Sorry for the lack of posts–too much going on lately. I’ve got a ton of books I want to recommend, and I just have not been keeping up with posting about them here, so I will see if I can catch up the next week or two… no promises.

The first I want to recommend is Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Cho is a Malaysian author and lawyer, based in London. Sorcerer is her first book, and the first in a series (so looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming out!!!), but you can check out her website for links to short fiction and interviews if you need more. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can practice law and write at the same time–38 and I’m still trying (and failing) to figure out how to keep space open for both my academic and my creative lives. :/  But more power to her, and I will take inspiration from her example.


My hasty bit of fan art of Zacharias, Sorcerer Royal–sorry, will have to try Prunella another time. And yes, I know, I’m a lousy illustrator of period costumes–I tried… a little…

Sorcerer to the Crown is a fantasy set in Regency England–so Jane Austen meets Harry Potter, I guess. OK, sorry, not really… If you’ve heard any buzz about this book, it has probably (apart from the Potter/Austen mashup) been the fact that it has a black male lead and a half-Indian female lead and gets into everything from microaggressions to outright racism to colonial politics. All true, but I find myself frustrated by the fact that this will be taken by many as a “gimmick” (crazy, I know, but Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are a thing)–if we are going to imagine that making a main character a POC and involving racism and colonialism in the plot is gimmicky, well, we are lost. The racial and colonial situation of the book and the two protagonists are perfect material for fictional obstacles and conflicts, and Cho does an excellent job exploiting this throughout. This aspect of the book is explored better than I can manage in Alex Brown’s review at Tor.com, so I will direct you there for a more thorough discussion. Cho notes that she is not interested in turning into a spokesperson/mascot for diversity, and the novel is not in the least preachy–the attention to perspectives and contextual material so often ignored in Western (especially speculative) literature is refreshing–there is serious untapped potential here. I’m reminded of the collection of Southeast Asian steampunk stories I picked up a while back–both fantasy and steampunk have long been ripe for a “The Empire Writes Back” moment (bracketing off for now all the complications involved in postcolonial literature and what exactly constitutes a legitimate subaltern voice), and Sorcerer is one of many excellent contributions in this vein. But again, the novel is not reducible to its relationship to racism and colonialism (or sexism, though it weaves that very realistically into the treatment of women’s magic throughout). Mild spoilers below:

The plot revolves around our two protagonists, sensitive and idealistic Zacharias, a former slave who was rescued and adopted by the former Sorcerer Royal for his magical talent, and pragmatic and proactive Prunella, half Indian and raised in England as an orphan by the mistress of a house for magically gifted women–the point of such a house being to suppress their magic, “for their own safety.” Following a short prelude, we open the story with Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, a position you come into by virtue of being able to bear the staff that goes with the office–and the suspicion among those inclined to suspect those of darker shades is that he has achieved that office only by murdering his mentor, the former Sorcerer Royal. This is complicated not only by the color of Z’s skin, but by the fact that magic, a sort of resource that comes from Fairie, a realm with its own political complications in this story, is on the decline in England, a fact that also tends to be blamed on this unprecedented new Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias remains slightly mysterious to the reader until the end, since the story requires him to keep quiet about so much–a bit frustrating at times, but it does feel necessary for the story and I appreciated Cho’s keeping us in the dark till all is revealed at the end–suspense accomplished. Prunella’s own mysteries are unknown to herself as well as to the audience, and while for much of the novel it feels like Zacharias is the moody, cosmic hero whom the Big Deal plot revolves around, Prunella turns out to be quite a Big Deal herself as she upends the cultural assumptions about “women’s magic,” in many ways eclipsing Zacharias as Special Hero(ine)–and while I think Zacharias is still very lovable and certainly still as much a Big Deal as P in this book, I did appreciate Prunella’s Leia (oh, going to make myself cry…) standing toe-to-toe with Zacharias’ Luke (even snarky, accomplished princesses tend to get displaced by sensitive, special farmboys, alas)–while the book starts with P falling into Z’s orbit, they are a nice binary by the end, and P has her own very real motivations–while they are allies to a degree, she still has her own very distinct story, motivations, and strategies. And while they may at times feel like a very opposite binary pair, I think they go really well together (which I suppose is the point), and I look forward to a more developed romance in the sequels (did I really say that? I must be mellowing with age if I’m wanting more romance in the book… But it may be a mistake to take a continued romance for granted, we’ll see.).

So in summary, I loved the plot and the way in which we are gradually introduced to both the worldbuilding and the character’s secrets, I really loved the two main characters (both as foils and partners), and I felt like Cho very expertly tapped into the potential in the racist/colonial/sexist elements (all entirely realistic, let’s remember–these three things are not fantasy) for compelling plot and characters. I’ve seen reference to occasional “purple prose” in an otherwise positive review–I sometimes felt that way myself, but, while I can’t speak for Cho’s intentions, I feel like (however serious the Big-Deal conflict is in-world) there is enough humor and playfulness to signal that when the prose does get a bit overdone it may be read as part of the game. Well, this is my perspective two months on, so it isn’t really fresh enough in my head to comment. I also listened to it on Audible, and I’m not sure whether I judge things the same when I listen to them–but I will note that the narration is very professional and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve got it on Kindle now and may try a reread soon… but we’ll see. I have too too many books in progress. 😦


Selling my wares at the Grand Theatre in Tracy. Alas, it was kind of a slow day for all of us…

[update–I’ve added three new images to my Redbubble store–listed at the end of this post]  Hey folks, sorry this is coming so late (November was a crazy month, both for macro and micro reasons…). If you are still looking for gifts and think something Viking/Valkyrie/Tomte-themed would be just the thing, then look no further! Everything from art prints to posters to greeting cards to throw pillows to phone covers can be bought from my Redbubble print-on-demand store! If you order from Redbubble, use the code joy-vikingsbooksetc for 20% off (good until midnight tonight–the 12th–but I believe there are other sales going on this month).

Or you can also check out my DeviantArt gallery, which has a few selections not on my Redbubble page (though not everything on DA is available to buy, alas–and be warned that ordering from DA involves becoming a member and paying through their points system). To be honest, it might be too late to have anything shipped in time through DA, but you can check out the shipping options if you want. For Redbubble, if you want something by Christmas, I would choose their fastest delivery option (overnight, I think?), whatever initial delivery estimate they give, because you have to add manufacturing time to delivery time, and when I ordered a bunch of stock to table at an arts and crafts show the other week I had two products arrive days after I needed them. :/

And a last note before I give you a sampling of products below, I am planning on setting up an etsy shop to sell traditional media originals and some of the linocut prints I’ve started doing, but I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait a bit longer. 😦


Still the best of my clothing illustrations I think… And still hoping to continue this line with more Valkyrie illustrations.

On to my Redbubble store. No new pictures, I’m afraid (though I may try to convert some of my penbrush sketches later today), but lots of new products. Art prints, photographic prints, greeting cards, clothing (you’ll have to see all the options on the website) and stickers are the main thing here, and I believe will be manufactured and delivered the fastest. Other stuff that I think looks pretty cool: throw pillows (you know you want a Valkyrie throw pillow), journals (both hardcover and spiral–I’ve seen the latter, and I think the Valkyria: Mist one looks great), mugs (though greater variety there on my DeviantArt shop), cases/skins for phones, tablets, laptops (not all brands tho…), bags/pouches of various sorts (I ordered tote bags, but haven’t had a chance to see them yet), and other stuff which I haven’t had much time to think over (not all images work very well on all products…) but which you are welcome to check out (in fact, please do think over whether a product looks good to you–it could be one or two products were created automatically before I had a chance to decide whether they worked or not. Been a while since I’ve caught an example of that though…).

And in conclusion, here are a few of my personal faves (or if not my faves, at least more seasonally appropriate selections…).




mist__valkyrja_by_callego-d6t5yyfAnd note that my Valkyria:Mist picture is (since it was uploaded before Redbubble had updated some things) listed separately for different products: Shirts and sweaters, phone cases (i-phone and galaxy), i-pad cases/skins, and everything else (prints/posters, cards, leggings, skirts, mugs, etc).

If you see something in my store that you think others would be into, please share links! While I appreciate family and friends buying my work, I’d like to move beyond them accounting for about 1/2 of all my sales… 😛

EDIT: New pics up on Redbubble! I’ve been meaning to digitally clean up some of my pen brush sketches, but since that is more time consuming than one would think (it took most of a day to do the Mist picture shown above–that’s not counting the original sketch), I chose two that seemed to work pretty well (though I mostly recommend them as cards/prints–if you want them as one of the other products, please consider the preview of the product first, as there may be some artifacts from image borders, etc). And last but not least, I’m putting up prints of my “Two by Moonlight” on bristol–I’ll eventually be putting the original of that up for sale on etsy, but it will also be available as a print.


A friend recently shared Atlas Obscura’s post on Hollow Earth theories. At once fun (because it is always entertaining to look at the crazy stuff folks once thunk, plus it’s a neat setting for fantastical tales) and terrifying (given that there aren’t only the flat-earthers and young-earthers out there [confession: I was one of the latter for a period as a child], but also the hollow-earthers). The article mentions Dante’s Inferno as a potential first-visualization of such an idea (I believe the genealogy of the idea has been traced back further, but hey, not my specialty), stops briefly at Halley, then skips on to 19th century pseudo-science, before getting into science fiction from Jules Verne onwards–which completely misses my favorite hollow earth story, Niels Klim’s Journey Under the Ground (links to various digital transcriptions of the English translation here).  I’ve taught Niels Klim at least 4 times now, in various incarnations of my “Scandinavian Other Worlds” course (somewhat an overview of the history of Scandinavian literature, somewhat an exploration of different variations of the theme “Other Worlds”), though I am not an early-modernist (I’m a [Scandinavian] medievalist first, maybe a Scandi folklorist after that, then a general Scandinavianist), so the info provided below is brief and just a matter of a few things I found helpful/interesting/insightful when teaching it.

Image from Wikipedia

The story, from the same period as Gulliver’s Travels and clearly influenced by the same (though I’ve heard one person suggest it might go the other way, positing a very early Holbergian draft…) follows upwardly-mobile Niels Klim, who, on attempting to explore a mysterious cave in the mountains (and Scandinavian legend tradition re: underground populations of “under-earthers” is a relevant echo here, even if the story here opts for a very different direction), falls deep into the earth, emerging into the center of the earth, which consists of three parts–the lands on the firmament (the underside of the crust), a mini-sun in the middle, and a small planet (later we learn it is called Nazar) circling that sun. Niels is brought to the surface of the planet by a giant eagle, and there meets the inhabitants, who are sentient trees.

The larger narrative can be divided up geographically to a degree, and while Holberg’s point with the whole, apart from, well, entertainment, is fairly polemical, his strategies for his polemicizing shift from utopian to satirical with each location/section–though I suppose both elements are active here and there throughout: utopian in Holberg’s visions of social perfection, satirical in his biting commentary on contemporary Denmark and Europe.

Potuan Maiden by Callego

Haven’t consulted the text in a while, so no promises this is an accurate depiction–but hey, close enough to an illustrious many-branched Potuan maiden.

First we have Niels’ initial stay in Potu, a country on the planet Nazar. This is an explicitly Utopian portion of the narrative, as may be clear from the name (Potu is derived from Utop[ia] in reverse–also, apart from this name, the language of the Potuans might be considered an early conlang, though I don’t know whether it was a serious enough construction to really be labeled such…). We get a first glimpse here of Niels’ role as buffoon, a role Holberg would use in his comedic plays as well–a particular characteristic would be taken to extremes in a buffoonish character, or such a character would seek to live outside his proper place and abilities, and so would be exposed to ridicule, such that the audience could point and laugh and say “Oh, OK, that is definitely not the right way to do things, is it…” (so not satire on specific real-world people or institutions, but on generally attitudes, behaviors, etc), but here this is primarily in terms of Niels as European foil to this logical and perfect society of intelligent trees. Examples of the perfection of the Potuans: no arguing allowed over religious points, and the religious outlook is vaguely Deist (so no Catholics and Protestants burning each other); apart from a hereditary ruler (this is the age of Absolute Monarchy and Villainous Aristocrats, after all) all jobs are assigned according to who can best do them (instead of matching the prestige of the job with the prestige of the person); as a development of the latter point, we get a pretty gender-progressive stance from Holberg (not Klim, alas) as the Potuans think it ridiculous to exclude women from, for example, prestigious government posts, so long as a given woman is most suited to that particular job; and introducing any change to society must be brought to the learned to consider, and if rejected the innovator will be executed–so that people will only offer an innovation if they are really very certain about it. Careful thought and consideration is the name of the game here, and Niels Klim is too hasty to even listen to the rules, and from the start the Potuans pity him, and he bridles under his reduced estate (ie, no longer so upwardly mobile–hm, maybe this subterranean position has a figurative connection to his career…). This brings us to the next section…

Unhappy with his humble position as courier (since, not being a tree, he can move quite fast), he convinces the king to let him go on a journey around the planet, surveying the other societies there. Here we might say we’ve gone Dystopian, though perhaps it is better to understand it as more satirical education via buffoonery, just projected on to the level of entire nations. Each place he visits has one particular thing taken to extremes (again, in true buffoon fashion, contradicting the Golden Mean)–a place where women are not just equal, but in fact in charge (which nicely illustrates how lame it is to actually be a woman in a patriarchal society); a place where everyone is a philosopher; a place where people live too long; a place where people know when they will die; etc. And of course, while many of these might be taken to derive from some vision of perfection (“wouldn’t it be nice if everyone…”), put into practice we see that nothing taken to extremes is good. So there!

This ends with him returning to Potu, but he is still unhappy–so he decides he will make a name for himself by introducing an innovation! Sure, it means risking his life, but a clever, upwardly mobile Norwegian boy like himself (OK, my blog title says Danish, but Norway was under Denmark at the time, so whatever) should have no trouble, right? So he suggests that women not be allowed to hold office. Well, it doesn’t go well, but because he is a stupid foreigner (not in so many words, but that is essentially it) they decide to exile him to the firmament instead–the inside surface of the earth’s crust. This is done using eagles of the sort that initially brought him.

Image from Wikipedia

On the surface we can still detect some dystopian elements and buffoon-at-the-level-of-nations polemicizing, but to a large degree this is where we finally actually start getting a narrative interesting in its own right, moving into adventure mode, and later into conquering hero mode–but all still very much a parody, and involving countries of apes, of tigers, of horses, and other animals, and of very primitive humans, along with our hero going from clever courtier to galley slave to “Yankee In King Arthur’s Court”-style antics that make him a celebrated, and then cruel, and, frankly, stupid conqueror and emperor. And OK, we do get one more intriguing bit of explicit satirical commentary as Klim discovers a manuscript from an subterranean explorer who went up to explore the surface–there are of course many details relevant to that period in European history (it is targeted satire, of course), but it essentially comes down to “Holy crap, those Europeans–smh.”

Klim screws up and has to run (spoiler alert), and ends up getting blown by a wind back up through the hole he fell into–on exiting he is mistaken for the wandering Jew (another bit of folklore to add to the “underearthers” reference), but ends up finally being taken care of by an old acquaintance, who helps him get a minor position–but of course he will forever remember that he was once a magnificent ruler and has a queen and princely children somewhere in the earth below, and the story itself is framed by a preface purporting to answer the ridicule of those who say it is all, pardon my language, balderdash (not a Danish/Norwegian word, btw). I tend to assume this was all tongue-in-cheek and that no one was going to be mistaking this for anything but a polemical flight of fancy, but hey, not a period I usually work with.

Like the Atlas Obscura article points out, the Hollow Earth idea has been around a long time. Wikipedia seems to have a good summary (and actually mentions Holberg), but if I remember correctly, this edition/translation has a good introduction covering not only Holberg, and not only the story’s place in the Hollow Earth tradition, but in literary history more generally. Alas, it is not in print any more, and the used paper back versions are a bit pricey. 😦 But again, feel free to read it for free online!

[EDIT: Holy crap, to think that only days after I published this that whole election thing happened. I’ve got to say, our president elect seems to have stepped right out of a Holbergian satire. Klim-as-buffoon ranges from relatively harmless ridiculousness as he gets himself exiled for his attempt to capitalize on his ostensibly ingenious misogynistic policy recommendation to very harmful (=world war level) ridiculousness as this very small-minded and entitled man pushes the martial, imperial, and colonial programs of Europe to extremes in the subterranean world after managing to displace an emperor–and when he himself is displaced from his ill-gotten throne he is full of his tragic downfall, oblivious to his role as hyperbolic object lesson. I’m tempted to get into political cartooning… but I suppose a centuries-old Danish utopian satire is not going to be the most accessible allusion for US politics…]

My Inktober 2016 Sketches


One of my 2015 Inktober illustrations

I’ve participated, in a weak way, in previous Inktobers, but this was the first time I managed to post something every day of the month, even if I didn’t follow the official list. A few of my pics have been turned up in my other blog posts, but I thought I would just lay out every one of them here, since they are a bit difficult to search through on my tumblr and I didn’t post all of them on DeviantArt. Most of the art I’ve done the past 2 1/2 years has been pen bush sketches, and there are some bits from this month I really don’t like, and no pics I’m entirely satisfied with, but I definitely feel like this month has helped a lot–I don’t know how visible the improvements are to everyone else, but I feel like I know what I’m doing a lot more, and have a better sense for my own particular style.

For the most part these are 1) sketches pertaining to my potential webcomic that I’m playing with, 2) other fantasy/saga/folktale/science fiction pics that are a bit more developed, even if nothing here is polished enough that I’ll be posting it in my store without cleaning it up digitally, and 3) super quick sketches/doodles to make sure I had something for that day. Regarding the latter, this past weekend I was at a conference and could only post doodles from the margins of my conference notes, but I did end up with some extras, so there will be more than 31 pics below. Clicking a pic should link you to one of my original posts either on tumblr or deviantart.

And of course, now that Inktober is over NaNoWriMo is here and I will be cheating by resuming my novel from last year–so we’ll see if I’m as consistent with that as I was with my art…

All that said: Enjoy! 🙂

Very quick set of Inktober sketches for today. Hoping to return to karate after…. um, over a decade, so I guess that was on my mind. Realized afterwards I set her belt way too low (looks like she has a long torso and short legs…), and I don’t think I...

Inktober day 5. Having trouble getting into it today, but I think that’s because I’m more comfortable with characters in landscapes than straight-up character design–or maybe bears are just tough for me, I don’t know. Anyway, it became more just...

Inktober day 6. Super hurried, as I’ve had a full day. Fortunately I’d invented my new patented scribble tree technique, illustrated on the left, while doodling during a course from my health provider just an hour before, so I threw together this 2-4...

Inktober day 9–stomach has been giving me a ton of pain last night and now again tonight (I’ve got a lot of gastro issues…), so this grimace was all I had the wherewithal for. Hm, and I was maybe a bit more generous with my hairline than real-life...

Inktober day 10–another super quick sketch. Stomach still killing me, so nothing polished. Ouch…

Inktober day 11. Super quick profiles. Still not feeling great so very little energy for creating or thinking. :(

Inktober day 13. Too tired for much, but scribbled a different design idea for the mc of my potential comic. I don’t think I’ll actually do the giant jet pack look tho. Away from my scanner, so just a crappy tablet pic this time. Really would like to...

Inktober day 16. Another sloppy-quick sketch. What if I had to work the same way that the scribes whose work I am working on worked? Hm, say that fast five times…
Hopefully will have a more thought-through and polished piece tomorrow. Somehow have to...

Inktober day 17 oh my goodness working so late on this paper but I wanted to get this in and now I need to see if I can submit a poem before the deadline for this magazine closes  (never mind, too last minute and technically that poem is already...

Inktober day 23- very quick sketch after reading a short story by Murakami.

Inktober day 26–up late super stressed about this paper I’m going to present soon, so this is pretty hasty. Some vikings, and a big headed viking guy. Seriously, I don’t know why I drew the torso facing forward, the pose makes his head huge and his...

Inktober day 27–argh, no time for this. Scribbled something out with my MCs for the webcomic idea, but no time to refine or fix anything. I know, bear looks like he is in pieces. Back to scholarizing for me. Hope I will find time for something more...

Inktober day 28. Just a quick scribble as I am scrambling to finish everything before I get together with the other presenters tonight. Then I give a response and a paper tomorrow, and Sunday can relax and just listen to other people’s papers. 🙂 Yay...

Inktober day 29! I did some sketches in my notes, but can apparently not post them all at once with the browser on my phone, so more to follow.

Another conference doodle. But no, doesn’t actually represent Matt’s Bertell, just ended up near his name…

And another conference doodle

Inktober day 30. Again from my doodling during this weekend conference. Will post a few more of today’s doodles shortly.

Another doodle from the conference.

Another conference doodle.

Another conference doodle. I promise I paid attention to everyone’s papers…

A Grisly Tale

[note: it occurs to me that, as with many stories taken from folklore, this is a bit of a NSFW post–for those not acronym-savvy, that means not so much that it is violent, which it is, but that some of the dismembered body parts involved are (in the normal course of events) used to make babies. So reader beware.]

inktober_10_31_16_the_grisly_box_by_callego-damzua7Happy Halloween! Now that the “Paganism Past” conference this last weekend is over, I’m relaxing today by, among other things, reading some non-Scandi folkloristic type stuff–right now Japanese Tales edited and translated by Royall Turner (who was apparently placed at the University of Oslo at one point, so it just goes to show that everything connects to Scandinavian Studies in the end). Appropriately enough today I hit the “Haunts” section of the book, and thought I would illustrate the short but grim story “The Grisly Box” for my last Inktober 2016 drawing.

Like most of the other texts in this volume, the story is from Heian-era Japan, so if I remember my Japanese history correctly (that one class in undergrad is a long time ago now…) this is prior to the Samurai, and instead the period of poetic aristocrats improvising on cherry blossoms in the court at Kyoto. Well OK, this story really has nothing to do with that. In “The Grisly Box” a bureaucrat who works for a regent is traveling home to see his family and comes across a woman on a bridge who gives him a box, which he is to 1) give to a woman on another bridge, whose name he does not need to know because she will be there, don’t worry, and 2) ABSOLUTELY NOT OPEN. Btw, his servants don’t see anyone and are wondering “What the hell is our master doing?” He takes the box, but forgets to stop at the other bridge so ends up taking the box home with him. His wife say “Well, Mr, that’s a nice box, where did you get that WHAT IS HER NAME” and, of course, because we can already tell we are in a story that is going to either stereotype women’s motives or turn them into absolute monsters, she opens it and inside there are EYEBALLS AND PENISES. (btw, spoiler alert). Then the husband is like “Oh heck, we better get this to the right person now” but when he gives it to the other bridge woman she says “hey you looked didn’t you” but he denies it, and some time later he dies. The end. I know, out of possible Japanese-themed stories I don’t know why they didn’t do this story instead of Kubo and the Two Strings…

Some comparative comments as a folklorist (OK, I am more a Scandinavianist than a Folklorist but whatever):

-Not uncommon in a patriarchal society to find female monsters/supernaturals coded as sexually threatening (male supernaturals can be as well, but they turn up in different sorts of stories), so this is not an especially surprising story to come across. The inclusion of a jealous wife highlights the theme as well, with whatever guilt we might impute to an unfaithful husband displaced onto the castrating, apparently voracious (what else do they need all those pricks for?) spooky women. I don’t have comparable castrating legends in mind at the moment from Scandi folklore (doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but my recall is not great at the moment), but we do find supernatural women coded as sexually threatening in many narratives, as with the Swedish skogsrå. The “point” of these stories (not that they were always intended explicitly as moral lessons) is not always consistent, which serves to remind us that each individual version of a legend comes from an individual, and so can be taken as part of a larger debate regarding, for example, gender norms, the status of the supernatural community, etc–but the threat in many of these stories is framed around the danger of leaving the human community, diminishing the reproductive and other capacities of that community, in favor of the supernaturals, who to some degree (not to say this is somehow the most primal or foundational meaning) stand in for competing communities in general. And of course, it inverts the usual run of things in a patriarchy–the woman becomes powerful, the man weak, perhaps simultaneously expressing patriarchal guilt (“if they treated us like we treat them…”) as well as justifying the status quo (“if we let them have power…”). But let’s also note that, again, there is no need to assume culture is monolithic, and what might seem subversive can nevertheless end up be a fairly prominent part of the cultural production–I’m thinking here of the fact that the Valkyries of Norse mythology in some instances (not all) get a fairly positive treatment while in others they seem tied to quite thoroughly patriarchal cautionary tales. Also, spooky, castrating women can be used in politically subversive ways rather than cautionary/kinky ways, and of course, subversive readings are always possible as well.

-The eyes–well, it is an easy enough Freudian move to take the eye itself as a phallic symbol. Not that we need to take Freudian symbolism and apply it “willy”-nilly (did you see what I did there?)–but if this is a matter of supernatural women subverting the patriarchy, then this is a good complement to the theme of castration, as the “woman as seen, man as see-er” is an obvious binary opposition in patriarchal ideologies (btw, I wrote a dissertation on this… well, on related things).

-The fact that these women show up at bridges is a great example of the association of supernaturals with liminal space (though I confess I have no idea if these bridge women are common in Japanese folklore or not). By liminal I mean in-between. This is easiest to see in terms of geography, as these women are found at rivers, common markers of boundaries (I think also of the fact that liminal spaces are common in oral poetry, a point I picked up somewhere but can’t remember, and that many important moments in Norse mythology take place in in-between places, like a coastline), but it has a semantic dimension as well, meaning, involving the boundaries between things/concepts. Think “both/and” or “neither/nor”–fairies show up at twilight, when it is neither day nor night, people in Scandinavian folktales, at least, are at-risk during in-between times of their life (between birth and baptism, between childhood and adulthood, etc), and (again in scandi folklore, sorry, it is what I know) you find spirits associated with water mills, which are often geographically on the periphery, between the human community and the wilderness, and semantically in-between in that it is both/and neither/nor land/water (build above a stream as it must be). The bridge location is an obvious one for a supernatural, then–both/and neither/nor land/water (which, of course, is why the Billy Goats Gruff run into a troll at a bridge). Liminality in this sense is, of course, bound up in some very basic cognitive/linguistic faculties, and so it is no surprise that this seems to be a pretty universal aspect of folk narrative (and other narrative–though this is not to say that we can’t find supposed “universals” expressed very differently, or expressive of very different concerns, from culture to culture and person to person).

And to end, I can’t help but note how even at the academic level it can be easy for us to think “what! penises! this is ridiculous, no one believes something like this might happen!”, given that at this conference this past weekend my friend and colleague Merrill Kaplan, who does both Old Norse lit and Scandinavian folklore like myself (but more and better, if I may say so) gave a talk reinterpreting one of the words in a particularly odd tale about the conversion in Norway in which our intrepid missionary comes across a cult in which women cuddle a dismembered and preserved horse prick. Yup. In the very lively discussion that followed (wow, people had Opinions on this…) one of the throw-away comments implied that none of us took seriously the idea that there ever actually was a cult practice like this, since it was really just totally ridiculous. Merrill (and for the record, I’m quite convinced by her argument throughout, but can’t say I am super familiar with the philological issues) insisted we had to take the story seriously–not meaning we had to assume a cult actually did look like this once, but that, however much it was meant to ridicule pagans, the story must be taken as believable against the (admittedly biased) horizon of expectations of medieval Christian Icelanders when it comes to what paganism might look like. I do find myself agreeing that, in a more explicitly historical text like the one in question (Flateyjarbók), however much the intent is to mock, it will still build on what people are willing to see as a reasonable expectation. And you know, there is so much crazy stuff (sorry, not an emic perspective there) in world religion and mythology (can’t single out my own religion here either) that at some point you have to say a horse-penis-cuddling-cult is not necessarily out of the question… Nor are spooky women collecting eye balls and pricks, apparently, at least at the level of legend.


Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

Grettis saga, or The Saga of Grettir the Strong (I’ve used both the Scudder translation and the Fox/Palsson one) was the first saga I taught, way back in 2003, my first time as a Grad Student Instructor doing Reading and Composition for the Department of Scandinavian at Berkeley. It is counted as one of the Icelandic Family sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, which were set in the period of about 930-1030. Some of these sagas take place primarily before the conversion to Christianity in 1000 (eg, Egils saga, Gisla saga--parts do take place after the conversion, but the main action takes place in the late pagan period), while others straddle the conversion (Brennu-Njáls saga, etc). Grettis saga, as far as the main character goes (the story of the earlier generations takes place in the pagan period), primarily takes place after the conversion. The saga itself is also believed to have been written relatively late compared to the other Sagas of Icelanders (they are generally thought to date in their original written forms from the early 1200s to the early 1300s), and has often suffered in comparison to the shining reputation of, say, Njáls saga, often seen as the height of the (classic, family) saga form. We can lay the blame on Grettis saga‘s relatively scattered plot (we can point to some central conflicts, but the story-matter itself tends to be very episodic) and the “folkloric” (read: monster fights) elements.


A (very cartoony) image of Grettir lifting a rock–there are standing stones in Iceland that are referred to as “Grettir’s lift”, and the saga tells us of one or two such stones that he supposedly lifted while lazing about waiting for someone. Grettir continues to make a point of reminding us that he is the strongest even across all these centuries…

Of course the more casual reader, especially the one raised on Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, etc, will probably enjoy the saga for precisely the over-the-top elements, though do brace yourself for the episodic nature of the story. Where the more “respectable” sagas can be read as largely revolving around a central feud or chain of feuds (it has even been suggested that the structure of the sagas corresponds in essence to the structure of a feud–for more on feuds in Medieval Iceland check out WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking), I suggest reading Grettis saga as revolving around the growth of the main character–well, OK, this is debatable, but I feel like the person who compiled the material for the saga (I am assuming here that much, not necessarily all, of the material was circulating in various forms in oral tradition, and we have some evidence of that with this saga) put it in its final form with an eye towards Grettir’s arc from “coal-biter” (a sort of male Cinderella, unpromising youth eventually rising to prominence–though in the male versions it is not so much a matter of being poor and badly treated, but of being a lazy, cocky little shit who doesn’t seem like they will ever make something of themselves) to tragic outlawed hero, doomed by the fact that he takes to long to (mildly) repent his hubris. Well, look for that arc and see what you think–I admit it does take a bit of work on the part of the reader…

Also, a quick trigger warning–a late scene in the saga appears to involve the rape of a serving girl. The saga frames it such that one of my students (long long ago) argued fairly convincingly that we were supposed to understand it as consensual, but the very patriarchal world of the sagas (in spite of the presence of many strong female characters) did not always distinguish so strongly between rape and “seduction”–at issue were the interests of the nearest male kinsman rather than the woman involved. As a woman of an unlanded family the serving girl of course did not have anyone to take issue, and the saga shows some of the typical saga disdain for the lower classes by portraying her as a “naughty wench who had it coming”. I don’t point all this out to excuse things, saying “oh, you know how the Middle Ages were…”, just a heads up since we do run across these things. :/ This particular episode is the most explicit thread in the ongoing “short sword” joke that runs through the saga. The erased bawdy poem Grettisfærsla is probably evidence that the traditions surrounding Grettir were often enough rather titillating–not a surprise when it comes to folklore about a famous outlaw, I would think.

Some last notes:

-The monster stories are interesting in that there are a decent number of echoes between individual episodes, and if you have read Beowulf (no, none of the movie versions count) you can try your hand as a scholar yourself and consider whether or not you think there are any plausible connections between the early 1000s Old English poem and the 1300s Icelandic saga. I do think the parallels between the monster fights in both works are compelling, but I’m willing to see them as migratory legends rather than direct borrowing.

-Speaking of monsters, one of the interesting points of Grettir’s character is how much he resembles the monsters he deals with. Well, don’t go thinking he is a simple brute–he is also a poet, and his orneriness initially manifests more in his obnoxious use of poetry and proverbs to deal with his father than in his strength–though his strength is enormous. As a great hero, Grettir ends up being the “who ya gonna call” guy, dealing with ghosts (not the same sort as in Ghostbusters tho), bears, trolls, you name it he’ll kill it. Many of these stories, like Beowulf, or like many other heroes of a more mythic cast, I expect, have Grettir standing in as either 1) the defender of human space (think Beowulf defending the Hall against Grendel) or 2) the invader of monstrous space (think Beowulf attacking Grendel’s mother and the dying Grendel in their underwater home–but for both of these, also consider the relationship between the gods and the giants in Norse myth). The tragedy seems to be that Grettir is a bit of a monster himself, or often confused for one, and at times more at home in the world of monsters–it is the world of other men that causes him trouble.

-The saga concludes with a mini-saga (a “thread” is actually the technical term) where Grettir’s half brother goes to Byzantium to get revenge on his behalf and the story suddenly turns into a Romance (in the sense of Tale of Chivalry–though there is romance in the modern sense as well), so those into the likes of King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, etc, will get a special treat at the end.

Well, those are a few quick thoughts, and now I really ought to go–sorry for this super late post, and sorry that it is only this one so far this month. I’m presenting at a conference this weekend, plus had some health issues, so I’m a bit delayed. That said, I have managed to keep up with Inktober on Tumblr and Deviantart, so check out my art there!

CalShakes’ Othello

I got to see Othello for the first time at the CalShakes outdoor theater in Orinda. My third time out there–I saw Romeo and Juliet a few years back and King Lear last year (my first time for that play too–I know, I don’t keep up with the classics so well, but what can I say, my PhD is in Icelandic lit from 800+ years ago–no time for the newbies…). The aesthetic of the CalShakes productions seems to be a sort of deconstructed, industrial feel–or maybe that’s just what they do whenever they hear I’m coming I don’t know. In any case, I’ve enjoyed it a lot.


Did a pretty hasty sketch of Othello in a hoodie–alas, too hasty to end up being a reasonable likeness of Aldo Billingslea (who has a longer face and somewhat different hair), so, um, we’ll just say I’m illustrating the concept…

Their treatment of Othello was especially minimalist–everyone sat in a circle, and those not in the scene stayed seated, while those speaking would at times look at, or circle those they spoke of. I thought it was a neat way to visualize the network of relationships as they shifted with the progressing plot. Dress was contemporary, and Aldo Billingslea (professor at Santa Clara University), who played Othello, wore a hoodie–whether this had been done yet I don’t know, but it was only a matter of time, and I thought it fit well with CalShakes’ usual way of doing things. Some of the additional bits may grate some listeners–several spoken bits added (like wikipedia-style info re: one of the sites, other random bits), occasional use of live video projected above the stage, and, right at the climatic, final moment, they broke for audience discussion. The latter is the only bit that I was bothered by, but not because it was necessarily a bad idea, and it certainly fit with what they were trying to do with the play–I just hate giving random adults a chance to talk. Which sounds bad I guess, but, well, the teacher in me just prefers working with folks who understand themselves as students and don’t have an inflated sense of their own contribution… ah, well, more likely I think it’s just that I hate being in a classroom that I’m not running, haha.

In any case–I recommend this production, at least if you are someone who can handle stripped-down Shakespeare. The play itself is already so appropriate for the #BLM lens they were going for that some might feel some of the additions edged towards preachy, but I think they come off as valid dressing.

And it is such a beautiful theater–come early for the food and booze, both of which I recommend, and picnic underneath the eucalyptus before the play starts. And they often have talks beforehand as well, though I’ve never been to those. Probably great though, I’m sure.

Hm, it occurs to me I sometimes suggest parallels in Old Norse literature when I review books, movies, etc–like my discussion of valkyries and their lovers after watching Kubo. Shakespeare isn’t as far off from my field as one might think–Hamlet is after all based in part on Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus’ History of the Danes. The tragic love story of Othello, where (spoiler alert) the general is convinced that his wife has been cheating on him with, um, well, tragic results, could I guess be compared to Ermanaric’s execution of his son, and later his young wife Svanhildr, daughter of the famed Sigurðr of the Völsung cycle (Prose Edda has a version of this), after they were falsely accused of having an affair. Of course the romance in Othello seems legit, while Ermanaric is pretty much a dirty old man who screws everything up (OK, maybe I’m projecting modern sensibilities on the text a bit…), so I don’t recommend anyone push the parallel too far…