Fenrir and Finality

 Final Fantasy VII as Norse Ragnarok

Final Fantasy VII is a story where the main characters hopelessly battle against a self-proclaimed god who seeks to end the world. Naturally, this pulls inspiration from one of the oldest end-of-the-world scenarios in human history; the Norse myth of Ragnarok.

It’s easy to forget, given the multitude of prequels, sequels, and spin-off films that revisit it, that the original Final Fantasy VII game was meant to end with the implication that the world had ended. While the secret ending implied that the planet managed to rebuild itself over the next half millennium, no one who finished the game could say whether Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Cid, or any of the other main characters had died in the ensuing explosion until the release of the film sequel Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children in 2005 and Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus for the PlayStation 2 the following year. All of this is intentional, as the game is based on one of the oldest end-of-the-world scenarios known to man, the Norse myth of Ragnarok. Beyond more generalized references to Norse mythology, the major players of Ragnarok are all present as figures in Final Fantasy VII.

Aerith becomes a martyred figure, not unlike Jesus, or Baldr, dying for the sins of humanity, as culminated in Sephiroth’s murderous rampage.

Before anything can be said on the characters, it must first be noted that the developers undoubtedly had Ragnarok in mind during the development of the game, as can be seen from the names given to some of the locations. The first clue comes in the city of Midgar, named after Norse mythology’s Midgard, one of Nine Worlds and the home of humans.

Midgar as Midgard?

According to ancient Norse belief, Midgard was at the center of the Nine Worlds, with four worlds on either side, hence the name. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Midgard is situated halfway between Niflheim on the north, the land of ice, and Muspelheim to the south, the region of fire” [ 1 ]. It’s also described as separated from the other realms by a vast sea and an endless desert to either side, which is referenced in the desert that surrounds Midgar in the game.

The Shinra Headquarters is set at the center of eight sectors, and extracts fuel from the planet, not unlike how the people of Midgard are said to get their sustenance from the body of Ymir, the slain king of the frost giants whose body was used to craft the city. In Advent Children, the characters reside in Edge, a city constructed out of the ruins of Midgar, confirming that the game ended with the city’s destruction, even though the characters survived. This serves as a clear parallel to the destruction of Midgard during Ragnarok, and the new world said to emerge in its wake.

Another, equally obvious reference is the town of Nibelheim, following the naming convention of all the Nine Worlds, ending in the suffix -heim, the ancient Norse word meaning “home,” “abode,” or “world,” as found in Jotunheim, Vanaheim, and most importantly Niflheim, which more directly inspires the village’s name. The difference in spelling is minor and could be attributed to alternate romanizations of the Japanese transliteration of Niflheim.

Sephiroth’s encasing in Mako and the time he spends in hibernation, is not unlike Loki’s imprisonment. Both of their release represents a beginning of the end for their respective worlds, as a seer warns Odin in Völuspá.

However, “Nibel-” could also be a reference to the German word nebel, which means “fog” or “mist,” but could also be interpreted as “cloud,” meaning the town’s name can be translated as “Cloud’s Home,” which is exactly what it ends up being. Niflheim is traditionally depicted as a land of snow and ice, and in the Gylfaginning, Odin describes the creation of the universe starting when the ice of Niflheim met the flames of Muspelheim.

Compare this with the pivotal moment of Cloud’s journey, and that iconic image of Sephiroth engulfed in flames at the center of the ruined town. These names show that the developers were not only acutely aware of and familiar with Norse mythology, but they were also committed enough to referencing it that they used the names for thinly veiled inspiration.

The first event that is associated with the Ragnarok cycle is the death of Baldr. While modern interpretations, such as Marvel comics, often make an allegory to Jesus Christ with Thor, his younger brother Baldr would serve as a much better Messiah.

As it’s written in Brodeur’s translation, “good things are to be said of [Baldr]. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him” (Brodeur). Most depictions of him describe Baldr as someone who is good and brave; in fact, his name is believed to come from the Lithuanian word baltas, meaning “good,” and the Old English bald, meaning “brave” [ 2 ].

This description of Baldr as the “pure” god is similar to the portrayal of Aerith Gainsborough, who is treated, both in the original game and in the larger Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, as a beacon of light that inspires all those around her. As Tseng says, when describing why Shinra wants Aeris’ cooperation, “Aeris will be able to bring happiness to all those in the slums” [ 2 ].

As it’s written in Brodeur’s translation, “good things are to be said of [Baldr]. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him” (Brodeur). Most depictions of him describe Baldr as someone who is good and brave; in fact, his name is believed to come from the Lithuanian word baltas, meaning “good,” and the Old English bald, meaning “brave” [ 2 ]. She does this through example, and is consistently described as being unusually compassionate, even to those who might not deserve it, as shown in her relationship to Tseng, who, despite constantly trying to capture her, also repeatedly lets her go.

On top of that, there is a great deal of Christian imagery surrounding her as a character. In particular, she is associated with a particular church, identical to a Christian church, where she meets both Zack Fair and Cloud Strife. Conceptually, in accordance with both Jesus Christ and Baldr, Aerith is depicted throughout the franchise as a symbol of purity and innocence. And so, still in accordance with Jesus and Baldur, her death is a shocking blow to symbolically shatter innocence. Given that Aerith’s final moments see her in prayer, attempting to acquire the spell Holy in order to prevent the end of the world, one could make the argument that her death is a sacrifice, like Jesus Christ.

This would be counter to the intention of the developers, as the move was meant to unnerve the audience in contrast to the dramatic deaths in Hollywood films.

“In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. No one wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness” [ 3 ].

Her murder at the hands of Sephiroth is much more like the death of Baldr, who was murdered by Loki in front of all the other gods, than that of Jesus. It serves as the motivation for the rest of the cast, including protagonist Cloud Strife, to seek him out and exact revenge, much like how the Norse gods immediately call for the highest form of punishment for Loki. It’s also certainly no coincidence that after death her body is lowered into a lake, sort of reminiscent of a Viking funeral, where the bodies are set out to sea, but without the burning boat.

Much like how Aerith was designed as a character intended to die, Baldr is usually referenced in relation to his death, with the Poetic Edda repeatedly referencing the tragedy of Baldr’s death. Baldr is given some reprieve, however. There are a number of references to the possibility of Baldr being reborn, initially with the option of being resurrected by Hel, the goddess of death, if every living creature wept for him.

In the case of Aerith, this may not be feasible, but all the main cast express do sorrow at her passing, with each one programmed with their own unique reactions to her death, should they be part of the party during the sequence. Baldr does not get his resurrection, though, because a single giant, implied to be Loki in disguise, refuses to cry, and so he is confined to the Underworld until after Ragnarok. While this is not by design of the creators, it does bear some similarity to the persistent rumors that Aerith could somehow be saved, or resurrected, and become a member of the party later in the game, often requiring some elaborate combination of actions and quests.

However, all these attempts prove to be false, and Aerith is no longer accessible as a party member after her death. This doesn’t mean she completely disappears from the game, though; indeed, the rumors of her return may be inspired by her occasional appearances in the church, programmed into the game and known among the fandom as “Aerith’s ghost.” She continues to appear in the game, supporting Cloud and the party and helping them in times of struggle, and appearing in sequels like Advent Children so she can help from beyond the grave.

Gods Behaving Badly

Largely because of his murder of Aerith and status as the final boss, Sephiroth often overshadows the true villains of the game, Shinra Corp. This is similar to the god of mischief, Loki, who is easily one of the most popular from the Norse poems and has endured in pop culture despite having a mostly ancillary role in the Norse tradition and an even smaller role in Ragnarok. Loki, as the son of Odin and brother of Thor (and, by extension, Baldr), is largely a creation of Marvel Comics. However, it does merit mention that during the conception stage, Aerith, our Baldr analogue, was designed as Sephiroth’s sister, although this angle was eventually abandoned.

“The original character setting had Aerith and Sephiroth as brother and sister. The effect of this setting can still be seen in the designs of their front hair. Later, they changed the setting so that Sephiroth was Aerith’s first love. That eventually resulted in Zack” [ 4 ].

It may be a little jarring to see Sephiroth compared to a trickster god given their vastly different personalities. Sephiroth is cold and calculating, extremely professional and with a dry sense of humor, which does not fit the archetype of a trickster whatsoever. It’s possible, though, that the influence of the legendary swordsman Sasaki Kojirou may have overshadowed any trickster aspects of his personality, or perhaps Nomura was hesitant to make a character too similar to Yoshitaka Amano’s Kefka Palazzo from the previous game.

That being said, Sephiroth and Loki do have parallel character arcs. Sephiroth’s role as the catalyst—but not the cause—of the end of the world is something he shares with Loki, as per the Ragnarok poems, and much like Loki, Sephiroth is absent at the genesis of the main story, in a way that is expected to be permanent. Prior to the beginning of the game, Sephiroth is believed dead, his body encased in Mako, while Loki has been chained up in order to endure the constant torture of snake venom dripping on him, as punishment for his murder of Baldr. Even though the heroes intended for these statuses to remain permanent, both villains are prophesied to return. In Völuspá, as well as Baldr draumar, a seer warns Odin that she foresees Loki being free during Ragnarok.

“Bound she saw lying,

Under Hveralund,

A monstrous form,

To Loki like” [ 5 ].

And later,

“That ship fares from the east:

Come will Muspell’s

People o’er the sea,

And Loki steers” [ 6 ].

While Odin is not Loki’s father in the original Norse mythology, it is Sephiroth’s father, Professor Hojo, who muses that Sephiroth is not dead, and will eventually return when the Jenova cells in his body bring the different parts of him back together. Both these events do happen at the beginning of the main story, and from then on, both Loki and Sephiroth are at the center of the narrative as agents of destruction.

It is after Loki arrives with his army and during his fight with Hemidallr that Surtr arrives on Asgard to destroy the world with his flaming sword, a scene brilliantly adapted in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. Sephiroth also spends the end of the world fighting, locking blades with Cloud in the moments before the Meteor hits. The finality of that ending cinematic cannot be overstated, as described by Patrick Klepek for Kotaku.com:

“You’re left with little idea what happened to your favorite characters or if the last-minute plan actually worked. After so much struggle, the game leaves you hanging, asking you to stare at a stream of stars and wonder if they’ll end” [ 7 ].

It may be that Sephiroth is particularly aware of his similarity with the god of mischief, as his plot in the game is to become a god himself, a feat he intends to achieve by merging with the Lifestream that the planet will release in response to a destructive event like the casting of Meteor.

“It’s simple. Once the Planet is hurt, it gathers Spirit Energy to heal the injury. The amount of energy gathered depends on the size of the injury… What would happen if there was an injury that threatened the very life of the Planet? Think how much energy would be gathered! Ha ha ha. And at the center of that injury, will be me. All that boundless energy will be mine. By merging with all the energy of the Planet, I will become a new life form, a new existence. Melding with the Planet… I will cease to exist as I am now… Only to be reborn as a ‘God’ to rule over every soul” [ 2 ].

As it’s written in Brodeur’s translation, “good things are to be said of [Baldr]. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him” (Brodeur). Most depictions of him describe Baldr as someone who is good and brave; in fact, his name is believed to come from the Lithuanian word baltas, meaning “good,” and the Old English bald, meaning “brave” [ 2 ].

Following the end of the game, while Sephiroth failed to destroy the world, he does seem to have been successful in his personal goal. In all his subsequent appearances, most notably his role in Advent Children, he is depicted as something beyond human, described as having “ascended to a new level of existence” in Reunion Files. Kitase, who produced the film, said that at the time of the film, “There is nothing stronger, nothing above him” [ 8 ].

Due to the nature of mythology, it’s hard to say what Loki’s motivation is, although he certainly doesn’t expect to become a god, given that he already is one. However, it could very well be that Loki is just continually fulfilling his role as an agent of chaos, whose primary purpose is to shake up the status quo and upend any order. Compare that, then, to Sephiroth’s assertions about being “the chosen one,” meant to rule the world simply because of his destiny. He, too, wants to demolish the power structure of the world, but unlike Loki, he has a goal after that as well, while Loki does it for its own sake.

Families Unfriendly

And now we must turn our eye to those who oppose Loki, the eco-terrorist group that makes up the player characters, AVALANCHE. Many characters in the party could be seen as analogues to the Norse pantheon. An easy connection to make is Barret Wallace, who aligns fairly closely with Tyr. At first, it may seem strange to compare Barret, the gruff, foul-mouthed Mr. T parody and unashamed use of the “Angry Black Man” trope, to the calm, logical Norse god of law, but it’s important to note that while Tyr was often associated with law and justice, he was more commonly associated with war.

While there are multiple analogs, when it comes to Tyr, one-handed god of justice, Barret Wallace is the most obvious reference.

Said of Tyr, “Yet remains that one of the Æsir who is called Týr: he is most daring, and best in stoutness of heart, and he has much authority over victory in battle; it is good for men of valor to invoke him” [ 9 ]. This lines up a lot better with Barret, as he is, for the majority of the game, the leader of AVALANCHE, waging his own war against Shinra and recruiting the protagonist—a SOLDIER—to fight for him. It’s also worth mentioning that some accounts imply that Tyr, rather than Odin, may have been the father of the gods, prior to Odin overshadowing him as the more popular god, and so having the Tyr analogue as the leader of the entire Norse pantheon has some precedence.

That being said, it’s a huge oversimplification to claim that Barret is little more than a muscle-head, as he is shown on numerous occasions to be thoughtful and caring. This is at its clearest in his relationship with his daughter Marlene, who presents something of a problem when comparing to Norse mythos, as Tyr is not known to have any of his own children.

Technically, though, neither does Barret, as Marlene is adopted after the death of her father, Dyne, his childhood friend. Baldr, however, did have a son, Forseti, who is often associated with Tyr as a fellow god of justice, albeit a calmer, more contemplative one, compared to Tyr, who “is not called a reconciler of men” [ 9 ].

While she doesn’t show it in the original game, Marlene does have a strong sense of justice, as shown by her opposing Yazoo and Loz in Advent Children. Some of the art depicting Forseti even makes his gender more ambiguous, portraying him with no beard and feminine features, most notably Carl Emil Doepler’s 1881 drawing, Forseti Seated in Judgement, where he is easily mistaken for a woman, and so he may have been an intentional inspiration for Marlene.

The most obvious giveaway for Barret as an analogue for Tyr, though, is Barret’s gun arm—a Gatling gun that replaces his right hand—which can be seen as a reference to Tyr’s most recognizable trait; he, too, is missing a hand (usually portrayed as his right). “But when the Æsir would not loose [sic] him, then he bit off the hand at the place now called ‘the wolf’s joint’; and Týr is one-handed” (6, p. 39). Tyr lost his hand in order to seal away Fenris the wolf prior to the events of Raganarok, but there are no wolves in Barret’s backstory, and he does not sacrifice his hand to protect the whole world. Instead, his hand is destroyed when he tries to save his friend, Dyne, from falling off a cliff.

The culprit is a woman named Scarlet, a minor character who does play a part in Final Fantasy VII, but not in a major enough way to be compared to Fenrir. That honor goes to Red XIII, of course, who, as a wolf-like talking animal, closely resembles Fenrir, although he is hardly a villain, instead fighting alongside the main characters. Perhaps coincidentally, Fenrir’s first mention in the Gylfaginning is in Chapter 13, the same number tattooed on Red XIII’s front leg.

After biting off Tyr’s hand, Fenrir ends up imprisoned until Ragnarok, and this is how we find Red XIII, having been imprisoned by Professor Hojo to create clones of Sephiroth. Going back to Sephiroth’s status as a Loki analogue, it’s worth noting that Red XIII suggests that he may have been experimented on in the hopes of creating another Sephiroth clone (although the supplemental materials for the game contradict this).

Similar They Are. Alike They Are Not.

A natural question at this point is “where is Odin?” Out of all of the contenders, the one who seems most natural is Cid Highwind. With the exception of Barret, he is the oldest member of the group, and becomes leader when Barret steps down, much like how Odin replaced Tyr as the king of the gods over time.

As the leader of AVALANCHE, Cid watches over the group from the airship, but he’s not above accompanying them. In the early stages of the game, though, Cid is prone to sleeping through briefings, as a symbol of his lack of commitment to the cause. Odin’s narcolepsy is another aspect that comes primarily from Marvel Comics, but his status as something of an amoral trickster is not.

Cid is sarcastic and sometimes vulgar, and in this way he aligns with early portrayals of Odin as a character who was wise, but also almost as much of a gadfly as Loki. This ties into the idea of the name “Cid” indicating a wise authority figure, “like Yoda from the Star Wars series” [ 10 ]. Yoda is, in many ways, similar to Odin as well. When Luke meets Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, he has disguised himself as a cloaked hermit with a cane, which is identical to the disguise Odin would often don when traveling among humanity.

So, an Odin-like Cid does take the character back to his inspirational roots. Cid lacks the most recognizable symbols associated with Odin—his missing eye, his ravens and wolves—but he does wield the same weapon as the Norse king of the gods. Cid’s primary weapon of choice is a spear, and Odin had a fairly famous spear named Gungnir. Just as Odin dies during Ragnarok, Cid was originally planned to die during the game, having been tricked by Shinra into piloting a rocket to crash into Meteor by telling him that he was on a mission to the moon. The cast would be unable to convince him of the truth, and he would presumably die in the crash. However, this ended up being cut altogether.

Another character who bears some resemblance, but is ultimately very different from their inspiration, is Tifa Lockhart, who could be compared to Sif, Thor’s wife in Norse mythology. There is much about Tifa that can be seen as analogous to a modernized version of Sif. Their names use nearly the same letters, and she is portrayed as shy and quiet, much like the demure Sif of the original myths. Tifa retains Sif’s motherly qualities, as can be seen in her caring for Marlene and Denzel.

However, the developers insisted on Tifa being a character who did not need a man in her life, and in this way she differs greatly from Sif, who was much more dependent on Thor. Nonetheless, Tifa does have a close relationship with a man, from whom she hides her true feelings from. This refers, of course, to Cloud Strife, the moody amnesiac who serves as the game’s main character.

There are two characters Cloud can be compared to, the first being the most famous of the Norse gods, Thor. His relationship to Tifa as an analogue for Sif certainly builds toward this idea, with the two of them acting very much like a married couple in Advent Children. Much like how Thor has become the face of Norse mythology, for years Cloud has been the face of the Final Fantasy franchise.

Within the original game, there was a very well-known mini-game that requires Cloud to dress as a girl to woo Don Corneo, and this can be compared to the equally famous myth of Thor dressing himself as a bride for a giant, with Loki actually joining him as a bridesmaid.

“Then they clad Thor

in bridal raiment

and with the noble

Brisinga necklace

let by his side

keys jingle,

and woman’s weeds

fall round his knees

and on his breast

places precious stones,

and a neat coif

sat on his head” [ 5 ].

The name “Cloud” could be a reference to the god of thunder’s domain, especially when added to his last name, “Strife.” Strife among the clouds could certainly refer to storms, like those called up by Thor, or even refer to conflict among the gods in general, tying the character’s name to the greater theme of the game. However, another character who is arguably a better comparison for Cloud is Heimdallr. There are many things for which Heimdallr is known for, but he is very explicitly associated with the color gold, described as wearing gold armor and even having gold teeth, which could be compared with Cloud’s impossible-to-miss golden hair.

Heimdallr is often praised for his keen eyesight, which could be compared to Cloud’s very noticeable “Mako eyes.” Most notable of all is that he is the god who locks in battle with Loki as the world ends, much like how Cloud fights Sephiroth one-on-one in the final battle of the game. Naturally, there is no rule to say that Cloud is not an intentional combination of aspects of both these characters.

As should be evident from the above comparisons, Final Fantasy VII is chock full of references to Norse Mythology, from the names of locations like Midgar and Nibelheim, to a villain who believes himself destined to rule the world, to the murder of a pure being, to the pantheon of main characters who set out to save the world.

The references are wide and far reaching enough that Final Fantasy VII can be interpreted as a retelling of Ragnarok using the modern fears of capitalism, as well as the depletion of our resources to contextualize the original myths. Even after revisiting the world of Final Fantasy VII several times and finding that the world did not end as the game originally implied, the comparisons still hold up, maybe even more strongly in the case of several of the other characters. Even after the cataclysmic events of the first game, Midgar is able rebuild into the city of Edge, just as it was prophesied that the world would rebuild anew after Ragnarok.

Images

i. “aerith-ff-vii_0.jpg”
“Aerith becomes a martyred figure, not unlike Jesus, or Baldr, dying for the sins of humanity, as culminated in Sephiroth’s murderous rampage.“
Source: https://esupermk.live/product_details/46515737.html

ii. “MakoSephiroth.jpg “
“Sephiroth’s encasing in Mako and the time he spends in hibernation, is not unlike Loki’s imprisonment. Both of their release represents a beginning of the end for their respective worlds, as a seer warns Odin in Völuspá.
Source: https://imgur.com/FYHAs iii. “BarrettWallace.png”
“While there are multiple analogs, when it comes to Tyr, one-handed god of justice, Barret Wallace is the most obvious reference.”
Source: https://www.deviantart.com/burningenchanter/art/Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-Barret-Wallace-841178769Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square-Enix, 2020. Sony PlayStation 4 game.

With a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and his service in the public library system, Marcelo Gusmão’s considerable experience has served him and this endeavor well. Since joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2018, he’s demonstrated a blend of exacting, finely honed analysis, boundless creativity and skillful interpretation, all framed by a vigorous joie de vivre for all things nerd culture. A key member of SFS’ Intermediate writing and editorial staff, he’s penned several series.

Resources

  1. Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Midgard.”
  2. Final Fantasy VII. Playstation, Square-Enix, 1997.
  3. Kitase, Yoshitori. EDGE Magazine. May, 2003, Future Publishing. pp. 112–113.
  4. Gantayat, Anoop. “Nomura, Kitase, and Nojima discuss Final Fantasy VII’s Development.” Andriasang, Andriasang, 16 May 2012. andriasang.com/con11g/ffvii15/
  5. Larrington, Caroline. The Poetic Edda. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 10, 13, 101.
  6. Larrington, Caroline. The Poetic Edda. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 10, 13,
    101.
  7. Klepek, Patrick. “That Time Final Fantasy VII Ended Without Explaining Anything.” Kotaku, G/O Media, 14 Dec 2015. kotaku.com/that-time-final-fantasy-vii-ended-without-explaining-an-1747909454
  8. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Directed by Tetsuya Nomura, 2005.
  9. Charles River Editors, and Andrew Scott. Týr: The Origins and History of the Norse God of Law, War, and Justice. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018, book jacket.
  10. “Final Fantasy VII: Behind the Scenes Report.” Electronic Gaming Monthly, no. 97: pp. 18–19. August 1997.