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Readers of this blog know that I am a bit of a Tolkien buff–not saying I’m great with the trivia, but JRRT has definitely inspired and shaped the goals and arc of my life quite a bit since I was a wee lad. I read and loved the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings at an early age (fourth grade… I may have read the Hobbit in third, can’t remember), but it wasn’t too long before I moved on to the Silmarillion, and after that discovered Christopher Tolkien’s editions of his father’s earlier drafts of the Silmarillion and other unpublished work. While I’d already decided that I wanted to “be” Tolkien, I suppose it was these posthumous bits and all their accompanying learned notes that first gave me a taste for any sort of scholarly approach to texts.

I don’t remember how old I was when I read the two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales–I may have been in Jr Hi or High School when I finally got to volume two–but at some point early on (probably in one of the non-authorized biographies, now that I think about it) I learned that the start of JRRT’s mythos was a poem about Eärendel the half-elven mariner who… um, shoot, you should probably at least read the Silmarillion before I spoil that for you. Here’s a hint, he comes into the family line of both Elrond and Aragorn in a big way…

Eärendel is derived from Éarendel the “day star,” “brightest of angels” in the Old English poem Crist by Cynewulf (there is a prose translation here), but the name is attested elsewhere in the Germanic languages as well. I don’t have time to write much on this (as much as I would like to dig into this more for myself as well)–classes start Thursday–but in my own particular field (Old Norse mythology) we know him as Aurvandil, whose toe was turned into a star by Thor (and in Saxo’s version he is Hamlet’s/Amleth’s father–will the connections never cease). And of course the Old Norse scholar Peter Foote just had to name one of his collections of essays Aurvandilstá (A’s toe)…

The occasion for this post is the fact that, the day after it was relevant, I ran across this article on the centenary of Tolkien’s Eärendel poem, and so the centenary of Middle Earth. I won’t comment on it (again, lack of time), but it’s pretty interesting, not least with its notes re: a suggested bit of intertextuality with reference to one of Shelley’s poems (said interpretation makes Tolkien come off as a sort of belated English version of the Swedish Gothic Society, I think, in that they also consciously replaced the Classical fetish of earlier Romanticism and Neo-Classicism with a more “Germanic” National Romantic fetish).

And of course I’m posting on this rather late, but that’s because I felt like I just HAD to have some sort of illustration of my own for it, being a rabid Tolkienite and all. My pen brush sketch is pretty rough, but I hope to redo it in photoshop eventually (like I did with my pic of the Valkyrie Mist). More inspired-by than an illustration-of. The poem (or the final version) you can find in volume 2 of The Book of Lost Tales, but I will post the first stanza here (the original version of the first stanza you can find in the article I link to in the previous paragraph):

Éarendel arose where the shadow flows

At Ocean’s silent brim;

Through the mouth of night as a ray of light

Where the shores are sheer and dim

He launched his bark like a silver spark

From the last and lonely sand;

Then on sunlit breath of day’s fiery death

He sailed from Westerland.

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Science Fiction and Progress

I’ve just run across Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyphs project, and it sounds pretty cool to me. The project page is here, and a summary on wikipedia is here to supplement the video embedded above, but in short it seems to be an attempt to return to a more conscious attempt to harness the imaginative power of science fiction for the benefit of progress in society at large. It seems to be partially in response to the predominance of dystopian literature in recent years, but I believe some of the authors involved are still careful to note that dystopian can be as essential as utopian imaginings of the future when it comes to motivating and enabling progress. I haven’t gotten too far in my exploration of the project (looks like they have some forums online, a story collection, and lots of other cool stuff going on), but I do recommend the radio program on the project that they link to, which includes interviews with major authors and performances of the three winners of a short story contest the radio show held. I really like Kim Stanley Robinson’s comments on the project, though I also wish someone would have made more of an explicit point of the connection between the material bases of production and the social, cultural, and other possibilities we have for the ways in which we live. KSR’s comments to gesture towards that a bit, though, if I remember correctly. Just finished the final interview with Samuel Delany, and enjoyed that as always (more for Delany than for the interviewer).

Would love to comment on this more (and juxtapose this particular aspect of sci-fi with the other ways in which speculative fiction fosters a healthy imagination), but I have to get back to translating. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy exploring the Hieroglyph project! I will have to pick up a copy of the book soon…

Moving to LA

Hey folks, sorry for the lack of posts lately–earlier in the month I got a last-minute one-year position at UCLA teaching Swedish and a few other things for this year, and I’ve been pretty taken up with trying to get ahead on this translation so that I have less to stress about when I get down there and start teaching. I’m excited that I get to teach a course on Norse Mythology this Fall quarter! Always my favorite. Sounds like I’ll teach another favorite of mine, Other Worlds in Scandinavian Literature and Film, for Winter 2-15. We had to add the Mythology course fairly late, since I only got the position the last couple of weeks, so if you know anyone at UCLA who might enjoy it, let them know! I threw together a super quick flier with info and some old illustrations of Norse Mythology from the likes of John Bauer, so check that out below, and feel free to share!!! [edit--a friend noted I'd accidentally written "2012" on the flier, so I've fixed that]

Scandinavian Mythology Flier 2014

 

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_2948

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

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