma death of anyone Thor deemed worthy of a painful demise. This kickass hunk of magically-enchanted runestone was so intensely hardcore that if you even so much as touched the thing without wearing a special pair of iron gloves, the magical energy exuded by the weapon would freak out and melt your hand.

While Mjolnir is easily one of the sweetest blunt weapons from mythology, Thor didn't need its super-crushing powers to go out and pummel you into a bloody smear on the asphalt. One time Loki was captured by the Giant Geirrod and his three evil daughters, and in exchange for freedom, Norse religion's patron god of Being a Total Douchebag agreed to trick Thor into venturing into Giant Land without his signature weapon. Thor showed up, looking to save Loki from imminent peril, and was immediately ambushed. First, one of the giant ogress daughters angered Thor by taking a piss in a river while he was trying to walk through it, so he killed her by flinging a rock through her head. Then two more giantesses tried to crush him by smashing him repeatedly against the ceiling of their stone cottage, but he got both hands on the ceiling, pushed down, and snapped both their backs with one mighty shove. Then Geirrod himself showed up and started taunting the already-berserk Norse god, so Thor grabbed a piece of molten hot iron out of the fireplace and threw it so hard that it went through a solid stone pillar, through Geirrod's torso, and blew a hole through the wall behind him. I like to think that after all this happened Thor grabbed a flagon of mead, chugged it in one gulp, and smashed the empty mug down on the ground before making a James Bond style one-liner and walking off like nothing happened.

Thor lived in a gigantic 540-room Valhalla-style fortress called Bilskirnir, which was appropriately situated in the middle of the Plains of Strength. His favorite hobbies included drinking mead by the barrel, wading through rivers, riding around on a chariot pulled by horse-sized goats, and making expeditions into uncharted lands for the sole purpose of wasting as many Giant asses as he could fling his hammer at (which turns out to be a lot). This guy was so good at getting crunked up on fermented honey and using his mallet to hammer people into the ground like meaty tent pegs that, according to Norse myth, thunder was actually the sound of Thor bashing a guy's head into pulp, and the tides were believed to have been created when Thor sucked down half of the ocean as part of a drinking contest after a Giant magically transformed it into mead.

Another good drinking story has Thor getting invited to feast at the palace of some random member of the Frost Giant nobility. If you were a Giant, you'd think Thor would be the last guy you'd want to have hanging around your dinner table, but apparently this particular household didn't possess the common sense necessary to come to this conclusion themselves, and thought it might be fun to die painful deaths at the hands of the Norse god of smiting. Interestingly, things were actually going fine until everyone in attendance soon became kind of horrified when, during the course of one all-you-can-eat super buffet smorgasbord feast, Thor ate an entire ox, eight salmon, and chugged three full barrels of mead. When the Giants (who, by the way, were largely portrayed in Norse sagas as ogre-like barbarians) gave Thor a hard time about consuming half of their food in the span of a few dozen ultra-manly gulps, the bane of giantkin decided that for dessert he would just kill everyone in the dining hall with a hammer, because screw them for talking smack about his etiquette skills. So he did.

Thor was also a master of fishing, which seems like it would be kind of incongruous for a guy who shoots lightning out of his hands. Nevertheless, the presumably-superconductive god once went with his buddy on a weekend fishing trip aimed at catching the horrifically-evil Midgard Serpent — a giant-ass sea monster so enormous that its body measured the entire circumference of the Earth. Thor rowed out to the edge of the world in a crappy little wooden boat, threw his line in, snagged the beast, and lifted it up out of the water, but just as he was getting ready to bust its skull (hammer-fishing is way more hardcore than spear fishing, by the way) Thor's buddy freaked out and cut the fishing line, sending the ghastly monstrosity back below the waves. Thor was so pissed off that he punched the dude in the mouth, kicked him overboard, and rowed home by himself.

The Maestro of Hammer-humping Giants in the mouth also plays a central role in one of the crucial events of Norse Mythology — the incredibly-bizarre death of the god Baldur. The short version of the myth is that Baldur, Thor's half-brother and the god of being inoffensive, cool, and beloved by everyone, was murdered one day when the prankster god Loki tricked a blind dude into throwing a sprig of mistletoe at him. Why Baldur was so allergic to mistletoe that a relatively-unsharpened branch flung vaguely in his direction caused him to spontaneously combust into a cloud of death is somewhat incomprehensible, but needless to say everybody was pretty pissed off about the whole situation. Thor led the funeral service, blessed his half-brother's funeral pyre, and swore vengeance on Loki. Then, out of the blue, some random jackass Dwarf started being disrespectful and talking really loudly during the funeral service, so Thor booted the jerk into the flaming pyre with a swift kick to the balls. I find this hilarious.

Thor's next mission was to track down Loki and make sure that he was brought to some incredibly-painful Viking-style justice. He tracked the Trickster god down, cornered him in a river, and when Loki morphed himself into a salmon and tried to swim away, Thor grabbed the fish by its tail and hauled it down to the underworld. Loki's first-born son was then disemboweled, and the dripping entrails were used to strap Loki down to a huge-ass rock. The gods then positioned a huge disgusting snake overtop of Loki so that it dropped super-venomous poison right into his eyes like a Chinese water torture device from some sadistic corner of Hell. From that point on, the Norsemen believed that earthquakes were caused by Loki screaming out in agony and attempting to break free. If strapping your ex-friend down with his dead kid's intestines sounds a little excessive to you, that's because Thor never half-assed anything in his life — especially revenge.

Don't feel too badly for Loki, though — he'll get his crack at vengeance eventually (and Thor will get a rematch battle with the Midgard Serpent), but I'll deal with both of those tales a little later when I talk about Surt.

Excerpted from Badass: The Birth of a Legend by Ben Thompson. Copyright 2011 by Ben Thompson. Reprinted with the permission of Harper Paperbacks.

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The Birth of a Legend : Spine-Crushing Tales of the Most Merciless Gods, Monsters, Heroes, Villains,and Mythical Creatures Ever Envisioned

by Ben Thompson

Paperback, 367 pages |


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