Tove Jansson at 100

IMG_2951The great Finnish children’s writer (and illustrator/artist) Tove Jansson was born 100 years ago today! I first ran across her work when finishing up a final semester of undergrad in Lund, Sweden, and have been a fan ever since. As a “finlandssvensk” she wrote in Swedish, but of course her work is available in all sorts of crazy languages.

IMG_2952I was hoping to do an illustration of my own, but I just don’t have time today–maybe later, I’ve been thinking of doing a moomin illustration for a long time. Meanwhile, here are images (see below) of almost all my Tove Jansson library–excluding, unfortunately, the first book I read by her (and still my favorite), Trollvinter (in English as Moominland Midwinter), which I stumbled through with my still shaky reading Swedish back in 2001, and which I enjoyed skimming through last winter in Minnesota (seeing as I finally actually had a midwinter to experience). Funny enough, while the Moomins hibernate through the winter (that being a key plot point for this story, in which poor old Moomin wakes up while everyone else is asleep), the fact that I read this book first (and during the Fall/early Winter in Scandinavia, though we got no snow in Lund) has forever associated the snow-man shaped moomins with winter for me. Ah well.

IMG_2949A couple years back I found out that Tove Jansson had done a comic strip based off of the Moomins as well, and for the London Evening News no less, so it is in English from the start. I can’t say how closely the strip and the children’s books are supposed to be aligned (haven’t read enough of either), but they certainly seem to share the same overall sensibility.

IMG_2950Of course the children’s book illustrations generally feel a bit more polished, while retaining a tasteful simplicity and legibility, and the strip illustrations are a bit more “busy” and rough–but just as enjoyable as their own “thing.” Actually, the strip illustrations for some reason have a bit of the feel of some of 50s era cartoons–well, this is just a feeling that came on me now, but for some reason these strips are evoking (very distantly) some of the harshness and angularity that I feel from, say, some of the 50s and 60s non-feature Disney animation. But I think I may be pushing that comparison quite a bit… And yes, I realize “angularity” is hardly what you think of looking at the rounded Moomin figures, is it. Well, I think there is something that feels like a pictorial Zeitgeist going on here, but I think I’ve failed to find an adequate knee-jerk articulation of it…

Meanwhile, here are all my Moomin books! Minus Trollvinter and a picture book I picked up for my nieces when they were much much younger. Oh, and remember to check out the Moomin cafe next time you are in Japan!


IMG_2833This is sort of a belated review, but John Lindow’s book Trolls: An Unnatural History is out now, and EVERYONE SHOULD BUY IT!!! OK OK, I’ll try to quit the salesperson schtick. This book is  a solid overview of the topic from a leading scholar in the field of Norse mythology and Scandinavian Folklore,  but is also super accessible (well, as much so as a book can be while still remaining academic in nature). John has always been very at home with both the super-erudite discourse of academic journals (OK, that’s a given for a professor in the field…) as well as with articulating the state of the field in a readable and understandable way for those not in the field–note, for example, his Norse Mythology Handbook. Take this and the two Eddas and you’re well on your way to being a super-duper Norse mythologist.

The book is a slim one, at 154 pp, so it is not like this is a comprehensive book of everything about trolls–but it is an excellent overview, and is the only text I can think of that follows the term/concept “troll” all the way from its earliest attestations through it dissemination and transformation in international culture. Chapter one covers the earliest Norse attestations, chapter two the slightly later Medieval attestations (well, this is a slightly problematic distinction, as the Viking age texts were themselves written down in the Middle Ages, but it still works), chapter three covers the trolls of folklore, chapter four the transformation of the troll in the early printings of popular collections of folklore (and the illustrations are great in this chapter for showing the progression towards the more sensational, big-nosed, distinct-species of troll that we are more familiar with now), chapter five covers “trolls in literature,” inclusive of one of my favorite movies, while chapter six gets into trolls in children’s lit and marketing–and then there is the epilogue, which gets into the slang use of the word “troll” in contemporary society, from patent-trolling to the trolls who haunt the internet.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer's trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow's book is also a Bauer illustration.

A carved version of one of illustrator John Bauer’s trolls, done by my late granduncle Dave Olson. The cover of John Lindow’s book is also a Bauer illustration.

Legend Trolls vs Fairy Tale Trolls

The first two chapters were mostly a review of trollology I’d learned (from John, of course) early in grad school, but I really appreciated the overview of the later reception of the idea of the troll the latter chapters, in particular in terms of the history of the visualization of the troll (seeing how I am slowly venturing into illustration myself, and have a few troll pics, or trollish-pics, which I’ve put below). I also appreciated the observation (which I believe I’d heard before, but had forgotten) that trolls, in the more general sense of supernatural beings, are more ambiguously colored in the legend tradition (i. e., tales that are ostensibly true and less about narrative entertainment), where, for example, it is open to debate whether these Others are subject to the same salvation that the Christian, human, insiders claim, while in the fairy tale tradition (more explicitly ludic, fictional, and escapist, and often told by the rural proletariat) trolls are more explicitly Bad, playing the role of Villain, and, according to Bengt Holbek’s interpretation (which John does not get into in this book, though he does have a very thorough review of in a 1989 or 1990 issue of Scandinavian Studies), the negative symbolic embodiment of authority figures like landowners, employers, or parents (in-law).

A trollish portrayal of Thor's mother Earth.

A trollish portrayal of Thor’s mother Earth.

Trolls, Fantasy, and Good and Evil

This got me thinking about the priority of the escapist function in Fairy Tales, especially since I’d just been reading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories–while the rural proletariat may be more aware than most of the potential for moral ambiguity and abuse among those who are supposed to be “in the right” (as of course those in charge would think), or so my left-leaning sympathies had me thinking, the fact that it was primarily the poorest of the poor who tell fairy stories certainly highlights the importance of escape in their situation (a point Tolkien makes about all of us–it is the jailers who argue against escape–but let’s keep in mind the fact that some are more jailed than others), and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that one aspect of escapism is the isolation of Good and Evil, at least in certain places within a story. As horrible as it is when someone gets so bad that they are Just Bad, it is also a bit of a relief, isn’t it? To just say “THEY ARE BAD” and “THEY ARE GOOD.” But maybe a more nuanced take is possible as well–let’s keep in mind a key aspect of Tolkien’s celebration of the human ability to create coherent things which do not actually exist–green suns and the like. If I remember correctly, one of his points is that this linguistic ability to see green grass as both green and grass is at the root of the sort of work we do when we create fantasy worlds which are simultaneously coherent and yet impossible. Fantasy draws its power from the way in which it dances with the real world–if iron is ennobled by the forging of the sword Gram (as the Big T says), then our real world experiences of Good and Evil are legitimated, enhanced, sharpened, and affirmed by our fictional manipulations of these things (our reification of them, our treatment of them AS things) in a fantasy world. Green is greener by our ability to separate it from the grass that we perceive it on, and similar things could be said about Good and Evil. (gooder ? eviler ?  Hm, maybe I’ll work on this idea…) Of course, that is not to deny the great evil that has been done by the various fantasies of… well, of evil, that have been transferred into the real world and used to justify everything from rape to genocide–there needs to be a sufficient about of reflexivity if our fantasy is not going to just drive a two-dimensional ideology of us versus them.

Trolls trolls trolls

One last note–while John does not pursue a very developed thesis in this regard, he certainly does touch on the ambiguity of the world “Troll” itself (troll as magical, troll as extraordinary (if still maybe human), troll as generic supernatural creature, troll as giant, troll as a specific sort of monster, etc…). I’ve been meaning to write on this for a while, but just don’t have time at the moment–but well, now you can read his book! You can also read this article by Ármann Jakobsson on the topic (starts p 39, I think), which also reviews the academic literature a bit–but be warned, the article is written for those who are already “in” the academic conversation about trolls, so it won’t be quite the same sort of experience. I have to run now, but may revise/expand this review a bit… we’ll see.

Meanwhile, here are some more troll pics! (FYI–these are just for fun pics. Like, let’s pretend we are making up new creatures for a video-game type fun. Not authentic at all. You’ve been warned.)

Troll Sketch 1 14_edited-1

Lava Troll_edited-1

Ice Troll Sketch_edited-1


Hey folks, I’ve recently had some great interviews and other resources for those interested in digital folklore come across my Facebook page, so I thought I’d share them here. Interview with Trevor Blank here (second part here), a free electronic copy of his anthology on Digital Folklore here, an interview with Robert Glenn Howard here, free online journal New Directions in Folklore here, and an interview with Dan Perkel about the DeviantArt community here–the latter was fun to run across as I have been a member of DeviantArt for a while now, and have found it pretty fascinating to see the interactions between amateurs and professionals of all stripes and philosophies as they negotiate what art is and what the relationship is between artist, work, and audience.

I realize “digital” and “folklore” may seem like very contradictory topics to those who associate the latter with legends and fairytales (and the Grimm brothers, nursery rhymes, traditional dances, etc), but as is pointed out in several of these links, while the study of folklore certainly did fetishize the “folk” as illiterate peasants naively bearing some innate national authenticity (see the linked book for a very thorough and learned discussion of all this), the phenomenon of “low-culture,” unofficial transmission of cultural knowledge, texts, images, etc, clearly encompasses traditionally understood “folklore” as well as it does UFO-abduction stories (which really very nicely replace supernatural abduction stories), “internet-memes,” as well as all the misinformation that gets passed around via email or facebook (and then discredited on Snopes). Robert Glenn Howard puts it nicely in his interview:

…a lot of people imagine “folklore” as “old stuff.” But that just isn’t the case. When the word was invented, it meant the stuff people shared back then—so we think of old stories like Cinderella as being folklore.  And at that time there was this idea that true folklore was disappearing because of modernization—but now we know that folklore changes, but it doesn’t ever disappear because its really just any stuff (the “lore”) that people (the “folk”) share.  A better definition might be that folklore is the informally shared knowledge that we perceive as connecting us to each other.

I like how Robert emphasizes the generality of the term “folk” (i.e., ALL of us), in contrast with the somewhat less democratic way the term has often been used and understood since the establishment of folkloristics as a field. When we continue to define “folklore” as the exotic bits of the European peasantry of the past, we recapitulate the understanding of the folk as “Other” from our own educated selves, as communal bearers rather than as creative producers (i.e., full subjects like ourselves). This is of course not to downplay the fact that the tools and norms with which people create, receive, and transmit these things vary dramatically from community to community and from discourse to discourse, but it is a very important (and productive) move to understand ourselves as “folk” and not just reserve the term for some researchable Other. The human know-er is always a part of the world which is studied–there is no such thing as an objective, uninvested, disembodied perspective on the world, at the same time that our western approach to science and knowledge has assumed such a position (OK, this is a less problematic posture to assume in certain fields…). Objectivity is something to strive for, true, but that begins with the condition that we are already embedded in the world, already a part of it, and when we act in it, even in terms of taking an “academic” posture towards something or someone, we change that whole that we are acting within. Objectivity is, in other words, a reflexive engagement with our own subjectivity, and if we think of it any other way, then objectivity becomes just another ideological fetish to make ourselves feel superior and right. When we turn our folkloristic gaze onto ourselves and our own engagement with “vernacular culture,” we gain a richer understanding of ourselves and our relationship to those we study, and we exercise a more nuanced and empathic ability to engage with those Other than ourselves (in other words, folkloristics is for everybody! :D ).

With regard to the topic of digital folklore itself, I realize people might say, “Hey wait, just where are the boundaries here? How can you separate out one sort of cultural product from another?” Looking at this ocean of media that we swim in, it does seem that there is a lot of blurriness (increasingly so) between the things shared and the way they are shared in “informal discourse” and more formal or official discourse (for example, new programs on TV share viral videos of the day now, and newspapers are often caught reporting the sorts of urban legends you find on Snopes). This isn’t actually a new problem, however–back in the heyday of collecting “traditional” folklore, collectors sometimes found that their informants had learned their stories from published collections of folktales. Well, shoot, that ruins all our nice, neat categories of authentic versus non-authentic, don’t it? Certainly labeling something as a “folk” product versus a “mainstream” or “formal” product is an act of power and, like all linguistic acts, involves a degree of arbitrariness, and so is one of the many things we need to engage in reflexively–but hey, welcome to the human epistemological and linguistic condition. And really, a term doesn’t lose its pertinence just because its referent is slippery and unfixed. I mean, what, are we going to throw all of language out?

And of course, if I’m going to post about digital folklore, then I ought to at least get one meme up on here (not made by me!). Make your own here!

Norse meme by the great Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology blog.

My entry "People Watching"

My entry “People Watching”

Well shucks, I finally got first place in one of the art contests at Karl Siegfried’s Norse Mythology blog! This is particularly gratifying, as I’d been a bit frustrated trying to pull the different elements of this picture together. I really like the concept I hit on, so I’m glad that was able to come through! I’ll be putting a version up for sale on Redbubble soon (but right now I have to run to a baseball game…)

My idea here was to show a typical Scandinavian midsummer scene with the maypole (midsommarstång or majstång in Swedish, though I believe the “maj” in the latter doesn’t refer to the month “May”) up and people milling around, while in the foreground some of the Æsir and Vanir chill out under Yggdrasill, both viewing the human scene and constituting a mythic prototype for that scene. In particular I thought it would be fun to try to visualize the connection between mundane world and mythic world in a way I hadn’t seen before, with the connection between the two worlds fairly ambiguous here, but still clearly there with the roots of the world tree running through the human world like tree roots through an ant hill. I didn’t decide absolutely on what the roster of gods would be here, but going from right to left, I think maybe we’ve got Loki, Thor, Freyja (or Sif, originally I made her hair much more golden), and Freyr. But I’m open to other interpretations.

Karl’s blog is a great resource on Norse myth, in particular its reception among contemporary heathen practitioners, an area that tends to be overlooked in academia (well, not as much any more) despite being a pretty interesting phenomenon (and one in which the practitioners can actually tell us what it all means to them–my position is more like that of Snorri, or JRRT, a Christian writing with fascination in a pagan past but not participating). Karl also has a lot of great celebrity connections when it comes to the contemporary world of Norse-themed culture, as witnessed by the judges he gets for these contests, so his blog is definitely one to follow, whether you’re interested in Viking Metal or Marvel comics!

My previous contest entries are posted below–first is my third place winner from last years midsummer contest, and next is my runner up from the midwinter contest more recently. After that is my other relatively polished Norse mythology picture, though unfortunately it wasn’t really fitting for any of these contests…

Late Sun Tomte Fox Dragon copy

Idun and Loki FinalFinalFinal_edited-1

Volund and Hervor Smaller version Post Correction of Streak

Jay Lake

File:Jay Lake.jpgI’m pretty sad after hearing that author Jay Lake passed away today. John Scalzi has a lovely tribute to him on his blog.

Today is my birthday, making this a rather unhappy coincidence, and it has me thinking about… stuff. ‘N stuff. I actually have only known about Jay for a little while, after running across his novel Green. Since green is my favorite color, and since the book seemed to have a kickass, realistically and thoroughly developed girl protagonist, and since I have nieces and want them to understand that they get to be kickass realistic protagonists as much as Luke Skywalker and anyone else, I decided to check it out [later edit: please note, now that I've finished it, and however much I've enjoyed it, this is not a kids book--not pornographic, but definitely lots of adult content]. Reading it actually got put on hold for a while as I pretty much always have more novels going than I really have time to read, but I’m a good way through it now and really enjoying it.

IMG_2705I heard about Jay’s colon cancer not long after learning that he actually existed and no, I never got to meet him personally, so I can’t claim to be particularly emotionally attached to Jay the person–but I’ve been really impressed by his courage in facing his mortality so publicly, and it’s been great to see the tributes come in now that he is gone–in addition to being a damn good writer (going by what I’ve seen so far), he seems to have been a pretty swell person too. I am also encouraged by the fact that he accomplished so much in a career that only began in 2001–when he would have been just a year older than I am now. I’ve been writing since 3rd grade, but with grad school and then a nascent academic career (which may be ending or may be getting a second wind, I honestly don’t know) I’ve only managed to get a few poems and one retelling of a folktale out since 2001 (2001 was when the retelling of a folktale was published in now-defunct Fables ezine). On the one hand I’m feeling inspired by how much Jay accomplished (9 novels and over 300 short stories since 2001, while working full time… holy poop)–on the other I’m reminded that none of us knows when we will go, and I want to leave a positive legacy behind me.

Looking forward to discovering more of Jay’s work and celebrating the fact that he lives on in his creative legacy, as well as in the hearts and lives of those who knew him (not me, in case that was clear…), and looking forward to finding ways to make the world a richer place for my part.

CG Olsen:

Great post from The British Museum on Anglo-Saxon art. Highly stylized, as with Viking art (and, well, most art throughout history…), though as an archaeology professor of mine once pointed out, the preference for such highly stylized representations does not mean “they” were incapable of “naturalism/realism,” but instead had to do with what art was for them. EH Gombrich (The Sense of Order) and Laura Kendrick (Animating the Letter) have some interesting things to say about interlace, monstrosity, and the difficulty of “reading” art like this that I was able to work into my dissertation, but that may be a post for another time…
While it was fun to dig into Viking age art for my dissertation on early Skaldic ekphrases (poems about pictures), I am definitely more a literature person than an art history person. Still, you can check out my post on how to dress like a Viking for some (very) brief notes on the different periods of Viking/Medieval Scandinavian art–eventually I may put together a post from my lecture notes on Viking art (we spent some time on it when I taught the Viking and Medieval Scandinavia course at Berkeley). Hm, maybe I will include that with my notes on interlace and monsters in Medieval art…

Originally posted on British Museum blog:

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th…

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Grandmaster Delany

File:Delany encyc.png

Image from Wikimedia

Around a week ago Delany was given the Damon Knight Grandmaster Award at the annual meeting of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The award was announced back in December, but I thought I’d post about it now that the event has actually happened. The Grandmaster award is a great way to recognize those who take this particular corner of “genre fiction” beyond the limitations both the literary world at large and even its own fans place on it, not writing “respectable fiction” in disguise, but digging into the unique potential of fantasy, science fiction, and related genres to do something unique, something that cannot be done “elsewhere” or with other tools. Browsing the winners of the Nebula Awards each year is certainly a fine way to find new work and new authors (I am reading recent winner Ancillary Justice at the moment, which makes good use of the potential of science fiction world building as a way to interrogate our conceptions of gender), but you really can’t go wrong with the list of grandmasters, which includes Damon Knight himself, founder of the SFWA and author of a book on short story writing that I am rereading for the first time in over a decade, Gene Wolfe from last year, another super duper favorite of mine (whose fantasy duology I discuss here), Golden Age sci-fi giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (both of whom I read constantly in Jr Hi and High School), and Ursula LeGuin, like Delany coming out of the “New Wave” of sci fi and fantasy of the 60s and 70s (my favorite period, I think), and right up there with Delany as one of the authors I most look up to.

I love the cover art--I recognize the artist, but can't remember the name...

I love the cover art–I recognize the artist, but can’t remember the name…

I’m a huge fan of Delany’s science fiction (and his fantasy in the Nevèrÿon series), and just reread two of my favorites of his recently, Nova and Empire Star (I was going to continue on to reread Babel-17, which is now included on the flip side of Empire Star, as originally intended, but I seem to have misplaced it in just the last couple days…). Nova was the first book of his I read, and I think it is probably the best to start with–his work can be a bit difficult (which I admit I like–you need to read things that push you to grow in your ability to engage in a nuanced way with a complex world), and Nova is the most accessible I’ve read so far, at the same time that it has far more substance than 99% of the genre fiction out there. It is a short novel, so those used to the monstrous 700 page beasts on the market today may be a bit frustrated with the piddling 200+ of many New Wave era novels, but I really wish short novels like this were more “in” today–let’s have more variety, not less. In these 200+ pages, however, you will find a well-wrought reworking of Moby Dick (-ish… not really a thorough retelling, just a homage to the obsessive-chase motif) through the lens of the Tarot (which Italo Calvino also makes use of, and which allows for an interesting perspective on narrative itself), using the latter along with the character Katin as a way to dwell on novel writing as an art form (and in fact, this is a great meta-novel for those interested in the purported death of the novel, given that Katin is attempting to revive the art centuries after the last novel has been written), and along with all this anticipating the melding of human and machine that will later be explored in cyberpunk. Jo Walton has a great discussion of this old-but-still-so-fresh novel over at Tor.com, where she also gets into many more literary connections in the book which I did not list here. I may return to Nova again one day (it is among the most reread of my collection), but for now I suggest seeing what she has to say!

IMG_2690Babel-17 and Empire Star are also relatively accessible, though I found them somewhat less so than Nova, and somewhat less satisfying–but much easier than his Nevèrÿon stories, so check them out anyway! Where Nova is (in part) a meditation on the role of the novelist, Empire Star is (in part) a meditation on the role of the poet–but also hits on the issues inherent in living in a society built on slavery, which stood out a lot more to me as I reread it about the same time that I was checking out this articleEmpire Star can feel a bit like a cheat when you get to the end (don’t want to spoil it though), but in a way the “cheat” is part of the “consciousness novum” of the book (as in simplex, complex, and multiplex consciousness–it is a sort of Bildungsroman of the protagonist’s progress from one to the other), and so fair. Babel-17, with its linguistic novum, was always meant to be paired with the novella Empire Star, though this has only recently been the done. I can’t say I was especially won over in terms of believability with both these stories (well, his -plex terms are actually super helpful for thinking and discussing about complexity of awareness versus intelligence, so I don’t think I really have too much of a complaint there), but I don’t think that is the point so much–it is more about using the tools of science fiction to think in a new way, or see our world from a new angle, putting pressure on things we take for granted in order to make them appear explicitly before us, rather than sitting in the background. And look, how many hard-science nova are really up to snuff from the perspective of actual scientists…

I’m afraid I haven’t read Delany’s famous Dhalgren yet, though I hope to get to it (and I have a copy). I did read Triton, which I did not enjoy as much as the others I’ve listed here (it was still really interesting, just didn’t engage me as much), but if you find you enjoy Delany’s style, it is certainly worth checking out. I’ve read the introduction and two of the stories to Tales of Nevèrÿon, one of which basically took a young female protagonist through the theory of deconstruction in a period long before Derrida came along. Oh, and the introduction to the book is written by an academic who is aware that he is a fiction. Gives you a bit of a feel for the book, haha. Gender and sex are common targets of Delany’s deconstructing narratives, and some of his books can get pretty “mature” (in the ratings sense), which I realize can be difficult reading for those not used to that (I’ll include myself in that category, though I’m pretty OK with reading things that make me uncomfortable–maybe not all the time though). Delany is generally a pretty unusual and interesting person, both within and without the science fiction community, so I recommend checking him out! There is an interview with him here, though it doesn’t seem to be opening for me at the moment.

So there you go–easily one of my top picks (maybe my top pick, actually) for intelligent science fiction for people in the humanities. Hoping to get around to reading Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand soon, so maybe I’ll have a post about that up eventually! Though it would be really nice to get back to some of my own writing–finally got a new project underway, and it would be nice to finish off the draft sooner rather than later.


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